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Diversified Communication Industry Reflects Bearish Trends

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The Zacks Diversified Communication Services industry comprises firms that provide a wide array of communication services, including wireless, wireline and Internet (broadband, dial-up and entertainment) to business enterprises and consumers. These companies offer mobile and wireline telephone services along with high-speed Internet, direct-to-home satellite television, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and other value-added services. In addition to providing integrated information and communications technology services to businesses and governments, some of these companies operate as local exchange carrier or full-service provider of data center colocation and related managed services in state-of-the-art data center facilities. Some industry participants also provide IP networks, private lines, network management and hosting services along with the sale, installation and maintenance of major branded IT and telephony equipment.

Here are the three major themes in the industry:

•    Video and other bandwidth-intensive applications have witnessed exponential growth owing to the wide proliferation of smartphones and increased deployment of the superfast 5G technology. This has forced the industry participants to invest considerably in LTE, broadband and fiber to provide additional capacity and ramp up the Internet and wireless networks. These companies are rapidly transforming themselves from legacy copper-based telecommunications firms to technology powerhouses with capabilities to meet the growing demand for flexible data, video, voice and IP solutions. At the same time, the industry participants continue to focus on leveraging wireline momentum, expanding media coverage, improving customer service and achieving a competitive cost structure to generate higher average revenue per user while attracting new customers.

•    Efforts to offset substantial capital expenditure for upgrading network infrastructure by raising fees have led to reduced demand, as customers tend to switch to lower-priced alternatives. Moreover, the local-line access for traditional telephony service continues to face a decline among large customers due to higher wireless substitution and migration to IP-based services. This is reflected in the persistent erosion in overall network access services on a year-over-year basis, hurting revenues of local and long-distance operations. With Digital Subscriber Line and cable modems gaining widespread acceptance, customers are deactivating extra phone lines that were earlier used to access the Internet via dial-up modem. In addition, a shift toward wireless services and the aggressive rollout of VoIP and long-distance services by Tier-1 competitors have contributed to access line erosion. These have become all the more pronounced as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spook financial markets in one of the worst declines in the recent past, hurting economic growth and triggering large-scale unemployment.

•    In order to improve profitability, the companies are increasingly focusing on providing support services to various small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs) with an integrated portfolio of voice, data and technology services. The firms are tailoring their services to suit the individual business needs and are facilitating SMBs to better adapt themselves to necessary technology advancements. At the same time, the industry is battling hard to mitigate operating risks, stemming from volatility in demand and unpredictable business environment led by the virus outbreak, by offering free services to low-income families and seamless wireless connectivity to the masses.

Overall, the industry appears to be mired in short-term headwinds, uncertainty with significant capital expenditures and price wars amid the coronavirus-led pandemonium.

Zacks Industry Rank Indicates Grim Prospects

The Zacks Diversified Communication Services industry is housed within the broader Zacks Utilities sector. It carries a Zacks Industry Rank #216, which places it at the bottom 15% of more than 250 Zacks industries.

The group’s Zacks Industry Rank, which is basically the average of the Zacks Rank of all the member stocks, indicates bleak near-term prospects. Our research shows that the top 50% of the Zacks-ranked industries outperforms the bottom 50% by a factor of more than 2 to 1.

The industry’s positioning in the bottom 50% of the Zacks-ranked industries is a result of a negative earnings outlook for the constituent companies in aggregate. Looking at the aggregate earnings estimate revisions, it appears that analysts are losing confidence in this group’s earnings growth potential. In the past year, the industry’s earnings estimates for the current fiscal and the next fiscal have declined 22.4% and 27.8%, respectively.

Before we present a few diversified communication stocks that are well positioned to outperform the market based on a relatively modest earnings outlook, let’s take a look at the industry’s recent stock market performance and valuation picture.

Industry Lags Sector & S&P 500

The Zacks Diversified Communication Services industry has lagged the broader Zacks Utilities sector and the S&P 500 Index over the past year.

The industry has declined 45.1% over this period compared with the S&P 500’s and the sector’s fall of 8.9% and 20.6%, respectively.

One Year Price Performance

Industry’s Current Valuation

On the basis of trailing 12-month enterprise value-to EBITDA (EV/EBITDA) ratio, which is the most appropriate multiple for valuing telecom stocks, the industry is currently trading at 11.35X compared to the S&P 500’s 9.72X. It is trading below the sector’s trailing-12-month EV/EBITDA of 16.82X.

Over the past five years, the industry has traded as high as 14.34X, as low as 6.88X and at the median of 11.02X, as the chart below shows.

Trailing 12-Month Enterprise Value-to EBITDA (EV/EBITDA) Ratio

Bottom Line

The industry should gradually recover once the market stabilizes with a likely antidote for the virus and the effect of the capital investments percolates. However, it is likely to face operational headwinds in the near term.

None of the stocks in the space currently sports a Zacks Rank #1 (Strong Buy). You can see the complete list of today’s Zacks #1 Rank stocks here.

We are presenting a Zacks Rank #2 (Buy) stock that appears to be a solid investment proposition.

Swisscom AG SCMWY: Based in Switzerland, this diversified communication services provider has gained 9.3% in the past year. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for current fiscal-year earnings has increased 7% since July-end 2019.
Price and Consensus: SCMWY

We are also presenting three stocks with a Zacks Rank #3 (Hold) that investors may currently hold on to.

Cincinnati Bell Inc. CBB: Based in Cincinnati, OH, this diversified communication services provider has gained 52% in the past year. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for current fiscal-year earnings has remained steady over the past 90 days despite intense market volatility.

Price and Consensus: CBB

Telenor ASA (TELNY - Free Report) : Based in Norway, this diversified communication services provider has a long-term earnings growth expectation of 32.6%. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for next fiscal-year earnings has increased 11.4% over the past 60 days.

Price and Consensus: TELNY

Vivendi SA (VIVHY - Free Report) : Headquartered in Paris, France, this diversified communication services provider has a long-term earnings growth expectation of 9.6%. The Zacks Consensus Estimate for next fiscal-year earnings has increased 2.6% over the past year.

Price and Consensus: VIVHY

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