It used to be that smaller telecoms companies were expected to outwit their huge competitors like BT Group (LSE: BT-A) (NYSE: BT.US). But over the past 12 months the opposite has been happening, at least in terms of share prices.
Look at formergrowth darling Telecom Plus (LSE: TEP) for example. In the four years to the end of January 2014 the shares soared by 530%, but in the past 12 months the price has crashed back by 40% to a 52-week low today of 1,122p.
At KCOM Group (LSE: KCOM) we saw a more modest rise in the same four years to last January, but still an impressive 83%, while the FTSE managed only 30%. But again, over the past 12 months things have turned bad with the shares down 21% to a low of 78.5p. Whats gone wrong?
Beware the growth story
At Telecom Plus I think the answer is actually not much at all. In fact, we have have an expected rise in earnings per share (EPS) of 27% for the year to March 2015, after a couple of years of accelerating earnings growth. After that, however, EPS growth forecasts drop to 18% for 2016 followed by 15% for 2017.
Those are still very impressive forecasts, but once growth starts to slow at a new growth company, the share price usually suffers a fall. In this case, 2014s results left the shares on a pretty stretching P/E of 35, but thats down to around 18 now, dropping to 13 by 2017. With dividend yields above 4% and rising, Telecom Plus looks good, but theres a lesson for growth investors here.
How about KCOM? Well, declining revenues perhaps make it look like the Hull-based operator is not going to overtake BT after all, and with stagnant EPS KCOMs shareholders must be fearing a dividend cut. There are forecast yields of 6.4%, 7% and 7.3% for this year and the next two, but declining earnings would take cover down as low as 1.2 times by 2017.
Telecoms companies need to retain cash to reinvest, and KCOM doesnt look capable of doing that right now.
The real secret to telecoms success comes from exploiting the blurring distinction between service and content, and its the big guns like BT who have the financial clout to get seriously into the content pie. KCOM, for example, just wouldnt have been in the running to secure Premier League football and launch its own channels to show it.
Bigger is better
And it wouldnt have the means to bid for EE and get a serious foothold in the mobile phone market either.
No, when it comes to telecoms these days, bigger usually is better. And with modest but hopefully sustainable growth and P/E multiples of around 13, BT looks the best of the bunch to me.
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