[Editor's note: This story was previously published in January 2019. It has been republished to reflect the current market sentiment for, what we believe, are long-tail investment ideas.]
With the trade war raging, investors can't be blamed for wanting to play some defense. Even when the markets are having one of their green days lately, volatility has been looming. As such, people are buying some more stable stocks, such as the phone companies.
Telecom stocks are known for their conservative nature. Even during bear markets and recessions, people tend to keep paying for their phones and internet connections. As such, telecom stocks are a solid place to take shelter during volatile market storms. The fact that most telecoms are dividend stocks, sometimes yielding excess of 5%, only adds to the appeal.
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With all that in mind, what telecom stocks are looking good as we head deeper into 2019?
Telecom Stocks To Buy Now: T-Mobile (TMUS)
Let's start off with the telecom stocks to buy in the United States. Unfortunately, Verizon (NYSE:VZ) has run up recently and is no longer a strong value at this price. Meanwhile, AT&T (NYSE:T) has bet the farm on content with the Time Warner deal and is not a good choice for risk-averse telecom investors.
That leaves us with T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) and Sprint (NYSE:S). For years now, there has been talk about how the two need to merge to stay competitive with AT&T and Verizon. It appears that the deal is finally coming to fruition now.
On Monday, FCC head Ajit Pai said that: "In light of the significant commitments made by T-Mobile and Sprint as well as the facts in the record to date, I believe that this transaction is in the public interest and intend to recommend to my colleagues that the FCC approve it." The deal is far from a sure thing. There is talk that the DOJ still has misgivings about the potential merger. But in general, the odds now appear to favor the government approving the long-discussed merger.
Both T-Mobile and Sprint have struggled to achieve the sort of profitability that the larger two telecom players have obtained. However, combining T-Mobile's nearly 60 million subscribers with Sprint's 40 million would take the company to 100 million, overtaking AT&T to become number two player in the country. T-Mobile believes it can achieve a whopping $6 billion in yearly cost synergies out of the deal, giving it plenty of funds for robust 5G deployment along with, hopefully, dividends and perhaps a share buyback.
TMUS stock looks expensive on a standalone basis now, but once it gets Sprint integrated, the company should be a huge profit generator.
Vancouver, Canada-based Telus (NYSE:TU) is a strong choice for yield-seeking telecom investors. The company pays a 4.5% dividend and is gaining market share in its home country. It's supported by solid organic business growth. Telus sported 9.2 million paying subscribers at the end of 2018. That's a gain of around 200,000 subs since the end of 2017 and an increase of half a million since 2016. Telus has benefited from some of the lowest customer churn in the North American telecom industry, keeping customer acquisition costs in line while growing the user base.
Telus stock has been off to a good start in 2019. Shares are up 13% year to date. But don't let the recent strength scare you off. Over the past five years, TU stock has consistently traded between $30 and $40, so the $37 share price is pretty muted. Why hasn't TU stock broken out to new highs yet?
For one thing, there has been tons of talk about the Canadian "housing bubble" popping. Home prices, particularly in Toronto and Vancouver, have surged in recent years. Government action to cool the market has led to a reversal in prices. This could lead to a recession. Canadian housing data in 2019 is looking particularly ugly so far.
Oil prices have been pretty spotty as well, and the Canadian government has taken some anti-oil measures that have led to job losses and economic slowdown in that key industry.
That said, telecom stocks hold up during recessions. People keep using their phones regardless. With that 4.5% dividend yield and selling at less than 12x forward earnings, TU stock is a buy on any weakness.
China Unicom (CHU)
It's no secret that the ongoing U.S.-China trade war has put a hex on Chinese stocks. While most of the focus has gone to beaten-down Chinese tech companies, that's not the only place where we can go bargain shopping.
For example, look at China Unicom (NYSE:CHU), a leading Chinese mobile carrier. CHU stock started the year at $10.50. It rallied to as far as $13.50 in March as U.S.-China relations were looking up. Now, however, the stock has slumped back to $10.50 as American investors don't want anything to do with Chinese shares.
That said, the company, as of its recent semi-annual results, is posting strong numbers despite concerns about the Chinese economy. Its service revenue grew by 8.3%, for example, which was more than double the pace of the industry overall. EBITDA and free cash flow both grew by 5%. For a telecom companies these are fine numbers indeed, especially in a so-so economy.
Prior to the trade war, China Unicom stock was trading around $14. Just a couple months ago, it almost reached that level again. From the current $10.50 share price, it's not hard to see a path to 25-30% gains later this year once the trade war is resolved.
There's also the possibility that China Unicom may pair up with China Telecom (NYSE:CHA) to combine the second and third largest players in the Chinese market. With the rollout of expensive nationwide 5G networks on the way, this would help the two smaller players stay competitive and save money to compete against behemoth China Mobile (NYSE:CHL). In any case, don't overlook the Chinese mobile carriers as a way to play a fast-growing telecom market with huge mobile data demand.
The trade war drama is a negative. Additionally, the FCC has already blocked China Mobile's bid to offer service in the U.S. on national security grounds, adding another question mark for the industry. Tension is high, but this won't drag on forever, and when it ends, CHU stock will make gains.
It was a rotten, no-good year for emerging markets in 2018. If anything, 2019 has gotten off to a worse start. China is dragging down emerging markets around the globe, and the strong U.S. dollar is another headwind. Europe's economy is struggling as well. Hence, Spain's Telefonica (NYSE:TEF) put in an underwhelming performance.
Telefonica derives 24% of its business from Spain, 14% from Germany and 13% from the U.K., with most of the rest coming from assorted countries in Latin America. These economies have largely been mediocre to bad in recent years.
However, with sustained underperformance comes opportunity. Economic activity tends to revert, and there have been some recent signs of life in various Telefonica markets, notably Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia. The company's operating income has quietly rebounded from just 3.5 billion Euros in 2015 to 5.5 billion in 2016 and 6.8 billion Euros in 2017 before a slight dip recently due to currency swings and restructuring charges.
TEF stock has slid a bit in 2019 thanks to the weakness in emerging markets. The current $8 share price is just 5% or so above 52-week lows. That's also way down from the $15 level where it generally traded between 2012 and 2015. Regardless, profitability has been picking up and the company is one of the most widely diversified telecoms out there. It wouldn't take much for TEF stock to catch a bid. Additionally, it has historically paid extremely generous dividends and currently offers a 5% yield.
Telecom Stocks To Buy Now: BT Group (BT)
For many American investors, BT Group (NYSE:BT) is overshadowed by the U.K's other telecom giant, Vodafone (NASDAQ:VOD). But don't sleep on BT. The $25 billion market cap BT Group has a rather impressive business of its own. And besides, Vodafone, with its recent dividend cut, has some problems at the moment.
Turning to BT, it has its mobile business, enterprise division, international subsidiaries and so on. But its crown jewel is Openreach, which controls the phone cables and telecom pipes across Britain. This gives it an effective monopoly over the so-called last mile of connectivity. The British government was considering making BT divest this most powerful asset, but so far, it appears the worst of the regulatory storm has passed.
Despite that, BT stock is down from more than $30 a share a few years ago to just $13 now. Much of this has been due to Brexit concerns. Businesses in particular have spent less in preparation for a potential slowdown in the British economy. BT's Italian subsidiary also was hit with an accounting scandal.
Regardless, the selling is way overdone, as the company remains strongly profitable and has maintained its greater than 6% dividend yield despite the share price decline. The stock fell another 10% on its recent earnings report, setting up a dip-buying opportunity. From the low $13's, where the stock currently trades, Goldman Sachs sees nearly 50% upside. That, plus the dividend, would be a nice return indeed.
At the time of this writing, Ian Bezek owned TEF, BT, and VOD stock. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.
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