The thing about dividend investing is that there is no fix rule used to evaluate all dividend stocks. At the end of the day, dividend stocks are still stocks and they are affected by the same rules as all other stocks.
Having more time during this year end break, i thought of checking out some stocks that enables me to hold 30-40% of my portfolio for longer term (compare to my trading portion). The criteria is that
- I should not have more than 4-5 stocks so that following up with them doesn’t take up all my days and weekends (i still have a day job. I don’t want so much distractions)
- The stocks should provide a reasonable yield given the low-moderate risk taken to provide steady returns for the portfolio
- The stocks should hold up to shocks better than the majority of the stocks. Meaning they should fare better in a recessionary environment
To me Telecom stocks listed on the SGX provided just that. Singapore wants to attract foreign investments and wants to be the numero uno in terms of Financial,Business and higher value industry. For that to happen they know that communications and a good IT infrastructure is a must.
The 3 telecoms stocks in Singapore:Singtel, Mobile One and Starhub have pushed the communiations in Singapore to new heights in the past 10 years and for Singapore to be a success tomorrow they will have important roles to play as well.
The 3 telecoms stocks for the past few years have proven to be able to sustain their operations, profits and dividends even through the present economic crisis thus proving their business model is sound enough to weather this kind of storm. Their stock price although have fallen as the general markets do have been less than the average and presented a good opportunity to pick up for good future yields.
However, looking into the future, the industry and landscape will prove challenging as well as present opportunities for each of them as well.
- I will first give a comparison between the 3 telcos
- Then follow by a look at the economics of these telecom stocks
- Lastly, some tidbits on what the future might hold for investors or would be investors of these telecom stocks.
Comparing Singapore Telecom Stocks
I took the opportunity to delve abit into the figures of the 3 telcos Singtel,Starhub and M1. The basis of comparison is similar to the metrics that i use for my Dividend Stock Tracker (Follow my Dividend Stock Tracker updated nightly here)
It will also be a good opportunity for me to explain some of the metrics that i use to compare dividend stocks.
But first here are the historical data for the 3 telcos that i have compiled. The prices are taken on 1st of June for each of the years.
Singtel have the most data dating back to 2000 so effectively have 10 years worth of data.
- Singtel Data (Click to view large)
Mobile 1 (M1) IPO in end 2002 so we have 6 years of data.
- M1 Data (click to view large)
Lastly Starhub ipo in end 2004 so we have 4 years worth of data.
- Starhub Data (click to view large)
I will be refering to these 3 datasheets as Singtel Data, Starhub data and M1 Data in the rest of my article.
Singtel -an example of a telecom focusing on growth through acquisition
The largest cap stock on the Singapore Exchange is also the larges telecom in South East Asia. Judging by the graph above i have a feeling had they not pursue an expansionary strategy in 2001, they would be in the same position as Starhub or M1.
Instead a string of telco acquisition have enable the revenue to climb steadily (Purple Line). Net Income have almost doubled as well(light blue line)
By financial statements, you would be able to observe that the 2 bear markets (2000-2003 & 2007-2009) does cause the Net Income to fall, but Singtel are still profitable. This is a defensive characteristic of telecom stocks such that the above mentioned points have enabled a telco to keep its customer base and enable its cashflow to be somehow intact.
The red line shows how they were able to go about their acquistion by funding it with large debt borrowing. Without these debts, it would be difficult for them to acquire so many telcos based on their existing free cashflow.
The management seems sound in their planning in that they did not let debt remain at a high level but have steadily paid down the debt with the improvement in cashflow (EBITDA) generated.
In my opinion your EBITDA can be of a few major use for telcos
- Pay down debt or buy back shares. Either way it is a form of reducing debt and improving the ROIC or ROE.
- Investments in capital goods to grow the company (Capex)
- Maintain current assets (Capex)
- Pay out as dividends
You will be able to observe that since the debt is decreasing, the dividend paid out have remain a low level or have even gone down. Maintainenace of current assets is a necessary expense so it gives a good idea that most of the time a telco’s cashflow is used either to pay down debt or pay out as dividends.
Starhub – closest challenger to Singtel’s Singapore Turf yet
In contrast M1 and Starhub is small by the size of their market cap compare to Singtel. However, Starhub have provided Singaporeans with a viable alternative in terms of the full package (mobile, cable tv, home and mobile broadband)
Note the 3 lines of Revenue, EBITDA and Net Income. I usually like to use EBITDA as a form of comparison for yield stocks because it reflects the actual cashflow a company have to expand and maintain current operation. Net Income is more of an accounting methodology to accrue earnings that are consume or created in this current work year.
In dividend investing, it is important to validate what the company can actually use to pay as dividend or use as capital expenditure and Net Income does not give a good account of it since depreciation and amortization does not mean the company expense it in the real world but as an indicator that the assets of the telco will one day wear out and you need to replace it. In actual fact Starhub still has that depreciation as cash there so Starhub can actually use that portion to pay out as dividends or buy back stock or pay down debt.
A good dividend company should not pay out dividend more than its cashflow it can generate. A general rule of evaluation is that the dividend payout should not be more than EBITDA + cash holding. A look at the 3 telcos will show that their Div payout each year (Blue line) is substantially less than their EBITDA (Green line)
Another good measure here is the Orange line which is EBITDA – Capex – Div payout. A positive number will show that the telco is spending within its means. Capex and Dividend Payout are 2 of the largest actions of the company’s earn cashflow and a prolong spending above the cashflow will greatly exhuast the telco which is bad for the company.
In terms of this Starhub is performing better historically (although its the shortest historically) compare vs Singtel and M1. They can withstand one or 2 odd years of high dividend payout or captial expansion but its not good if a company like SPH regularly pays out higher than their cashflow. In general M1 and Singtel is ok in this aspect.
Mobile One – the smallest of them all but no the less well run
- Mobile One
M1 is the telco that is the most narrow (they depend mostly on their mobile voice and data plan) but for me the best in terms of balance sheet. However, focusing on status quo and not creating more blue ocean or competing well with its fierce rivals have made this company the most lackluster telco to own.
You would see that apart from the spike in dividend payment in 2006, everything else is status quo. its Long Term Debt is the lowest out of the 3 of them and despite what was perceived as high churning EBITDA and Net Income have remain relatively steadfast. However, we do see a decline in these areas and should they still not do anything constructive, they are going to see people leave their customer base.
It is going to be much worse with the new rules on number portability and punitive charges. It will make churning more rampant and my guess is more will go to Starhub or Singtel then come over to M1.
Comparing Ratios & Percentages
The figures below show the financial ratios for Singtel, Starhub and M1 respectively
ROIC – Thats Return on Investment Capital. Most reports use ROE which is return on equity or how much $1 of equity of the shareholders will they earn. I prefer to use capital because to me equity and debt are all financing. For a dividend stock, the shareholders look to you every year for dividends , although equity is better than debt in the sense that you can choose not to give them (they just will fark you up in the share price department), but interest payments are mandatory that is if you are unable to give and they will try to liquidate your entire company.
ROIC measures how much $1 of your combine long term debt + equity can earn. In the case of Singtel in 2009 (20%), $1 of invested capital will earn them $0.20 cents. In most cases ROIC tends to be stricter and lower than ROE as when debt is factor in the figures are much lower.
The formula i use here or in my dividend stock tracker are the same
ROIC = EBITDA/ (Total Asset – Cash – Current Liabilities)
I tend to use EBITDA as it is a better indicator of the ability for a company to pay out cashflow.
A 20% ROIC for Singtel looks good really but you sense they have fallen off quite a fair bit before their purchase of Optus and other telcos. ROIC fell from the 40% – 50% region to the lows of below 30%. This might indicate that those purchase are bad from the investment point of view but could also mean that for the 2 years in 2000 and 2001, Singtel was really debt free, thus their ROIC is higher. I would have to go for a combination of both factors but a constant ROIC seems to show that having an increasing sales does not normally translate to better value for the shareholders and debtors.
In contrast, M1 and Starhub have marked higher ROIC in the region of 40% – 50%. Some years they have even reached 80%. So from a ROIC point of view you would think that these 2 smaller players are nimble and does better than the big goliath.
ROIC can be distorted as well. And in this case, note that by that formula M1 and Starhub have substantially higher Current Liabilities. Nothing wrong with that but its the way they chose their financing and i would suppose shorter term financing have lower interest rates as well.
Thus their ROIC is much better than Singtel.
Longterm debt to Asset – is the ratio of long term debt to total asset. This will give an indication of the way the company finance its growth and operation.
The balance between equity and debt is a fine line to a company as the cost of financing differs. For debt you pay a fixed interest while equity you pay in dividends and appreciation of shares. The safe option is always to go with more equity as it gives you the flexibility to give or give less.
But which debt financing is also influence by the economic conditions (interest rates, inflation).
Singtel have a relatively conservative debt structure. Since the initial borrowing for acquisition, they have been steadily paying off debt and buying back shares for a low longterm debt to asset ratio.
Starhub on the other hand is the one that choose a unique debt financing structure. Their ratio of Current Liability to Long Term debt to Equity stands at 8 to 9 to 1.
Which means they are basically funded fully by debt. This is a bloody red flag to alot of people.
I would say, for a telecom, on your equity you need to pay 8% dividend yield, your current liability you should pay much less than that. The question is, will your debt come up to 8%? I have a feeling it won’t.
In a sense, they might be choosing the best possible financing structure, but if the terms of their debt is bad then it could go very wrong for them. If they are unable to refinance the debt they would have to start converting those debt to equity.
But think of them like Manchester United. If they dun bring in the cashflow , they can be quite screwed.
M1 seem to have the most standard financing: 1 to 1 to 1 for Current Liabilities to Long term debt to equity. In fact, they seem to like to keep their long term debt constant at 250 mil. I got a feeling they can pay less div for 2 years and less capex as well and finish paying this 250 mil. but don’t think they will do that.
Payout % of EBITDA and Capex % of EBITDA – Generally EBITDA normally flows to Cash horde within the company, capital expenditure to maintain or grow or pay out as dividend.
Telecoms tend to keep little cash since they generate so much cashflow each year due to the above mentioned industry advantages. But they do need to maintain alot of infrastructure and could cost substantial amount of money.
A good dividend yielder should not have their CAPEX and Div Payout more than the EBITDA or cashflow generated. Should it be more, it would mean they need to borrow debt to pay dividends to shareholders, which is abit irrational(borrowing to finance growth is another story.)
All 3 telcos have managed to keep to this principle. When Capex is high their payout is usually lower.
The dividend payout ratio is on the average around 40% – 50% of cashflow. It would be best if the payout ratio is less than 50% so that they can use the rest of the money to pay of debt or fund expansion.
From the figures you would see that they are all spending more on capex, due to
- competition with each other (more marketing and r&d)
- higher maintenance and repair cost
- the need to increase more cell stations, back haul etc
– I see this is a worrying trend for all 3 telcos as the mobile number portablility, mobile internet competition and lower punitive penalty for break in contract will increase their need to spend more to stop churning.
– The future of the 3 telcos will be a battle on mobile advertising, mobile content, mobile advertisement and not just that the biggest problem is that as more of these services becomes adopted by consumers on the go, these telcos will require to set up more cell station backhual to deliver more bandwidth to the users. This will drive up capex and thus it is likely dividend payout will be lower, unless they can match that with higher flat-tier contract plans
Profit Margin – This is net income dividend by revenue earn. Profit Margin is a measure of how much cost is a factor in the industry and to the company as a whole.
The margins for M1 and Singtel are higher at 22% or higher and Star hub is at 14%. In terms of profit margin we will think M1 and Singtel is better.
Dividend Yield – the measure of a dividend stock. the payout at the end of the day.
In terms of dividend yield, Starhub has the highest payout follow by M1 and lastly Singtel.
You would argue that Singtel is the growth one. Dividend is low but dividend payout will increase.I think otherwise. You will need its share price and dividend payout to increase substantially to match the 9% and 7% for Starhub and M1. For the past 10 years the share price have been moving in a range which they seem to find it hard to break out of.
For now in terms of risk vs reward, yielders like Starhub and M1 looks a better bet based on yield alone.
The Economics of Telecom Stocks
Predictable Cashflow or Revenue
Some time ago telecoms used to provide only land lines and back then telecoms like Singapore’s Singtel and USA’s AT&T seems to be more of a utility, supplying people to make calls to friends,colleagues and family.
Then came mobile communication and this is where their model changes from a monthly rolling bill payment to a post paid tied in phone plan. In Singapore, the typically tie in period is 2 years. At the same time these telecoms also start supplying consumers with broadband internet access. The typical contract tie in period is 2 years. Currently we are seeing that mobile data plan component gets build into a normal mobile voice plan. Sold Separately, the tie in period is also 2 years. A combined plan’s tie in is also the same duration.
So what this means is that for that 2 years you are tied to this telco and they got a visible monthly cashflow from you. If you break the contract you will pay a penalty.
Take the number of subscribers to various services ranging from:
- Mobile Voice
- Mobile Data
- Mobile Voice + Data
- Home Broadband
- Cable Television
- Corporate Packages
And you have a very predictable revenue stream.
Price Fluctuation Less Volatile
Telecom Companies can be considered as utilities and telcos like other utilities are less volatile because of their predictable nature and limited growth prospects.
Do note that alot of people equate less volatile with SAFE and DEFENSIVE, which is often not the case. It means its not gonna make you panic if you are the risk adverse sort but market risks (factors that affect the world market as a whole) will still lower the price of telecom stocks substantially.
[/caption]The above price chart is that of Mobile one, the smallest player in Singapore. Notice the line near Oct 2007 where the financial crisis started to show up in world markets. For the next 1 year, the stock have held steady.
But low volatility does not mean safe, as shortly in 2008 it went on a 30% plunge in 2 months but recovered for the next 2 months. since then, price have reached a level just below the fall.
The last chart is that of Starhub. Same old story, only in 2008 did it follow the general market. But even then like the other 2 telecom stocks, the plunge in jul 2008 was only 38% from peak to through.
The conclusion is that you have more chances to add in as it is normally range bound. However, it is not your safe stocks that won’t go down in a recession or deflation scenario.
High Barriers to Entry
The economics that enables a telecom company to earn a good profit most of the time is the high barriers to entry into the arena
High Fixed Cost and Sunk Costs
So what are fixed costs and sunk costs? fixed costs are the costs that need to be outlayed irregardless of how much phone plans or mobile broadband plan a telecoms sells. By this it will be the infrastructure cost of laying the data cables, sub-sea cables, bidding for operating licences. These are capital intensive and have to be deployed early even before the first plan was sold.
It is such high investments that makes the dominant players to be the major telcos in the country simply because they have the existing infrastructure and they benefit from an economy of scope.
Then there is sunk cost which could constitute part of fixed cost but not really define that way. Simply put, they are costs that are irrecoverable whether the telcos sell or not sell the service. Their data cables and sub-sea cables are invested prior to the first plans are sold, so if they are unable to meet that adequate amount of subscribers for their service they will not be able to recover this cost.
Singapore’s Starhub spent the first few years having its balance sheet filled with debt (still is!) and showing more losses than profits as you need a number of years before you can recover that initial cost of investment.
Such highly risky strategic moves can only take place if you know that you can garnered that substantial subscribers to continuously earn from them ( hence the reason why they tie you in for 2 years most of the time!) and our next point.
In most parts of the world, the government will have an incentive to ensure that in their local telecommunications scene you don’t get a social problem of not providing adequate communications. That is why the number of telecommunication licences are controlled by the government or a regulatory board. It means that they determine what
- is the size of the market
- how many telcos they want for this certain telecommunication services to be able to survive (market demand)
- be competitive (competition improves the service level and the product range)
Government have an interest in the success of telecoms they need to
- provide minimum forms of communication
- promote innovation in communication as a well connected country, town or state encourages foreign capital investment and improves the country or state
New players will find it difficult to wrestle market share from entrenched incumbents. Even if they are able to, chances are, the incumbents will benefit indirectly through strategic tie ups.
Take the example of Mobile One in Singapore where they mostly operate as a mobile provider and do not offer internet broadband and cable tv. When they want to add internet broadband to their product mix so that their package looks overall attractive, they need to have the infrastructure to deliver that to the customers. They can either build the infra themselves or lease and leverage on other telcos. They chose the latter thus Starhub who layed the original pipe-ping benefit from it.
However policies do change and it will have adverse effect on each or all telcos. Take the case of the recent announcement by IDA that the longest tie in plan cannot exceed 24 months and to cut punitive charges related to breaking handphone contracts.(Read Cut Punitive Charges)
Customer Acquisition Costs
Given a localised working environment, a non-incumbent will have its hands full to kick start its business. If there are untapped customer base then it would need to offer an alternative to the incumbent so as to tap this untapped pool of potential customers.
However, If the market is pretty much saturated, then the customer acquisition cost will need to be much higher. Take the case where a non-incumbent wants to come in and compete with Starhub,Singtel and M1 in Singapore. They will need to effectively provide a good alternative mobile phone or mobile data plan that matches the current service level of the 3 existing telcos yet cheaper.
Either they do that or they will need to reduce switching costs. Switching costs are the intangible cost to the consumers that stops an existing customer of say Singtel, to switch to Starhub.As a consumer it is difficult to calculate these and this is where the telcos fight it out to encourage customers of competitors to churn. These costs could include:
- Punitive charges a consumer need to pay should they break their 2 year contract
- Non Portable Phone numbers. They will need to inform all their friends, acquiantence of this and it is hassle cost to them
In recent moves, IDA have tried to make the telco scene in Singapore more competitive, thus they make the telcos port the mobile number from one telco to another for free and in my point above cut punitive charges.
To increase their sales or act as a switching deterrent some of the ideas that they can come up with are:
- Exclusive tie up with a popular phone (iPhone for Singtel)
- Provide complementary products for free if you sign up with them (Routers and Wireless Adapters if you sign up for a 2 year home broadband plan)
- Better structure or bundle their services to provide value for money deals to customers should they sign up more than 1 of the telcos services (Hub Station for Starhub)
All these would be excess cost to the telcos and for a new entrant this will add up to their existing huge outlay.
Growth for telecoms company tend to not match up to your typical manufacturing company. Typical telecom company generate substantial cashflow like IT companies do. However, they often find it limited to channel it to investments to proved a higher return on investment for their shareholders.
What they can do is to improve cross selling, or move on to be content providers as well to boost their profits. This is actually leveraging on their current scope in delivering mobile data and fixed line data services to deliver more, earn more revenue and at lower cost. Singtel is slowly taking this approach by marketing their Amped music service. Sources have indicated to me that Starhub is also tying up with various IT companies to see how they can offer content as well. This will value add their customer base, stops churning of customers as well.
Else they can go on an acquisition trail or take on more debts to grow their base overseas or locally by acquiring a rival. This would yield cost savings through economies of scale and deliver new services to markets that do not have this service yet value adding customers in other regions. A Good example of this is Singtel.
They could also acquire a media company to provide more strategic moves that will create a possible blue ocean, grab more customers that perviously will not sign up with them and provide a bulwark against competitors.
However, most telcos distribute majority of their cashflow sans their capital expenditure to their shareholders. If they cannot find a good means to deal with all these money they might as well let the shareholders decide what to do with the money themselves.
Acquisition moves sometimes can be detrimental and negatively affects the return on investment capital rather than benefit from it.
What the future holds for the 3 telcos
In Dec 2009, Morgan Stanley came up with their research on how the computing and communications world would evolved. This is as a follow up to their highly successful 1995 report talking about the coming internet revolution.
It comes in the form of a 660 slide pdf document
You can download the document from here
I will go through some key points and how it will relate to the local telco scene.
The monetization of mobile data customers
What is likely to take shape for the 3 telcos could be reference close to what is occuring in Japan. In fact, Japan have been far ahead of other countries in terms of mobile internet. in Japan, there have been a shift in terms of the revenues earn by the industry more to the content providers rather than the carriers.
We have started to see Singtel with their Amp Services and M1 World but i think with a shift from providing voice to data, the telcos will have to form their own network with content providers to provide the best package for their subscribers. this is an opportunity for the telcos to earn other revenue stream from Mobile Content, Mobile Advertising and Mobile Paid Service.
VOIP to greatly affect the telcos
With the shift from voice to more data, it becomes likely that calls by consumer to overseas and probably local will be through VOIP. This is a much cheaper and less hassle way for consumers to communicate with overseas friends and working parties.
On one hand you would say the opportunity for the telco will be that they will still need to use data plan to make uses of SKYPE and other VOIP services, but do note that you are already selling people a 12GB plan. the bandwidth require to carry out VOIP is almost 60% that of voice, so you will only use a fraction of that 12GB. The telcos will find it very hard to package it into their existing plans!
Who is going to be the most hardest hit? It would likely be M1, since they derive almost 127 mil of their 2008 rev from international calls which is 16% of their total revenue. The other 2 although will have international calls service but are likely to be less hit as the contribution to bottom line for them is of smaller percentage.
The default pricing scheme to be Tiered Pricing
This slide highlights the greatest problem for the telcos. As data usage becomes overwhelming the telcos will need to handle the stress on their network. They will be competiting with each other in terms of the quality of their network. As the previous slide,they will also need to price in that voice will not be in the picture but how much they gonna try to charge you for VOIP.
To alleviate the network, tiered data pricing will be necessary, basing on charging those taht use more to pay more to sustain the network.
This will be a great shift with the Singapore consumer, which is like going back to the utility days. I believe the nature of Singaporeans will reign in their spending and this might or might not be good or bad to the telcos as this would mean data bandwidth is controlled but if it goes down by too much then this would be very negative for the telcos.
Flat rate pricing like what the telcos have put out now is necessary for the user base to grow.
This will be the future challenge for the telcos as they will need to think about sustaining their network and charging the right way to be able to earn enough to upgrade the network and give dividends as well.
The problem of Massive Data increase to CAPEX
Here the article points out that in terms of where the bottle neck is related more to the backhaul(definition here) compare to the cell stations. Thus there needs to be adequate investments in this area. Most of the Singapore Telcos are in the process of shifting their network backhual to be able to handle 3G transmissions.
In fact M1 explicitly mentions that their network infra is upgrade with HSPA Evolution and LT in mind. Their upgrade is expected to be complete roughly during this time and would mean that probably the majority of the CAPEX have been spent to create buffer for future capabilities. This is a good sign for the investors.
these 2 slides shows a summary of the steps that a telco can take to better address the massive data growth problem.
Here, it is explained that upgrading to a technology that caters to Data demand would better reduce the cost of delivery. The cost of hardware equipment and technological improvements have also come down a fair bit.
As a summary, you would ask as of 23 Dec 2009 which telco i am leaning towards. I would say probably Starhub. The economics of the industry and a 9% yield looks really good. But i feel there are alot of challenges for the 3 telcos going forward.
People will pay for more Data over Voice. It will be difficult to keep the standard 2 year phone plan as $40 dollars. The cost of transmitting voice could reach a point where the telco will even give unlimited outgoing calls. this is due to the new infrastructure. SMS will look less attractive vs instant messaging or other form of substitute.
In that case, the 3 telcos knowing how jialat they are, would try to hold the standard plan at that price. This is game theory already. You will just need one discontent telco, or a new entrant (like Vodafone) to break this fixed price by offering a plan at 25 bucks. Then everyone will know how cheap and how over expensive the 3 telcos are selling their services. In that case the 3 telcos will be engaged in a price wall to reduce their price to 25 dollars. Notice that the market share stays the same or getting less, but the average rev gets reduce. This would likely cause operating cash flow to go down.
On the other side of the equation, the telcos will need to fight on the Quality of Service. Starhub outgoing CEO have stated this that the future telcos will compete on QOS in this maturing arena. So you will not want a service provider that keeps disconnecting when you enter an underground tunnel. To do that you will need to provide more Cell Station and Back Haul. Capex will go up.
Operating Cashflow down and Capex up means less dividends. So your 9% yield wil be under threat.
Now it will seem abit far fetch now but do note that its been complained that Singapore Telcos plan is very expensive when you rank it on the world rankings. This means they are earning alot more than their counterparts. Their EBITDA margin of 50% is outsanding vs others which is much lower. IDA could be coming down hard on them judging by recent actions.
Taking a leaf out of the artcile by Morgan Stanley i took a look at NTT Docomo’s financial statement and if they are leading us in this area you would see that this is actually happening to them.
Don’t rule out overseas ownership of telecom companies once IDA opens it up. They have been pretty much biting at the telcos in 2009 and might be more willing to do so
Of Debt to Equity, EV/EBITDA and Strong Cashflow
Alot have been made of Starhub’s high debt to equity ratio. Here in this article below, i make sense of it, justifying why it is a managable risk due to Starhub’s strong cashflow.