Tag Archives: telecom valuations

CenturyLink levelled

It’s been over 6 months since I last posted on the upcoming merger of Level 3 (LVLT) and Centurylink (CTL). Since then, LVLT’s CEO Jeff Storey has been named COO of the combined entity and CEO from January 2019, after a gentle push from activist investor Keith Meister of Corvex Management (here is an article on their latest position), effectively meaning the merger is an operational LVLT takeover of CTL. In June, CTL also got hit by a lawsuit from an ex-employer alleging a high-pressure sales culture which ripped customers off (an avalanche of class action suits followed). And, potentially more damaging, the recent results of CTL continue to point to deteriorating trends in the legacy part of their business and lackluster growth on the strategic part of the business. CTL missed their quarterly estimates again in the most recent quarter, the third miss in a row.

Picking up on my recent telecom industry post, the sector will struggle in the short term to find top line growth before the full impact of new “digital lifestyle” opportunities emerge. The figures below for enterprise, including public sector, and wholesale revenues for some of the biggest US players (which have been adjusted judgmentally for items such as the impact of the XO acquisition on Verizon’s revenues and the ever-changing classifications and reclassifications that telecom’s love) illustrate the current struggle in getting newer IP enabled services to fully compensate for declining legacy revenues.

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These figures imply average quarterly declines since 2014 of -0.3% and -1.2% for enterprise and wholesale business respectively. However, the trend has been getting worse. The average quarterly change was 0.2% and -1.1% for enterprise and wholesale business respectively from 2014 to 2015. Since 2016, the average quarterly change is -0.9% and -1.3% for enterprise and wholesale respectively. Not exactly a cheery trend when contemplating the prospects of a merged CTL/LVLT!

As can be seen below, the share price of LVLT and deal implied price have converged, particularly as CTL’s dividends get paid, albeit with a sharply downward bias in recent weeks over worries about dividend sustainability, valuation, sector trends, lawsuits and uncertainty over the closing date of the merger (a delay by California, the last State approval needed, may mean the end of September deadline is missed).

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My estimates for a standalone LVLT compared to analyst figures and those presented by LVLT management in the S4 (figures presented for merger negotiations are generally on the optimistic side) are below. Even factoring in higher interest rates (about 40% of LVLT’s debt is floating) over the coming years, I am comfortable with a standalone share price around the current mid-50’s, in the unlikely event the merger falls apart.

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To recap on my confidence in the ability of LVLT’s current management team to deliver, the results of the last merger between LVLT and TWTC show that management delivered a 40% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) on flat revenues from 2014 to 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger to actual H1 results and my estimates for H2 2017). Some of my many previous posts on LVLT are here, here and here. Such a repeat in FCF in the CLT/LVLT merger is not a realistic expectation given the larger scale and different business mix, as the analysis below illustrates. Of course, the flat revenues over the past 3 years is a key concern (but worthy of praise given the industry trends highlighted above) and one of the catalysts for the CLT deal. Also, the health of designate CEO Jeff Storey may also be a factor over the next few years given his heart issues a few year ago.

My knowledge of CTL’s business is not as deep as that of LVLT’s and my confidence in their prospects on a standalone basis is nowhere near as lofty. My projections, split over a conservative base scenario and a more conservative low business scenario, can be seen below. My projections are primarily based upon the more recent trends in their business lines across their legacy and strategic enterprise and consumer businesses. The vast variance in my estimates, based upon recent trends, and those presented by management in the S4 (again, acknowledging that these are generally optimistic) illustrates why the market has lost such confidence in the outgoing management team at CTL, in my opinion.

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In terms of trying to model the merged CTL/LVLT, I have assumed the deal closes by the end of 2017 with 2018 being the first year of the merged entity. I have made a number of judgmental adjustments in my model, including assuming some loss of revenue due to the merger and cost reductions above published target synergies (e.g. $1 billion of operating synergies by end 2020 and $150 million of capex synergies by end 2019, higher than the announced target savings of $850 million and $125 million for opex and capex respectively). I have taken analyst estimates as an optimistic case (in CTL’s case I have taken their EBITDA estimates but still can’t get anywhere near their revenue figures) and called it the high scenario. My two projections above are used for the base and low scenarios. The resulting operating metrics for each scenario is shown below.

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The high scenario shows revenues flat-lining slightly above $24 billion for 2018 and 2019 with top-line growth returning in 2020 (YoY above 2.5%). EBITDA margins hit 40% by 2019 and remain stable around 40% thereafter. Capex is assumed to hit 15.5% of revenues by 2019 and remain at that percentage thereafter. This scenario assumes that management will be able to generate an approximate 30% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) from 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger) to FY 2020.

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The base scenario shows revenues flat-lining around $23.5 billion for 2018 through 2020 with top-line growth returning in 2021 (YoY just below 2%). EBITDA margins hit 40% by 2019 and slowly trend down toward 39% thereafter. Capex is again assumed to hit 15.5% of revenues by 2019 and remain at that percentage thereafter. This scenario assumes that management will be able to generate an approximate 22% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) from 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger) to FY 2020.

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The low scenario shows revenues around $23.5 billion for 2018 and drifting down to $23 billion before slowly hitting $23.5 billion again by 2022. Thereafter revenue growth builds slowly from 1.5% to 2.5% by 2027. EBITDA margins hit 39.5% by 2019 and slowly trend down toward 38.5% thereafter. Capex is again assumed to hit 15.5% of revenues by 2019 and remain at that percentage thereafter. This scenario assumes that management will be able to generate an approximate 18% uplift in the amount of free cashflow (e.g. EBITDA less capex) from 2017 (e.g. combined FCF of both entities in the year prior to the merger) to FY 2020.

I also assume the merged entity will carry $38 billion of debt from the offset (resulting from merger expenses, the cash payout to LVLT shareholders, and existing debts from both firms, after factoring any proceeds from recent CTL divestitures). I estimate that only 30% of this debt load is subject to a floating rate. In all scenarios, I assume the LIBOR rate linked to the floating rate increases incrementally by 275 basis points over the next 3 years (the current 12 month US rate is about 175 basis points). With a net debt to EBITDA ratio of approximately 3.8 at the end of 2018 across all scenarios, I believe that getting that ratio below 3 within 4 years by 2021, at the latest, will be a primary objective of the new management team. That would only be prudent in my view given the likely tightening monetary environment over the next few years which will punish valuations of corporates with high debt levels. Also, management will want to remain flexible if higher capex is needed to compete in new technologies for the IoT and digital lifestyle era (see recent sector post). I haven’t factored in an upside from LVLT’s CFO Sunit Patel proven ability to actively manage debt rates and maturities (his ability is highlighted by the fact that LVLT’s fixed debt costs 5.5% compared to CTL’s admittingly much larger fixed debt costing 6.8%)

That leads to the thorny question of the sustainability of the annual dividend of $2.16 per share (particularly given that share count will double, amounting to $2.3 billion per year). Under the high scenario, maintaining the current dividend and getting the net debt multiple below 3 by 2021 is doable if a little tight (primarily due to the cashflow benefits of LVLT’s NOLs). For both of the base and low scenarios maintaining the current dividend level is not realistic in my view, with a cut in the dividend to $1.30 and $1.00 needed in each scenario respectively (a 40% and a 55% cut). The current dividend yield on CTL is over 10%. Each of the cuts above would reduce that yield to approximately 6% and 5% for the base and low scenarios respectively based upon the current share price. Addressing the uncertainty over the dividend should be one of the priorities of the new management (and may even result in Jeff Storey’s move to the CEO position ahead of the planned January 2019 date).

Finally, before I reveal my per share valuations, I haven’t given any consideration to the financial impact of the current legal cases on alleged aggressive sales tactics as the level of current detail makes any such estimate impossible. Some of the class action cases claim anything from $600 million to $12 billion but these claims are always bloated and the eventual settlement figure, if there even is one, are often for a lot less than that claimed. Nor have I considered the potential impact of a spin-off of the consumer business (that’s for another time!).

So, based upon the analysis outlined in this post and using a discount rate of 8.5%, my valuation estimates for each of the three scenarios are below.

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The market’s current valuation of CTL around $20 indicates scenario 3 as the current expectation. This emphasizes the need to address the uncertainty over future dividend levels and the validity of the legal cases. Uncertainty over the closing date of the deal is overblown, in my view, and a few months of delay will not prove material. I do think the current valuation is harsh, given the potential upsides from the deal and longer-term industry trends. Interestingly, my base scenario valuation of £31 is not too far off the value of $34.75 by BofA Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley in the S4 (see this post on the S4). The base scenario is the one I would have the most confidence in, based upon my current knowledge, rather than the high scenario of $43 which does look too optimistic to me given current market trends.

I was never going to reinvest the cash component of the deal for LVLT shareholders given my current reservations about market valuations and move to cash across my portfolio. The analysis presented in this post indicates to me that the CTL shares due from the deal for LVLT shareholders are worth holding from a valuation perspective. For now.

For new investors, I’d wait to see how some of the uncertainties play out, particularly the dividend issue.

A gaggle of bankers

How many investment bankers does it take to change a lightbulb? Well there are numerous jokes on that. Here’s one: two – one to take out the bulb and drop it and another one to sell it before it crashes!

In the case of the Level 3 (LVLT) and Centurylink (CTL) proposed merger (see previous post), it took no less than five investment banking firms according to the recent S4 filing to get a deal agreed. Centurylink had Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley as its main advisors with Evercore added for another fairness opinion. Level 3 had Citi as its main advisor with Lazard for another fairness opinion.

The S4 also reveals that there was no auction process. Although both sides have no doubt talked to many potential partners about deals (both telecom firms have extensive M&A experience) in the recent past, this merger proposal really got started after discussions with the CEOs in May, initially about a LVLT purchase of CTL’s business segment and a tracking stock on the consumer business. The tracking stock idea quickly got dumped with the cash and share purchase of LVLT by CTL discussed in principle in September with the details agreed in October. Given the breakup fee is only around $2 a share for any alternative bidder, LVLT decided it was best to nail down the deal with CenturyLink rather than look for other deals. The S4 stated the following:

In light of the premium being proposed by CenturyLink, Level 3 management’s view of the relatively low likelihood of any potential alternate bidder being willing to make a superior proposal within a short time frame and the risk of potential leaks raised by pursuing such a pre-signing market check, coupled with the ability of any potential interested bidder to submit a competing offer following the signing of a definitive agreement with CenturyLink and the ability of Level 3 to terminate any definitive agreement with CenturyLink post-signing to accept a superior proposal from another bidder, the Level 3 Board determined at that time to continue pursuing the transaction proposed by CenturyLink without approaching other parties.

Relying on investment bankers to give fairness opinions could be viewed with scepticism by anybody with a memory and a sense of humour. However, in this case, I believe that the strategy is a sensible one for shareholders. The business segment of CTL and LVLT clearly makes sense as a match up with the possibility of significant synergies (more I think than has been assumed). The consumer side of the merged entity can always be offloaded at an opportune time in the future. Also, any other potential bidders of LVLT, such as Comcast or a technology firm like Goggle or Microsoft, will be forced now to act if they want the unique assets of the firm. My sense is that the possibility of another bidder emerging over the coming months remains low.

The financial projections, shown below, from management of each firm on a standalone basis are presented in the S4 and make for interesting reading.

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The projections for LVLT show higher capex figures for 2016 and 2017 than analyst estimates. From 2017 onwards, LVLT’s estimates of revenue are higher than analyst estimates whilst the resulting EBITDA is lower. This suggests a slower progression in EBITDA margins than analysts’ expectations with a figure closer to 35% and stable over the medium term. For CTL, the longer term revenue growth figures from the firm are more aggressive than analysts with EBITDA margins drifting down to the 35% level and below over the medium term.

It is unclear how many adjustments have been made by advisors to the figures provided by management of both firms. I am not that familiar with CTL’s figures but the LVLT figures look reasonable enough. The fairness opinions generally state that they reviewed the figures provided and the assumptions behind them without actually coming up with their own figures. The valuations of a standalone LVLT in an M&A context, and the assumptions behind the methods used, outlined in the S4 are shown below.

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The valuations are generally consistent around a $60 per share level, varying from $50 to $70. Most include the value of the NOLs with Citi estimating their value separately at approximately $7 per share. A number of the bankers also valued the targeted synergies of the deal assuming 100% of these were assigned to LVLT shareholders. These estimates and the valuations of a standalone CTL are shown below.

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Comparing the average LVLT standalone valuations and those including the synergies shows a value of $25 per share (i.e. $84-$59), assuming shareholders get 100% of the synergies. That assumption is clearly unrealistic. If 50% of the synergies were assigned to LVLT shareholders (who will get 49% of the combined entity), than a reasonable expectation in the longer run would be a value equivalent to $72 per share. As can be seen below, this is equivalent to a share price of $32 per share for CTL under the merger terms. BofA Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley in the S4 calculated a proforma value of CTL after the merger (with the synergies realised) of $34.75 which would put the value of the deal to LVLT shareholders around $76 per share, as below.

click to enlargecenturylink-level-3-merger-deal-2

With CTL’s stock still trading just over $24, there is obviously a lot that can happen before this proposed merger closes. And even more time before the deal synergies are realised. One thing is for sure through, the investment bankers are making out well as the exhibit on their fees below shows. $25 million alone for a few week’s work to provide the fairness opinions is outrageous.

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The amount of such fees investment bankers get away with charging always boggles the mind and shows what a closed shop the business still is. Whatever happens to LVLT and CTL shareholders, these masters of the universe always make out like bandits.

Level-headed

After a week like the one just gone, where the S&P500 hit the 10% down threshold for the year, it’s perversely healthy to see debates rage about the likelihood of a recession, the future for oil prices, the bursting of the unicorn bubble, the impact of negative interest rates and the fallibility of central bank macro policy in the developed world, to name just a few. Considering and factoring in such risks are exactly what should be happening in a well functioning market, rather than one far too long reliant upon the supposed omnipresent wisdom of central bankers to answer any market ills that may come along. Although the market volatility during the opening months of 2016 hasn’t been pleasant and will hopefully find a floor soon, valuations didn’t reflect risks and an adjustment was needed.

I have no idea where the market is headed, although I suspect we are just one more shake-out from capitulation. Valuations have come off their unsustainable highs and a select few are beginning to look attractive. After some of this week’s indiscriminate falls, it’s always a good risk management discipline to assess current and possible new positions in light of developments. I assessed AAPL’s valuation recently in this post and offered my thoughts on the new Paddy Power Betfair in this post.

The subject of this post is Level 3 (ticker LVLT), a facilities-based provider of a range of integrated telecommunications services. Prior to their earnings on 4th of February, I had been re-examining my investment rationale on LVLT, one of my highest conviction positions that I last posted on a year ago. As I have highlighted before, LVLT is not an investment for the faint hearted and the past week has again proven that (a beta level of 1.5 according to Yahoo just doesn’t capture it!) with daily moves following the Q4 report of +6.9%,-5.7%,-9.4%,+3.7%,+3%, 0.5%, and Friday’s +1.7%. The graphic below shows the movement in the share price in LVLT, the S&P500 and the S&P High Beta index (SPHB) since the start of 2015. Also shown are the daily changes in LVLT against those of the S&P500.

click to enlargeLevel3 SP500 Share Price & Volatility

To recap on the bull case, the strength of LVLT is its deep and global IP optic network which following the recent mergers with Global Crossing and TW Telecom now has the business scale for the experienced management team to finally achieve operating margins to support its debt (current net debt to 2016 guided EBITDA is approx 3.5) and throw off meaningful cash-flow in the coming years (average FCF growth of 8% according to my estimates over the next few years). The Q4 2015 results and 2016 guidance showed the bull case is intact and the demand for new products such as the security and intelligent network services show how LVLT’s network is a competitive advantage in today’s technology driven world. The CEO Jeff Storey summarized their case at the Q4 conference call as follows:

“Most importantly, is our movement towards our vision of one, one set of products that we take to an expanding market, one network to deliver those products globally, one set of operational support systems to enable a differentiated customer experience, and one team with the singular goal of making Level 3 the premier provider of enterprise and networking services. As we look to 2016, our strategy remains the same. We are focused on operational excellence throughout our business, providing a superior experience to our customers and developing the products and capabilities to meet their complex and evolving networking needs.”

As the talk of a possible recession fuelled worries on business telecom spend, I thought it would be useful to look at the historical “as if” results of the now enlarged LVLT through the financial crisis. This involved looking through old Global Crossing and TW Telecom results and making numerous assumptions on the historical growth of acquired businesses and the business classifications (and numerous reclassifications) of each firm over time. The historical “as if” results combined with the reported figures for 2014 to 2015 and analyst estimates for 2016 to 2018 are shown below.

click to enlargeLVLT Proforma Revenue Split 2007 to 2018

Within the context of the caveat above, the drop in enterprise revenue from 2008 to 2011 was 12.5%, primarily driven the financial crisis with other factors being Global Crossing refocusing its portfolio and the operational missteps by legacy Level3 in integrating its multiple acquisition from 2006-08. TW Telecom’s consistent top-line growth since 2007, despite the financial crisis, can be seen in this post. It’s interesting that the wholesale revenues have been relatively stable historically ranging between $2.10-2.35 billion, supporting the view that price decreases are offset by unit increases in IP traffic.

Since 2012, the benefits of scale combined with the integration prowess of the current LVLT management team (Jeff Storey became CEO in 2013) are vividly shown in the impressive increase in EBITDA margin from 22% in 2009 to 32% in 2015. After cutting capex in 2008-09, the combined business has required 14%-16% since then, now targeted at 15% to support the 8% annual growth in enterprise revenues (on a constant currency basis) that management have set as their target.

In Q4, LVLT’s revenue was derived 80% from the US and management claim that their enterprise business has only a single digit market share in the US leaving plenty of room for growth, particularly against the incumbents Verizon and AT&T. The graph below shows enterprise and wholesale revenues from each firm with AT&T showing revenue stability against a declined trend for Verizon.

click to enlargeVZ AT&T Business Telecom Revenue

Numerous analysts confirmed their estimates on LVLT following the Q4 results and the average target is above $60, approximately 30% above the current level. Regular readers will know that normally I don’t have much time for analysts’ estimates but in this case my own DCF analysis suggests a medium term target of per share in the low 60’s is reasonable. According to my estimates that translates into an EV/EBITDA multiple of approx 8.5 in 2018 which looks reasonable given LVLT’s free cash growth. I used the historical “as if” figures above to calculate a downside valuation for LVLT on the basis of a recession occurring over the next 2 years. I assumed that a 2016-2018 recession would have approx half the impact of the 2008-2011 crisis upon LVLT’s enterprise revenue (e.g. approx 7% decline) before stabilising and recovering. My valuation of LVLT in such a scenario was in the mid 30’s or an approx 25% downside potential from Friday’s close. So at a 25% downside and a 30% upside, LVLT’s risk profile is finely balanced.

LVLT itself may become a target for a firm like Comcast or CenturyLink or another large communication firm looking to bulk up its regional reach or network business. Two interesting items came out of LVLT’s Q4 call; the first being the tightening of its target leverage range to 3 to 4 times EBITDA (from 3 to 5 times) and the second being a renewed appetite by management to use free cash-flow for disciplined M&A rather than shareholder returns such as buy-backs or even initiating a dividend. With LVLT proving their ability to get in excess of $200 million in EBITDA savings from adding TW Telecom’s revenue base of $1.6 billion at the time of the merger (or an impressive 12.5% EBITDA pick-up), the case for disciplined M&A by LVLT’s management is strong. Possible targets in the US include Zayo (their share price is having a hard time of late) or Carl Icahn’s privately held XO Communications (now that the maestro has milked the firms of its tax losses), amongst others. In Europe, possible targets include the now private Fidelity owned COLT (see this post on background) or Interroute, another privately owned pan-European network.

Whatever happens, I am content to hold my position in LVLT at this level. I like the firm’s current risk profile, the developing product range in the ever important network age, and particularly the recent execution record of management. As ever, I would highlight the stock’s volatility and recommend the use of options to protect downside risks (which are not inconsiderable if the probability of recession grows). I again repeat that LVLT is not one for the faint hearted, particularly in this market where near term volatility looks all but certain, but one I trust will be an attractive investment.

European Telecom Frenzy

After many years of forecasted telecom consolidation in Europe, the recent uptick in M&A activity in the European communications sector is turning into frenzy. The catalyst includes European regulator’s agreement to allowing consolidation from four to three operators in mobile markets in Germany, Ireland and Austria. Declining mobile revenues & ARPU, the capital expense required to upgrade networks to 4G and buy spectrum, and the popularity of the quad play (bundled mobile and fixed telephone, broadband & TV) in certain markets are other catalysts. The graph below from the Wall Street Journal highlights the trends in the European mobile market.

click to enlargeEuropean Mobile Telcom Revenues

BT is a central player in the frenzy and reported to be looking at accelerating its mobile strategy by purchasing either EE (owned jointly by Orange and T-Mobile) or O2 (owned by Telefonica) in the UK. Vodafone will need to respond to such a development and is reported to be assessing a bid for Liberty Global. Hutchison Whampoa, owner of mobile provider Three, is also reported to be considering its options. Sky and TalkTalk are talked about as possible targets in the UK.

The list of recent deals is long. O2 and KPN’s E-Plus merged in Germany. Vodafone purchased Ono in Spain and Kabel Deutschland in Germany with its Verizon booty. Liberty Global recently completed its acquisition of Ziggo in the Netherlands. Altice, owner of cable operator Numericable, bought SFR in France and, in Portugal, it’s just announced a deal for the Portuguese assets of Portugal Telecom from Brazil’s Oi. Hutchison Whampoa bought Orange in Austria and O2 in Ireland. France’s Orange is buying Jazztel in Spain.

The attraction of combining mobile traffic with fixed assets is highlighted by the growth in data traffic over connected devices like smart-phones as an exhibit from the Ericsson Mobility report below shows.

click to enlargeGlobal mobile data traffic 2010 to Q3 2014

A recent article from the FT speculated on other combinations in the European telecom sector. France’s Iliad, who made an audacious yet unsuccessful bid for T-Mobile in the US, may have another crack at Bouygues Telecom (maybe with SFR-Numericable taking some assets). In Italy, Hutchison Whampoa, owner of 3 Italia, may have a go at the debt heavy Wind, although the part ownership by the Russian Vimplecom may be an issue.

I haven’t taken an active (or economic) interest in the sector in Europe since Virgin Media came out of Chapter 11 and was subsequently bought out by Liberty Global a few years later. Although I have looked at Liberty Global a few times since, I couldn’t get over the valuation at the time or the massive goodwill/intangible items from its acquisitive history (currently over 40% of total assets). Liberty’s debt load of over 4.5 times EBITDA is scary but not overtly so given its strong cash-flow. At a current enterprise value (EV) to EBITDA multiple of 9.5, a merger with Vodafone would not be cheap (which currently trades around a 7.6 EV/EBITDA multiple with a lower net debt to EBITDA ratio of less than 2.5). A Vodafone/Liberty merger would be a fascinating test for European regulators as such a match-up would have been unthinkable just a few quarters ago.

The only European telecom firm that I have kept up with is the disappointing COLT (who I posted on here and here). COLT may get caught up in the merger frenzy as a target. I suspect majority owner Fidelity is looking to exit whilst maximising its value (or minimising its loss is more accurate in this case). COLT recently bought the Japanese operator KVH (who also had Fidelity as an owner). I updated my projections, as below, but given that COLT will likely spend most of its cash pile on the KVH acquisition and integration, the medium term operational outlook for COLT looks uninspiring. COLT does have a €150 million debt facility which is more than enough to get it to free cash-flow (I estimate that will not be until 2017 with KVH integration costs), unless of course it goes shopping!

click to enlargeCOLT Telecom Revenue & EBITDA Margin 2006 to 2016 incl forecast

So overall, the European sector is getting really interesting and, although I can’t see any obvious way to play it that excites me, it will be fascinating to watch from the side-lines.

COLT needs to show more progress

There has been an outburst of deal activity in European cable markets with Vodafone and Liberty Global squaring up on Spain’s Ono. Other European cable assets such as Com Hem, Get AS, and Galicia in Sweden, Norway and Spain respectively are reportingly also up for sale. Despite the economic woes in Europe and the regulatory uncertainty across the broader European telecom sector, valuations relative to the US have improved in 2013 returned to close to historical averages around 6 times EBITDA. The European incumbents are expected to see stabilisation, or at least a slowdown in decline, of revenue in 2014 and many are hoping that the environment is becoming more conducive to the long predicted European consolidation.

Against this background, I had a quick look over COLT Group SA, previously COLT Telecom, one of the start-up pan European telecoms from the heady days of the telecom bubble in the late 1990s/early 2000s. A previous post on the telecom sector touched on the past of COLT and the graph below shows the firm’s operating history to YE2012 and illustrates the pressure on cash-flow (e.g. EBITDA less capital expenditure) as a result of the changes COLT have undertaken since the mid-2000s to focus on being a pure pan-European data and managed services provider.

click to enlargeCOLT 2003 to 2012 Operating History

Digging a bit deeper, the breakdown of revenue by source shows that COLT has been making progress in reducing their exposure to lower margin voice revenues. However, annualising H1-2013 results shows that progress on EBITDA margins has slowed in the highly competitive sector and that returns on investment have yet to materialise operationally in a significant manner.

click to enlargeCOLT 2006 to H12013 Revenue Breakdown & EBITDA Margin

COLT is debt free but cash has reduced to €160 million as at Q3 (from €280m at YE 2012 & €340m at YE 2011) due to data centre infrastructure expense. COLT’s valuation, at below 5 times EBITDA, is less than many in the sector and also below recent acquisition multiples such as Deutsche Telecom’s purchase of GTS Central Europe for approx 6.3 times EBITDA. However, for me, recent sluggish revenue growth and EBITDA margins show that COLT still has much to prove in demonstrating the success of its investment in its strategy.

On the upside, a firm like COLT may get caught up in M&A speculation with someone like Vodafone looking to buy fixed line assets in Europe.