Tag Archives: Sunit Patel

CTL: Pain before gain?

Before I unleash my musings on the latest Centurylink (CTL) results, building on this recent CTL post, I will touch on some industry trends and some CTL specific items that are relevant in my opinion. As regular readers will know, the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) by businesses, particularly in business processes, is an area that fascinates me (as per this post). How such process improvements will change a capital- and labour-intensive sector such as telecom (as per this post) is one of the reasons I see such potential for CTL.

Whilst reading some recent articles on digital developments (such as this and this and this), I cannot but be struck by the expanded networking needs of this future. All this vast amount of new data will have to be crunched by machines, likely in data centres, and updated constantly by real time data from the field. Networks in this era (see this post on 5G) will need to be highly efficient, fluid and scalable, and have a deep reach. Very different from the fixed cost dumb pipe telecoms of old!

CTL have outlined their ambition to be such a network provider and are undertaking a digital transformation programme of their business to achieve that goal. CEO Jeff Storey has gone as far as saying that CTL “is not a telecom company, but that we are a technology company”. Time will tell on that one!

Today, industry trends from business telecom revenues (i.e. enterprises from SME to global giants plus wholesale business) are flat to declining, as highlighted in this post. Deciphering recent trends has not been made any easier by the introduction of the new revenue recognition accounting standard ASC606. Where possible, the updated graph below shows revenues under the new standard from Q1 2018.

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This data shows an estimated annual decline in overall annual revenues for 2018 of 1.5%, compared to 1.2% in 2017 and 2% for each of the preceding 2 years. Over the past 8 quarters, that’s about a 33-basis point sequential quarterly drop on average. Different firms are showing differing impacts from the accounting change on their business revenue. Comcast showed a 6.5% jump in Q1 2018 before returning to trend whilst AT&T showed a 4% drop in Q1 2018 before returning to more normal quarterly changes. Rather than trying to dismantle the impact of the accounting change, its easier to simply accept the change as its obvious the underlying trends remain, as the bottom graph above illustrates. Whilst accepting these 5 firms do not make up all the US, let alone the global, telecom market, some interesting statistics from this data are shown below.

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Although the accounting change has likely skewed figures in the short term, the exhibit above shows that AT&T is losing market share whilst the cable firms are growing their business revenues albeit from lower bases than the big players. Verizon and the new CTL have performed slightly below market trends (i.e. 50 basis point average quarterly sequential declines versus overall at 33 basis points).

Before I get onto CTL’s Q3 results, this article from Light Reading illustrates some of the changes underway at the firm to transform its business. The changes are centred around 4 themes – increasing network visibility, delivering business-owned automation, encouraging a lean mindset, and skills transformation.

On network viability, CTL is layering federation tools on top of its existing systems. Federated architecture (FA) is a pattern in enterprise architecture that allows interoperability and information sharing between semi-autonomous de-centrally organized lines of business, information technology systems and applications. The initial phase of this federation was with customer and sales systems such as those used for quoting, order entry, order status, inventory management and ticketing. The goal is to move towards a common sales ecosystem and standard portals that automate customer’s journeys from order to activation and beyond. A common narrative of CTL’s transformation is to give customers the tools to manage their networking capabilities like they do using the cloud. This is more of a network as a service or network on demand that CTL say is the future for telecom providers. This interview with the newly appointed CTO of CTL gives further insight into what the firm is doing in this on demand area, including changes underway to meet the increased SD-WAN demand and the upcoming deluge of data in the 5G era.

Business owned automation is allowing different business units to own their own automation projects, whilst been supported by centralised centres of excellence in areas such as robotic process automation (RPA), digital collaboration, mobility and analytics. Training is provided by the centralised units. Empowering the business units encourages a key cultural change in adopting a lean mindset across the firm. Ensuring that people in the firm are retrained and motivated is a core part of CTL’s plans as change only comes from within and as the firm continues to downsize (they have already reduced headcount by 12%) its important that staff morale and skills transformation is a focus as the business changes.

So, moving on to CTL’s Q3 results. The market has not reacted well to the Q on Q drop of 3.6% in revenues, with weakness seen across all business segments, and the stock is trading down around $19 as a result. The trends highlighted above have been exasperated by CTL dropping or renegotiating lower margin business such as contracts involving customer premises equipment (so called CPE). Of the $80 million quarterly revenue drop (under ASC606) in Q3, $30 million was attributed to the culling of low margin business. The remaining $50 million drop is about twice the average drop in recent times, thereby raising analyst concerns about an increase in trend revenue declines.

However, there are two points to note here. Firstly, using revenue figures before the application of ASC606, the net drop was more in line at $37 million (i.e. $67-$30) and comparable with the Q2 non-ASC606 drop of $40 million. Secondly, and more importantly, the trend is lumpy and given CTL’s transformation focus, it makes total sense to me for CTL to cull low margin non-network centric revenues. Management were explicit in stating their intention “to focus on the network-centric things” and that this business is “distracting our organization and it’s not giving us anything, so we’ll stop it”. To me, that demonstrates confidence in the direction of the business. As Storey emphasised, when referring to culling low margin business, “we manage this business for free cash flow, free cash flow per share, these are good things to be doing”.

Analysts concern that cutting expenses longer term cannot be a sustainable business plan without revenue growth at some point is certainly valid (and is one of the key risks with CTL). Indeed, I estimate that there is about $900 million and $500 million of quarterly legacy business and consumer revenues respectively (about 15% and 10% of total quarterly revenues) that could fall off at an accelerated pace as CTL refocuses the business over the medium term. CTL’s return to top line growth could be several years off yet. More on this later.

Another area of concern from analysts was the fact that CTL will spend approx. $500 million less on capex in 2018 compared to original projections (with levels projected to return to a more normal 16% of revenues for 2019 and beyond). This could be interrupted as a desire not to invest in the business to inflate free cash-flow, never a good sign for any company. However, again management explained this as a desire to refocus capital spending away from items like copper upgrades and towards strategic areas. They cited the approval to bring on-net another 7,000 to 8,000 buildings and the use of strategic targeting of capex (using AI) across consumer and business geographies to maximise returns in urban areas where 5G infrastructure will be needed in the future. Again, a more disciplined approach to capex makes total sense to me and demonstrates the discipline this management team is imposing on the business.

What seems to have been missed in the reaction to Q3 results is the extraordinary progress they have made on margin improvements. The EBITDA margin again grew to 39.3% with the projected operational synergies of $850 million now targeted to be achieved by year end. Management are keen to move the focus from integration to digital transformation from 2019. Achieving the targeted operational synergies so soon, particularly when we know that network expense synergies do not come through until 2 to 3 years after a merger, is an amazing achievement. It also highlights that their projected cost synergies of $850 million were way way under-baked. As I highlighted in this recent CTL post, I suspected this under-baking was to protect against the risk of any further acceleration in the underling margin erosion at the old CTL business as legacy business declined.

CTL’s discipline in extracting costs, as seen by actions such as the (painful) 12% headcount reduction, is central to my confidence in CTL’s management achieving their strategic aims. I do not believe that a further $250 million and $200 million of cost synergies in 2019 and 2020 respectfully through further synergies, network grooming efforts and the digital transformation initiative is unreasonable. That would bring overall cost synergies to $1.3 billion, a level consistent to what LVLT achieved in the TWTC merger.

So, given the likelihood of an increased purposeful erosion in low margin legacy business over the next several years combined with a higher level of cost extraction, I have recalculated my base and pessimistic scenarios from my previous post.

My base scenario, as per the graph below, shows annual revenues effectively flatlining over the next 3 years (2019 to 2021) around $23.3 to $23.6 billion before returning to modest top-line growth thereafter (i.e. between 1% and 1.5% annual growth) with an EBITDA margin of 42% achieved by the end of 2021 and maintained thereafter. This revenue profile mirrors that of previous LVLT mergers, albeit a longer period of flatlining revenues due to the amount of old legacy CTL to burn off. Capex is assumed at 16% of revenue from 2019 onwards. My projections also include further interest rate increases in 2019 and 2020 (as a reminder every 25-basis point change in interest rate results in an 8.5 basis point change in CTL’s blended rate). The current dividend rate is maintained throughout with FCF coverage ratio reducing from the low 70’s in 2019 to around 60% by the end of 2021. My DCF valuation for CTL under these base projections is $23 per share. That’s about 20% above its current level around $19 plus a 11% dividend yield.

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My pessimistic scenario, as per the graph below, assumes that the hoped-for revival of CTL into an on-demand service provider in the 5G age does not result in revenue growth after the legacy business has eroded for whatever reason (other technological advances over the need for a deep fiber network optic been the most likely). Annual revenue continues to decline to below $22 billion by 2021 and does not get above that level again until 2025. Although this scenario would be extreme, its not unknown in the telecom industry for future jumps in data traffic to result in falling revenues (eh, remember the telecom winter!). EBITDA margin levels get to 41% by the end of 2021 and slowly rise to 41.5% thereafter on further cost cutting. Capex and interest rate assumptions are as per the base scenario.

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In the pessimistic scenario the dividend level of $2.16 per share must be cut by 50% from 2020 to reflect the new reality and to deleverage the balance sheet. Although the share price would likely suffer greatly in such a scenario, my DCF valuation is $14 per share, 26% below the current $19 share price, not forgetting the reduced dividend yield after the 50% cut.

As per my previous post on CTL, I see little point in contemplating an optimistic scenario until such time as revenue trends are clearer. A buy-out at a juicy premium is the most likely upside case.

Consideration should be given in any projections over the medium term on the impact and timing of the next recession which is certain to happen over the 2019 to 2025 period. Jeff Storey has argued in the past that recession is good for firms like CTL as enterprises look to save money through switching from legacy services to more efficient on demand services. Although there is an element of truth to this argument, the next recession will likely put further pressures on CTL’s top-line (alternatively, an outbreak of inflation may help pricing pressures!!). Higher interest rates and lower multiples are a risk to the valuation of firms like CTL and the uncertainty over the future macro-economic environment make CTL a risky investment. Notwithstanding the inevitability of a recession at some time, I do feel that the revenue projections above are already conservative given the explosion in network demand that is likely over the next decade, although increased signs of recession in late 2019 or 2020 would temper my risk appetite on CTL.

To me, one of the biggest risks to CTL is the CEO’s health. Given Sunit Patel has left for T-Mobile (who I hope may be a potential buyer of CTL after they get the Sprint deal embedded and/or abandoned) and the new CFO will take some time to get accepted in the role, any potential for CTL not to have Jeff Storey at the helm over the next 2 years would be very damaging. Identifying and publicly promoting a successor to Jeff Storey is something the Board should be actively considering in their contingency planning.

For now, though, I am reasonably comfortable with the risk reward profile on CTL here, absent any significant slow down in the US economy.

The Centurylink Conundrum

It’s been over 4 months since I made my overtly positive 2018 EBITDA call on Centurylink (CTL), as per this February post. I estimated EBITDA guidance for 2018 around $9.25 billion whereas CTL’s actual guidance was between $8.75 billion to $8.95 billion. In my previous CTL post back in August 2017, the base case 2018 EBITDA was much closer to the mark at $8.95 billion! The reason for my $0.4 billion overshoot was an over optimistic reaction to the comments CFO Sunit Patel made earlier in the year on a possible 5%-7% margin improvement over the next 3 to 5 years. In my defense, the exhibit below comparing the cumulative margin improvement following the LVLT/TWTC merger compared to those now forecast by analysts from the CTL/LVLT merger shows how one could see more upside than indicated by guidance from the new management at CTL (i.e. the old LVLT management team after their successful reverse takeover of CTL).

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However, the LVLT/TWTC merger was a very different deal than the CTL/LVLT one. For starters, TWTC was a growing fiber based business, at both revenue and EBITDA lines, when it merged with LVLT whereas CTL is a declining one, at both revenue and EBITDA lines, with over 40% of its standalone business in legacy services.

I have rebuilt my model on the combined entity and carefully considered the top and bottom line impact of the declining legacy business on the combined CTL/LVLT projections in addition to the potential cost savings compared to those articulated by CFO Sunit Patel and new CEO Jeff Storey (I am assuming $1 billion of operating synergies compared to the guided figure of $0.85 billion). The graph below illustrates that looking at historical proforma margins on a combined business to project the future is misleading given the underlying trends at CTL, particularly the declining legacy business, and the improving margins at LVLT from the TWTC synergies.

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For the newly combined business, I estimate the old legacy business will make up approximately 25% of the new CTL’s revenue base. Historically, for the combined business, I estimate the legacy business (split 65:35 between the enterprise & consumer businesses) has been declining on average quarter on quarter by 2.5% over the past 6 quarters whereas the strategic (i.e. non-legacy) business has grown 0.5% on average. The strategic growth rate has been lower on average in recent quarters if Q1 2018 is excluded. The previous quarters poor performance could be due to the uncertainty over the merger, but the performance of the key strategic business will be an important metric to watch in future quarters (unfortunately they do not split the business out this way in their reports anymore). The forward quarter on quarter decline/growth rates for the legacy/strategic blocks are critical in determining future revenues and margins. The graph below shows the different impacts on annual revenue growth and EBITDA margins for different sets of legacy and strategic quarterly declines/increases.

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This analysis shows that the underlying business is facing the headwind of up to a 3% revenue decline in 2019 and up to 2.5% decline by 2022. As a result, underlying EBITDA margins also could be facing an annual 40 basis point decline from 2019 through 2022. This decline in underlying EBITDA margins explains an element of the difference in cumulative EBITDA margin improvement in the first graph above.

For my base scenario, I have assumed a quarterly revenue decline of 2.75% on legacy business (slightly worse that the past 6 quarter average of 2.5%) and a quarterly increase of 0.50% in strategic revenue (in line with the past 6 quarter average). I have also included an increase in EBITDA margin due to new business that the enlarged group can attract due to its larger footprint and relevance (the revenue impact is minimal as it will likely mainly be from existing clients scaling up although the margin impact could be more significant). I have sense checked the resulting revenue figures against independent projections using the new business classifications presented by the firm. The breakdown of the different cumulative impacts in my base scenario are shown below.

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These figures get to just within the 5%-7% range of margin improvement articulated by Sunit Patel with 5.3% combined improvement after the 3rd year, leaving room for further margin improvement in subsequent years. The graph below shows my base scenario revenue figures using the new classifications from CTL.

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This time around, I will not be considering an optimistic scenario but rather focusing on the downside to my base selections. Upside to my base scenarios is possible if recent revenue trends improve, as a result say of rapid 5G deployments (see this post). Upside could also come from CTL’s deep enterprise network being tempting to possible acquirers in a vertical M&A frenzy, although that sounds a bit like wishful thinking to my mind. The balance of probabilities is more likely to be on the downside in terms of revenue (although I do have confidence in CTL’s management ability to manage the various levers to hit their EBITDA targets).

For my pessimistic selections, I have assumed an accelerated quarterly revenue decline of 3% on legacy business and a flatlining quarterly change of 0% in strategic revenue (due to pressure on the enterprise business from increased software enabled competitors). These are fairly brutal assumptions. The impact of new business, particularly its impact on margins, is also assumed to be diminished compared to my base assumptions. Again, I sense checked these top-line figures by projections using the new business classifications from CTL, as below. These projections clearly show a business model under significant pressure.

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Taking all of the above factors into account, my revenue and post synergy EBITDA projections come out as per the graph below.

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On CTL’s debt, despite the issues surrounding LIBOR as a base rate for the floating debt (see this post), I am reasonably comfortable given approx. 65% of the debt is fixed. The debt load is high, at net debt to mid-point 2018 guided EBITDA of 4.2, but manageable (one area where Sunit has proven his ability is debt management!). I estimate that for every 25 basis point increase in the base floating rate (there are alternatives to LIBOR detailed in its floating credit facilities which is important given LIBOR’s likely replacement by something like SOFR, as per this article) the impact on CTL’s total debt interest rate is 8.5 basis points. Also, any significant debt repayment is not due until 2020 which gives time to ensure operating efficiencies are delivered. Of course, if the overall business model is in trouble despite achieving operational targets (e.g. software based telecom serves disrupt CTL) as per the pessimistic scenario, the debt load will become a big issue by 2020 (I still have the scars from the telecom bust)!

The key question concerning CTL in the short term is the sustainability of its dividend, given its current dividend yield of over 11.5% is amongst the highest in the S&P500. Under my base scenario, I project that the dividend is sustainable, just. It will be tight particularly when CTL will want to be demonstrate continued progress on deleveraging year on year. Under my pessimistic scenario, I assume a 50% dividend cut in 2019 would be required.

My valuation for CTL under my base and pessimistic scenarios is $18 and $10 respectively. Given the stock currently trades around $18, the market is indicating a belief in the new management team and its guidance. I have a high degree of confidence in current management and their ability to navigate the integration of CTL/LVLT and the challenges ahead in telecomland. However, the dividend sustainability issue will not be resolved until we see the quarterly progress over the next few quarters. Well into 2019 would be my guess.

It’s also likely that markets will be increasingly volatile over the next 12 months (eh, the market seems to be waking up to the folly of Mr Trump’s trade war this morning). Highly indebted firms will likely be battered as we get deeper into a tighter monetary environment, particularly those without topline growth. Any dividend cut will hit the stock heavily. I would not be surprised if the stock fell as low as $6 following a 50% cut. Given the juicy dividend yield will provide the cashflow, buying options seem a sensible means of protecting against such a downside. Ultimately, I have high hopes for CTL but this one is not for the faint hearted. It’s a risky stock, as the dividend yield implies, in an increasingly unbalanced market and it has to execute flawlessly over the coming quarters to justify the risk.

CenturyLink 2018 Preview

I don’t do this often but as I am travelling this week I thought I’d give some predictions on the Q4 announcement from CenturyLink (CTL) due after market close this Valentine’s Day. As my last post on the topic in August stated, I am taking a wait and see approach on CTL to assess whether enough progress has been made on the integration and balance sheet to safeguard the dividend. Although CTL is down 15% since my last post, the history of LVLT has taught me that extracting costs from a business with (at best) flat-lining revenue will be a volatile road over the coming quarters and years. Add in high debt loads in an increasing interest rate environment and any investment into CTL, with a medium term holding horizon, must be timed to perfection in this market.

The actual results for Q4 matter little, except to see revenue trends for the combined entity, particularly as according to their last 10Q they “expect to recognize approximately $225 million in merger-related transaction costs, including investment banker and legal fees”. They will likely kitchen sink the quarter’s results. The key will be guidance for 2018 which the new management team (e.g. the old LVLT CEO and CFO) have cautioned will only be the 2018 annual range for bottom-line metrics like EBITDA and free cashflow. Although many analysts know the LVLT management’s form, it may take a while for the wider Wall Street to get away from top line trends, particularly in the rural consumer area, and to measuring CTL primarily as a next generation enterprise communication provider.

At a recent investor conference, the CFO Sunit Patel gave some further colour on their targets. Capex would be set at 16% of revenues, the target for margin expansion is 5%-7% over the next 3 to 5 years reflected cost synergies coming into effect faster than previously indicated, and they will refocus the consumer business on higher speeds “more surgically [in terms of return on capital] in areas that have higher population densities, better socioeconomic demographics, better coexistence with businesses and where wireless infrastructure might be needed”. Based upon these targets and assuming average LIBOR of 3% and 4% for 2018 and 2019 respectively plus a flat-line annual revenue for the next 3 years (although a better revenue mix emerges), I estimate a valuation between $20 to $25 per share is justified, albeit with a lot of execution risk on achieving Sunit’s targets.

On guidance for 2018, I am hoping for EBITDA guidance around $9.25 billion and capex of $4 billion. I would be disappointed in EBITDA guidance with a lower mid-point (as would the market in my view). I also estimate cash interest expense of $2.25-$2.5 billion on net debt of $36-$36.5 billion. Dividend costs for the year should be about $2.35 billion.

Wednesday’s result will be interesting, particularly the market’s assessment of the plausibility of management’s targets for this high dividend yielding stock. There is plenty of time for this story to unfold over the coming quarters. For CTL and their people, I hope it’s not a Valentine’s Day massacre.

Follow-up after results:

I am still going through the actual results released on the 14th of February but my initial reaction is that the 2018 EBITDA guidance is a lot lower than I expected. Based upon proforma 2017 EBITDA margin of 36.1%, I factored in a more rapid margin improvement for 2018 to get to the EBITDA figure of $9.25 billion than the approximate 80 basis point improvement implied in the 2018 guidance to get to the mid-point of $8.85 billion. In response to an analyst’s question on the 5%-7% margin improvement expected over the next 3 to 5 years, Sunit responded as follows:

On the EBITDA margin, to your question, I think, in general, we continue to expect to see the EBITDA margin expand nicely over the next 3 to 5 years. I think we said even at the time of the announcement that with synergies and everything pro forma, we should be north of 40% plus EBITDA margins over the next few years and we continue to feel quite confident and comfortable with that. So I think you will see the margin expansion in terms of the basis points that you described.

I will go through the figures (and maybe the 10K) to revise my estimates and post my conclusion in the near future.