Ericsson Sales Under Pressure; Wireless Network Infrastructure Market in Transition

Ericsson today reported 3Q-2013 earnings that were less than the consenus forecast.  Third-quarter net income of 2.92 billion kronor missed the 3.07 billion kronor average analyst estimate. Profit rose 34 percent from the year-earlier period, helped by lower costs and the company exiting an unprofitable chip venture with STMicroelectronics.  More importantly, revenue fell 3 percent, to 52.9 billion kroner, also below analysts’ average estimate, of 54.3 billion kroner.       

The Stockholm-based manufacturer of telecommunications infrastructure, the world’s largest, is struggling in an increasingly competitive environment and has cuts thousands of jobs in Sweden over the past year to slash costs. Ericsson holds about a 35 percent global market share in the wireless network infrastructure used by carriers like Verizon Wireless and China Mobile. 

Business slowed in the U.S. and Japan where projects to make wireless carriers’ networks speedier are nearing completion.  “It’s hard to offset the slowdown in the largest projects in North America and Japan,” Ericsson’s chief executive, Hans Vestberg, said in a telephone interview with the NY Times. He said that currency fluctuations also were taking a toll on the company’s international sales.

In its earnings report, Ericsson said that a number of its high-profile mobile network projects in both North America and Japan were either completed or nearly so. Sales in Northeast Asia, including Japan, fell 28 percent, to 6.1 billion kroner, in the third quarter, compared with the same period a year earlier. The region is the second largest market by sales for the Swedish company, after North America.

“We are currently seeing sales coming under some pressure,” Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg said.  In addition to negative currency effects, the comparable sales figure was hurt by the completion of two large mobile broadband coverage projects in North America.  “We also saw impact from reduced activity in Japan where we are getting closer to completion of a major project,” Vestberg said.

“While the sales level was disappointing in the quarter, such volatility is not unusual in the industry, and increasing spending outside the U.S. is expected to lead to future growth,” said Janardan Menon, a telecommunications analyst at Liberum Capital in London.

“The projects that peaked in the first half in North America are starting to have an effect,” said Fredrik Thoresen, an analyst at DNB ASA in Oslo with a hold rating on the stock. Slowing sales in North America, a high-margin region for Ericsson, bring down its profitability, he said.

Both North American and Northeast Asia have been engines of growth for Ericsson in recent years, while investment in other parts of the world, notably Europe, has waned.

Vestberg said that uncertainty still remains in certain parts of the world, although the macroeconomic climate has stabilized in many markets and the “long-term fundamentals in the industry remain attractive.”

“Ericsson now sees growth in several European markets and margins are also improving as the network modernization projects gradually come to an end and we engage more in new capacity and LTE business,” he said, referring to the high-speed data standard for mobile phones.


Wireless Network Infrastructure Market Overview:

The global mobile network infrastructure business is in transition as the major equipment vendors reorganize. The manufacturers are eager to take advantage of the growth of mobile data, as consumers around the world shift away from making voice calls on their smartphones to accessing the Internet on phones and tablets.

Nokia now owns all of Nokia Siemens Networks, which had previously spun off its optical division.  Alcatel-Lucent is also revamping, having announced this month that it would cut 10,000 jobs, or 14 percent of its global work force. Alcatel-Lucent wants to increase its profitability after several years of declining growth.       

Market analysts say that Nokia or another mobile infrastructure company may look to acquire the struggling Alcatel-Lucent, as rivals position themselves for an expected increase in investment from cellphone carriers into high-speed fourth-generation networks.       

Ericsson and its U.S./European network equipment competitors, however, are also under threat from Asian rivals like Huawei, ZTE and Samsung, which are looking to increase their own market shares in local and international markets alike.  Bloomberg reported this week that Nokia- which divested its handset division to Microsoft- will attempt to acquire Alcatel-Lucent.  

“This deal makes complete sense,” Sami Sarkamies, a Helsinki-based analyst at Nordea Bank AB, said in a phone interview. “Nokia will have the financial flexibility to do this kind of deal and Alcatel needs to slim down. There is a relatively high likelihood of this deal happening.”

Nokia has evaluated options including a combination with Alcatel-Lucent’s mobile-phone networks business, a person with knowledge of the matter said last month. An acquisition would open the U.S. market to Nokia, helping the Finnish company shrink the gap with market leader Ericsson

Several European carriers like Telefónica of Spain and Telecom Italia are struggling to reduce their debt burdens and have put off infrastructure upgrades to their mobile phone networks.   One bright spot in Europe is the British carrier Vodafone, a big Ericsson customer, which announced in September that it would invest £6 billion, or $9.7 billion, after it sold its stake in the American company Verizon Wireless to its partner, Verizon Communications, for $130 billion.

Meanwhile AT&T continues to build out it’s LTE network footprint, which lags far behind Verizon’s which is available in over 500 U.S. cities.

Meanwhile, small cells