by Grant’s Interest Rate Observer:
The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) ongoing sale of wireless C-band spectrum rights marks a decisive event for the telecommunications industry. As industry players compete for more digital bandwidth to help roll out 5G services, aggressive bidding looks set to generate a windfall for the U.S. government. Estimated proceeds will exceed $80 billion, easily topping the prior record of $45 billion for FCC spectrum in 2015.
As the three-way battle for 5G dominance takes shape, former also-ran T-Mobile U.S., Inc. appears to have the jump on competitors Verizon Communications, Inc. and AT&T, Inc., thanks in large part to substantial midrange spectrum frequency gained from last year’s acquisition of Sprint Corp. “For many years, Verizon hammered its competitors time and time again with the ‘best network’ and their big red coverage map,” Sasha Javid, chief operating officer of wireless company BitPath, told Bloomberg on Jan. 22. “Well, the map is looking quite magenta [signifying T-Mobile’s corporate color] today in terms of 5G coverage around the country.”
The incumbents will need to pay up to catch up. Analysts at New Street Research wrote on Jan. 11 that “if T-Mobile spends less than we expect, Verizon or AT&T will likely account for the shortfall. Neither company has the cash on hand to cover what we expect them to spend in the auction at present; we would expect more debt issuance for the group in coming weeks.”
Extra borrowings that accompany Verizon and AT&T’s 5G spending spree look to do no favors for the pair’s respective capital structures. Craig Moffett, co-founder and one-half eponym of MoffettNathanson, LLC, estimated last Tuesday that triple-B-plus-rated Verizon may spend up to $40 billion on 5G digital real estate, enough to add nearly one full turn of leverage to its 2.3 times reported net borrowings (3.2 times after accounting for operating leases and pension liabilities) as of Dec. 31. Analyst Craig Moffett wrote:
“Higher leverage will mean that capital spending will, by necessity, be pinched and stretched. Lower capital spending will mean that it will take longer to deploy their C-Band spectrum, which, in turn, will mean Verizon will be slower to catch up to T-Mobile.”
Meanwhile, Verizon’s other peer has already tapped the credit markets to finance its own shopping spree. This morning, triple-B-rated AT&T officially entered into a $14.7 billion, 364-day term loan offering at 100 basis points over Libor, with proceeds earmarked for general corporate purposes, including the financing of additional spectrum.
The new borrowings color AT&T’s dubious distinction as the world’s most encumbered non-financial company. Net debt footed to $198 billion, inclusive of operating lease and pension liabilities (equal to 3.6 times consensus 2021 adjusted Ebitda) as of Dec. 31, following efforts to diversify into higher growth businesses via the 2015 and 2018 purchases of DirecTV and TimeWarner for $67 billion and $109 billion, respectively. More debt could further complicate efforts to both tame its bloated balance sheet and improve slumping operating results including sharp subscriber losses and fast-retreating Ebitda within the DirecTV business.
Those problems have helped pressure shares to the tune of negative 18% after accounting for dividends since a bearish analysis in the Dec. 13, 2019 edition of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer, compared to a 24% total return from the S&P 500 over that period. By way of response, AT&T has pivoted to asset sales, including recently shopping DirecTV to private equity companies at a reported $15 billion price tag, while prioritizing its quarterly dividend, now at a 7.2% trailing annual rate. On last week’s conference call, CEO John Stankey reiterated plans “to use free cash flow after dividends for the next couple of years to pay down debt.”
Noting that the company is in danger of exceeding the 3.5 times adjusted leverage limit that Moody’s Investors Service has cited as a projected ceiling for AT&T to maintain its investment grade imprimatur, MoffettNathanson wrote last Wednesday that the spectrum sale left Ma Bell with two bad choices:
Sitting out the auction would have left them far behind in 5G; buying spectrum would leave their dividend looking even more unsustainable. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Selling DirecTV now will help slow the overall rate of Ebitda decline, but it won’t solve the basic problem. AT&T’s leverage is far too high for a shrinking company, and their dividend is too high for them to do anything serious about lowering it. Something’s gotta give.