Six months ago, I threatened to switch to AT&T if Verizon did not offer me lower rates. The customer service representative politely told me to kick rocks. When the customer service representative would not budge, I pulled the manager card. When the manager didn’t budge I resigned myself to expensive cell phone bills and hung up. I should have invested immediately. That is serious pricing power.
I am adding a position in Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ). There has been a lot of publicity about Berkshire Hathaway’s recent stake. I am honestly a bit ashamed to drag along after Buffett and Paulson. I was confident that I could find a better investment in the space, and Bezeq came pretty close. Ultimately, my telecom investment was about safety. VZ’s numbers are fantastic and reassuringly consistent. Cell phones today are as necessary to the average Joe as water or electricity. This is essentially a utility stock, which pays a dividend of 4.26% currently, and which consistently generates a high free cash flow yield of over 7%. VZ’s gross margin hovers around 50%, with an operating margin that stays in the high teens. The current Price/Free Cash Flow multiple is 8.02, well below it’s main rival AT&T, which is trading at a P/FCF of 14.55.
By altering its capital structure, Verizon takes on more debt at historically low rates, and sheds itself of a significant drain to dividends. Assuming that Verizon can continue to generate strong Operating Cash Flow, this act should increase Free Cash Flow Return on Invested Capital from a historical range of 8-11% to over 15%! If Verizon stays true to its history shareholders will see dividend hikes in the future. This is a classic value investor play.
I also looked hard at Vodafone (NASDAQ:VOD), but opted for the proven track record at Verizon. I think VOD has fantastic potential in the emerging markets, but I am worried about regulation in Europe. VOD also has a spottier track record of returning cash to shareholders. Lately, management has been quite generous with dividends, but I wonder if they can keep it up. I may invest in VOD in the future, but prefer to keep my options open for now. Price/Free Cash Flow appears low at 5.26, but whether management will invest or distribute cash wisely is another question altogether. Historically management hasn’t used free cash flow effectively.
My other prospect was Bezeq, the Israeli Telecommunications Company (TLV:BEZQ). The firm has declining sales volume in a fleshed out market. On the positive side, they pay a very attractive 7.9 % dividend after foreign residence tax, with a payout ratio of 100%. Bezeq appears to have a headlock on the local communications market (cable, internet, and cell phones) despite government-mandated market reforms. P/FCF here is also attractive at 6.55. What scares me away from Bezeq is the possibility of currency fluctuations. The whole point of a Telecom investment to me was to find a safe place to park some cash. VOD could work because of its international diversification. Verizon works because I live in the U.S.
It also helps that Verizon and AT&T represent a duopoly. Some investors have been skittish to invest because of the debt load. I would ask them to try going a day without their cell phone. Better yet, try to negotiate a discount.