Without doubt AT&T (T) has been generating substantial income for dividend investors. Equally indisputable is the fact that the development of the stock price has been consistently and greatly lagging the overall market. More importantly, with AT&T trading 15% below its 52-week high investors, in the worst case scenario, would currently require around three full years of dividends to just compensate for the capital loss.
The number one rule in investing is always to at least preserve capital and while a 6% yield looks good on paper it does not help if your principal declines almost three times more.
I have been caught on the wrong foot with AT&T as well as I quickly grew it into my largest portfolio position, both in terms of income and capital, as I focused too strongly on the former. It’s mind games here. With AT&T paying such a high yield you can easily get double and triple-digit income per quarter with relatively little capital which in turn motivates you to invest even more. What is largely neglected at this stage is that as the yield increases and reaches the illustrious 6% barrier this is also means that the markets place higher risk into the stock.
However, despite all the capital losses I have incurred (but not realized) so far, the stock’s current yield could still be a great long-term opportunity provided the outlook is not as bad as expected. Now that the Time Warner (TWX) trial is approaching its end (outcome remains as uncertain as always) and the proposed Sprint (S) and T-Mobile (TMUS) deal also receiving regulatory scrutiny, this 6% yield window is closing with the stock now trading below 6% for the first time in almost two months. Let’s review the investment case for a dividend investor.
What is going on at AT&T?
Source: AT&T Investor Relations
The stock is currently trading at a lackluster 7 times earnings implying almost no growth whatsoever as the company finds itself right in the middle of a complex and challenging business setup.
The outcome of the Time Warner trial, which is expected to close this week on Tuesday, has been lingering over the stock and the company like a Damocles sword with investors fearing the excessive post-merger debt load of AT&T in a hawkish interest rate environment but equally expecting that AT&T needs some sort of vertical integration in order to compete with one of its fastest growing competitors Netflix (NFLX). Regardless of the outcome investors react as if AT&T will lose either way. Also, if the trial does not get approved AT&T will have spent hundreds of millions on lawyers, bankers and penalty statements and even worse it will cast a big shadow of doubt across the entire M&A sector in a Trump-led U.S. administration.
It is highly subjective to speculate on the stock’s reaction to whatever decision is being taken but given Time Warner’s booming business and vertical integration opportunities I am certainly rooting for the DoJ to approve this deal. Everything else, not only for AT&T but in general for the M&A landscape, should be rather detrimental. AT&T is not building a monopoly here but simply complementing its very own chain of distribution with very useful content.
Speaking in terms of Time Warner, the company is really rocking. Revenues are up 9% in the fourth quarter and EPS came in at $1.60. That strong revenue growth was driven by all segments with Turner up by 22%, HBO up by 13.3% and Warner Bros. growing 10.8%. This has been of the strongest quarters for Time Warner and bodes extremely well for AT&T should the acquisition get approved.
In fact, despite the seemingly high acquisition price of $85B, Time Warner could be worth much more given that despite that impressive growth it is only valued at 14 times sales. On top of that Time Warner also generated strong FCF of $4.4B.
It will probably be painful to watch the court’s decision and investor’s reaction to the verdict but it should help the stock thereafter, possibly after some sort of algo-driven panic sell-off, as uncertainty decreases and the focus returning to fundamentals.
Speaking of fundamentals the first quarter of 2018 was a big disappointment with revenue missing by a whopping $1.27B. Following the completion of the costly DirecTV deal AT&T has grown its top line by more than $30B over the last 8 years but organically growth has been virtually flat. In terms of profitability AT&T has been able to post the obligatory $0.01 to $0.03 EPS increases which helped raise its dividend by $0.04 per share. However, cord-cutting has been a major issue for the company. Its customer base is growing strongly every quarter but so far this growth has come at the expense of cannibalizing customers with a higher customer lifetime value. In Q1 187,000 in the higher-margin linear video business were lost whereas AT&T added 312,000 in the OTT video segment yet overall its margin still declined by roughly 1pp Y/Y or around $1B in sales.
You don’t have to be an expert to recognize this setup is losing money right now but whether it is still a “LOSE” or rather a “WIN” over the long-term is a completely different question. In an earlier earnings call from last year management stated the following on that:
Our wireless customers are really valuable in the extension of their life through the lowering of their churn, and the ability to get entire families or entire groups of phones is really important to us. And so we strongly believe that that is value-accretive to the total operations of the total organization, and we monitor it on a very regular basis.
Source: AT&T Earnings Call Transcript – Q3/2017
What could be even more value-accretive is how millions and millions of connected cars may lead to higher sales.
So we have millions and millions of connected cars out there, over 10 million connected cars out there. So we built this platform, and those are down in our Internet of Things in our connected device category.
But now what we’re finding is that 65% of the people who drive cars aren’t our wireless customers, so we’re finding a real opportunity to connect tens of thousands of those, almost 100,000 this quarter, with a prepaid offering to the connected car. And when they do that, they will pay us. It’s not a $4 or $5, it’s a $15 or $20 connection. And so it not only gives us a really great revenue opportunity and high margin, and that’s a lot better than a resale opportunity at a much lower, but it’s also an opportunity to show them what we can do and then potentially get the rest of their wireless business or get the rest of their video business.
Source: AT&T Earnings Call Transcript – Q3/2017
This is a tremendous opportunity that so far I believe has been more or less completely overlooked by the market which gets easily caught up on sequential and Y/Y comparisons. While that might be important for traders, for long-term investors, it is just noise to be ignored.
An Income Strategy Session
Now that the stock is trading at a 5.9% yield as of its close, long-term oriented investors should really welcome that opportunity to add to their position. In essence, if you are a long-term investor, this is exactly the kind of market reaction you would like to see. It allows you to lower your cost basis while the business is making the necessary transformation steps towards the future. The day-to-day noise with heavily followed stocks like AT&T is tough to ignore, and it may be one of the most difficult challenges to have the conviction to hold and add to your position in these times.
To help cope with these unrealized losses, investors should take a step back and concentrate on the bigger picture. Long-term investors know how powerful dividend reinvesting really is, but in the heat of the moment, it is only natural to temporarily blend this out. If we project the 5-year returns with reinvested dividends of an initial $5,000 investment in AT&T at $33.83, we end up with the following metrics:
- Initial investment: $5,000 @5.9% yield assuming 2% dividend growth, 15% tax rate, quarterly reinvestment, 0% stock price appreciation, purchases of partial shares
- Investment value after 10 years: $12,243 or an almost 144% gain with the respective yearly net dividends depicted below, thereof $3,624 in net dividends and $3,619 worth of additional stock from reinvested dividends.
After 5 years the net YoC has already risen to above 6% and after 10 years it has almost reached 10%. This is a very conservative scenario as it does not factor in any stock price appreciation and only minimal dividend growth. In that scenario CAGR would only be 10.5% and is basically a worst-case scenario given that it is unlikely that T’s stock price will remain flat over the next 10 years. And even if it does it is a great way to accumulate reliable and substantial income for long-term oriented dividend investors.
Assuming the stock appreciates by 5% every year over the next ten years with all other parameters being unchanged we would end up with the following metrics:
- Investment value after 10 years: $15,899 or an almost 218% gain with the respective yearly net dividends depicted below. The total returns breaks down into $3,457 in net dividends received, $4,298 worth of additional stock from reinvested dividends and $3,145 worth of stock appreciation on initial investment. Naturally, as the stock prices rises the yield declines and as such quarterly reinvestment of dividends yields lower net YoC compared to the upper scenario. However, capital appreciation vastly overcompensates this effect.
If you want to easily run these calculations on your own, I’d be happy if you try out this Excel-based long-term dividend projection calculator.
I am still bullish on the stock but as mentioned in a previous article have become a little bit more cautious as well as both the outcome of the Time Warner trial and AT&T’s ambitious 2018 FCF guidance have potential to further weaken the stock.
Still, over the long-run, as the two calculations above show, the prospects are very promising provided investors remain patient and not get overly obsessed about short-term fluctuations. You will probably not get rich with AT&T anymore but you can build up a growing stream of reliable and substantial income over time. Starting with an almost 6% yield appears to be a good opportunity to start and continue this journey.
For investors having been invested into the stock in the mid-to-high 30s patience is required even more but first one has to make up one’s mind as to what one expects from this investment. If you are expecting market-like or even market-beating returns in this environment you should definitely look elsewhere. If you treat the stock as one pillar of your portfolio targeted to generate reliable income this is the highest-yielding Blue Chip stock in America and based on market cap alone probably also around the world.
The 6% yield window of opportunity could close any time and if it does you may have to wait a very long time to get that opportunity again.
What do you think about AT&T and its prospects? Are you investing more on recent price weakness, holding your position or selling out and moving on to other investments?
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Disclosure: I am/we are long T, TWX.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.