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Confused but content

As regular readers will know, I have posted on Level 3 (LVLT) many times over the years, more recently here. I ended that post with the comment that following the firm was never boring and the announcement of a merger with CenturyLink (CTL) on the 31st of October confirmed that, although the CTL tie-up surprised many observers, including me.

Before I muse on the merger deal, it is worth looking over the Q3 results which were announced at the same time as the merger. The recent trend of disappointing revenue, particularly in the US enterprise business, was compounded by an increased projection for capex at 16% of revenue. Although the free cash-flow guidance for 2016 was unchanged at $1-$1.1 billion, the lack of growth in the core US enterprise line for a second quarter is worrying. Without the merger announcement, the share price could well have tested the $40 level as revenue growth is core to maintaining the positive story for the market, and premium valuation, of Level 3 continuing to demonstrate its operating leverage through free cash-flow growth generation.

click to enlargelvlt-revenue-operating-trends

Level 3 management acknowledged the US enterprise revenue disappointment (again!) and produced the exhibit below to show the impact of the loss of smaller accounts due to a lack of focus following the TW Telecom integration. CEO Jeff Storey said “coupling our desire to move up market, with higher sales quotas we assigned to the sales team and with compensation plans rewarding sales more than revenue, we transitioned our customers more rapidly than they would have moved on their own”. The firm has refocused on the smaller accounts and realigned sales incentives towards revenue rather than sales. In addition, LVLT stated that higher capex estimate for 2016, due to strong demand for 100 Gig wavelengths and dark fibre, is a sign of future strength.

click to enlargelvlt-q3-revenue-by-customer

Although these figures and explanations do give a sense that the recent hiccup may be temporary, the overall trends in the sector do raise the suspicion that the LVLT story may not be as distinctive as previously thought. Analysts rushed to reduce their ratings although the target price remains over $60 (although the merger announcement led to some confused comments). On a stand-alone basis, I also revised my estimates down with the resulting DCF value of $60 down from $65.

Many commentators point to overall revenue weakness in the business telecom sector (includes wholesale), as can be seen in the exhibit below. Relative newcomers to this sector, such as Comcast, are pressuring tradition telecoms. Comcast is a firm that some speculators thought would be interested in buying LVLT. Some even suggest, as per this article in Wired, that the new internet giants will negate the need for firms like Level 3.

click to enlargebusiness-telecom-revenue-trends-q3-2016

However, different firms report revenues differently and care needs to be taken in making generalisations. If you take a closer look at the revenue breakdown for AT&T and Verizon it can be seen that not all revenue is the same, as per the exhibit below. For example, AT&T’s business revenues are split 33%:66% into strategic and legacy business compared to a 94%:6% ratio for LVLT.

click to enlargeatt-and-verizon-business-revenue-breakdown

That brings me to the CenturyLink deal. The takeover/merger proposes $26.50 in cash and 1.4286 CTL shares for each LVLT share. $975 million of annualised expense savings are estimated. The combined entity’s debt is estimated at 3.7 times EBITDA after expense savings (although this may be slightly reduced by CTL’s sale of its data centres for $2.3 billion). LVLT’s $10 billion of NOLs are also cited by CTL as attractive in reducing its tax bill and maintaining its cherished $2.16 annual dividend (CTL is one of the highest yield dividend plays in the US).

The deal is expected to close in Q3 2017 and includes a breakup fee of about $2 per LVLT share if a 3rd party wants to take LVLT away from CTL. Initially, the market reaction was positive for both stocks although CTL shares have since cooled to $23 (from $28 before the deal was announced) whilst LVLT is around $51 (from $47 before) which is 13% less than the implied takeover price. The consistent discount to the implied takeover price of the deal since it was announced suggests that the market has reservations about the deal closing as announced. The table below shows the implied value to LVLT of the deal shareholders depending upon CTL’s share price.

click to enlargecenturylink-level-3-merger-deal

CTL’s business profile includes the rural consumer RBOC business of CenturyTel and nationwide business customers from the acquired business assets of Qwest and Sprint. It’s an odd mix encompassing a range of cultures. For example, CTL have 43k employees of which 16k are unionised. The exhibit below shows the rather uninspiring recent operating results of the main segments.

click to enlargecenturylink-consumer-business-operating-metrics

CTL’s historical payout ratio, being its dividend divided by operating cash-flow less capex, can be seen below. This was projected to increase further but is expected to stabilise after the merger synergies have been realised around 60%. The advantage to CTL of LVLT’s business is an enhancement, due to its free cash-flow plus the expense synergies and the NOLs, to CTL’s ability to pay its $2.16 dividend (which represents a 9.4% yield at its current share price) at a more sustainable payout rate.

click to enlargecenturylink-payout-ratio

For LVLT shareholders, like me, the value of the deal all depends upon CTL’s share price at closing. I doubt I’ll keep much of the CTL shares after the deal closes as CTL’s post merger doesn’t excite me anywhere as much as a standalone LVLT although it is an issue that I am still trying to get my head around.

As per the post’s title, I’m confused but content about events with LVLT.

Restrict the Renters?

It is no surprise that the populist revolt against globalisation in many developed countries is causing concern amongst the so called elite. The philosophy of the Economist magazine is based upon its founder’s opposition to the protectionist Corn Laws in 1843. It is therefore predictable that they would mount a strong argument for the benefits of free trade in their latest addition, citing multiple research sources. The Economist concludes that “a three pronged agenda of demand management, active labour-market policies and boosting competition would go a long way to tackling the problems that are unfairly laid at the door of globalisation”.

One of the studies referenced in the Economist articles which catch my eye is that by Jason Furman of the Council of Economic Advisors in the US. The graph below from Furman’s report shows the growth in return on invested capital (excluding goodwill)  of US publically quoted firms and the stunning divergence of those in the top 75th and 90th percentiles.

click to enlargereturn-on-invested-capital-us-nonfinancial-public-firms

These top firms, primarily in the technology sector, have increased their return on invested capital (ROIC) from 3 times the median in the 1990s to 8 times today, dramatically demonstrating their ability to generate economic rent in the digitized world we now live in.

Furman’s report includes the following paragraph:

“Traditionally, price fixing and collusion could be detected in the communications between businesses. The task of detecting undesirable price behaviour becomes more difficult with the use of increasingly complex algorithms for setting prices. This type of algorithmic price setting can lead to undesirable price behaviour, sometimes even unintentionally. The use of advanced machine learning algorithms to set prices and adapt product functionality would further increase opacity. Competition policy in the digital age brings with it new challenges for policymakers.”

IT firms have the highest operating margins of any sector in the S&P500, as can be seen below.

click to enlargesp-500-operating-profit-margins-by-sector

And the increasing size of these technology firms have contributed materially to the increase in the overall operating margin of the S&P500, as can also be seen below. These expanding margins are a big factor in the rise of the equity market since 2009.

click to enlargesp-500-historical-operating-profit-margins

It is somewhat ironic that one of the actions which may be needed to show the benefits of free trade and globalisation to citizens in the developed world is coherent policies to restrict the power of economic rent generating technology giants so prevalent in our world today…

Level3 hiccup

I have posted on one of my major holdings Level 3 (ticker LVLT), a facilities-based provider of a range of integrated telecommunications services, many times before, most recently here. One of the features of LVLT is its volatility and the past weeks have proven no exception. LVLT broke below $50 in late June to $47 before being buoyed to above $56 by a unsubstantiated rumour that the firm was “reviewing strategic alternatives to maximize holder value, including outright sale or large buyback”. After the quarterly report on the 27th of July when LVLT reported disappointing revenues but beat on the bottom line, the stock is now down below $50 again without any news from the firm on buybacks or M&A.

The revenue figures, particularly the increase in CNS monthly churn to 1.2%, was disappointing with the loss in accounts been driven by SME enterprise customers. One possible reason for the lack of focus was the temporary absence of the CEO due to a heart issue earlier in the year. As the chart below shows, LVLT does have form with revenue dips after initial successful M&A integration. Many, including me, thought that the current management was more on top of the issue this time around.

click to enlargeLevel3 Operating History 2005 to 2017e

Despite this disappointment, the revenue impact is likely to more contained this time around and I believe the case for LVLT in the longer term remains strong. I have reduced my revenue estimates in the graph above but the free cashflow that LVLT’s business is throwing off makes the bull case. My PV cash-flow analysis still has a price target of over $65, which represents a 2018 EV/EBITDA multiple of slightly below 10. Although the multiple is high compared to the incumbent US telcom giants, I think it is warranted given the quality of LVLT’s assets in an ever data hungry economy. The current favourable, albeit political, regulatory trends (net neutrality and the ban on lock-up agreements) are another plus factor.

I estimate that the FCF generated by LVLT could, in the absence of any M&A, mean the firm could afford $1 billion of buybacks in 2017, rising by $250 million a year thereafter. An aggressive buyback programme over a five year period, 2017 to 2021, could amount to approx $7.5 billion or approx 30% of current share count at an average price of $65.

In terms of M&A, management are obviously keen although they did emphasis the need for discipline. An interesting response to an analyst question on the Q2 call that any potential M&A fiber targets for LVLT trade at higher EV/EBITDA multiples was as follows:

“So as we look at M&A, and you mentioned fiber companies, we look at fiber companies post-synergies and believe that we are very good at acquiring and capturing synergies and moving networks together, combining networks, and creating value for shareholders through that. So I don’t feel that the M&A environment is necessarily constrained.”

One of the firms that the analyst was possibly referring to is Zayo, who interestingly just hired LVLT’s long time CTO Jack Waters. Zayo currently trade at over 10 times its 2017 projected EBITDA compared to LVLT currently at a 2017 multiple in the low 9s. Obviously a premium would be needed in any M&A so the synergies would have to be meaningful (in Zayo’s case with a 50% plus EBITDA margin, the synergies would likely have to be mainly in the capex line). COLT telecom is another potential M&A target as Fidelity’s self imposed M&A embargo runs out after 2016 (see this post).

A significant attraction however is for LVLT itself to become a target. One of the US cable firms, most likely Comcast, is touted as a potential to beef up their enterprise offerings to compete with the incumbents. Other potential candidates include the ever data hungry technology firms such as Google or Microsoft who may wish to own significant fiber assets and reduce their dependence on telecoms such as Verizon who are increasingly looking like competitors.

As ever with LVLT, the ride is never boring, but hopefully not ever ending….


To China and back

Chinese internet stocks are way way way out of my comfort zone. Besides the hype and transient nature of many business models, the stratospheric valuations and the political risk are issues that I can’t get my head around. With the Chinese stock market up 25% in a month, it looks like classic bubble territory.

That said, the latest IDC predictions for 2015 recently caught my attention. One of the predictions asserted the following:

“China will experience skyrocketing influence on the global information and telecommunications technology market in 2015 with spending that will account for 43% of all industry growth, one third of all smartphone purchases, and about one third of all online shoppers. With a huge domestic market, China’s cloud and ecommerce leaders (Alibaba in ecommerce, Tencent in social, and Baidu in search) will rise to prominence in the global marketplace. Similarly, Chinese branded smartphone makers will capture more than a third of the worldwide smartphone market.”

Every now and again (as I did in this post) I look at how a few of the Chinese internet stocks that trade in the US are progressing for the sake of curiosity. The graph below shows a selected few – Baidu (internet search), NetEase (online gaming), Ctrip (travel services), Sina (online media), Sohu (various online services), Tencent (social, traded in Hong Kong), and Alibaba (e-commerce). click to enlargeChinese Internet Stocks December 2014 Tencent is the biggest gainer at over 300% since 2011; NetEase is just below 300%; with Baidu over 200%. Alibaba is up 16% since its stock market debut in September. Since 2011, the underperformers are Ctrip about breakeven, Sohu down 20%, and Sina down 50%. An equally weighted portfolio of these stocks, excluding Alibaba, invested at the beginning of 2011 would have resulted in an 84% gain or an approx 16.5% annual return. The current price to 2015 projected EPS multiples against the 2014 to 2015 projected EPS growth for these stocks compared to the same metric for a number of the established US internet names gives an insight into current valuations, as per the graph below.

click to enlargeInternet multiples Looking at this graph, Baidu is the only Chinese stock of the names highlighted by IDC that looks to me like one that may warrant further investigation as an investment possibility (but only when there is a meaningful pull back in the market in 2015). However, I wouldn’t be rushing out to get involved anytime soon as it seems to me that an established internet name like Google is more interesting as an investment prospect at current relative valuations than any of the higher growth Chinese equivalents.