Warren Buffett sold AT&T out of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio of high-yield dividend stocks during the first quarter of 2016.
Warren Buffett acquired his stake in AT&T during the third quarter of 2015 as a result of AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV.
Buffett had owned DirecTV prior to the acquisition (his first purchase was in 2011), so his shares converted into AT&T stock once the deal closed because the acquisition was a stock and cash transaction.
Despite AT&T’s high dividend yield near 5% and seemingly cheap price-to-earnings multiple (14.2), Warren Buffett apparently thought there were more attractive options to put his money to work.
Let’s take a closer look at the safety and growth potential of AT&T’s dividend as well as the company’s overall appeal as a potential investment opportunity for dividend investors.
Upon closing its $49 billion acquisition of DirecTV in 2015, AT&T expanded its reach to offer connectivity services (e.g. voice/data, pay-TV, broadband internet) to 355 million people and businesses in the U.S. and Mexico.
AT&T is the largest carrier in the world with approximately 128 million subscribers. No other telecom business has ever had as many subscribers across each service line as AT&T does now.
Business Solutions (49% of 2015 sales): AT&T provides mobile and IP networks and integrated solutions to 3.5 million businesses, including nearly all the Fortune 1000.
Entertainment Group (24%): AT&T provides video, internet, and voice communication services to U.S. customers. The company is the largest pay TV provider in the world. Most of DirecTV’s operations reside in this segment
Consumer Mobility (24%): AT&T provides consumers with nationwide wireless voice and data service, including internet, video, and home monitoring services.
International (3%): AT&T’s wireless operations in Mexico and DirecTV in Latin America. The company’s LTE network in Mexico will cover 75 million people by the end of 2016.
Most of AT&T’s markets are characterized by very high barriers to entry and are dominated by just a handful of companies, resulting in fairly predictable earnings.
Imagine trying to launch a competing wireless network. Not a single rational consumer would sign up for your wireless voice and data service if you couldn’t offer them nationwide coverage, which requires billions of dollars to be invested in spectrum and network infrastructure alone.
Over the last five years, AT&T has invested more than $140 billion to build and maintain one of the largest wireless, fiber, and IP networks in the world, and the company’s capital spending runs around 15% of service revenues.
AT&T spent over $20 billion on capital expenditures each of the last three fiscal years and invested nearly $18 billion for acquisitions of spectrum licenses last year to keep its leading wireless network performing.
New entrants lack the financial firepower to effectively compete with AT&T’s low cost structure, asset efficiency, and hard-to-replicate networks.
To make matters even more challenging for new competitors, most of AT&T’s markets are very mature. The number of total subscribers is simply not growing much.
In other words, it would be almost impossible for new entrants to accumulate the critical mass of subscribers needed to cover the huge cost of building out a cable, wireless, or satellite network.
In addition to covering network costs, AT&T’s scale allows it to invest heavily in marketing and maintain strong purchasing power for equipment and TV content. Smaller players and new entrants are once again at a disadvantage.
Barring a major change in technology, it seems very difficult to uproot AT&T. It’s much easier to maintain a large subscriber base in a mature market than it is to build a new base from scratch.
AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV in 2015 could strengthen its competitive advantages and marked a significant shift in strategy for the company. Prior to the deal, AT&T generated close to 75% of its income from wireless operations.
DirecTV made AT&T the largest pay-TV provider in the world and launched the company down a path focused on cost synergies and bundling services to drive earnings higher.
In a mature market such as pay-TV, it can make sense to acquire more subscribers and cut out costs.
AT&T expects $2.5 billion in annual synergies by the end of 2018 from the integration of DirecTV. Most of the synergies will come from negotiating lower video content costs (AT&T’s pay-TV base expanded from 6 million subscribers to more than 25 million with DirecTV), streamlining installation, and integrating customer support activities.
As the largest integrated communications company in the world, AT&T sees a number of opportunities to bundle its phone, TV, and broadband services.
Bundles can be more price-effective for consumers while also raising switching costs. AT&T has noted that approximately 15 million DirecTV customers currently do not use its wireless products, and more than 20 million of its wireless customers do not have DirecTV.
It remains to be seen if AT&T’s bundling strategy will be effective, but there is certainly some potential for market share gains over the coming years.
Outside of the U.S., AT&T recently acquired Nextel and Iusacell to go after the wireless market opportunity in Mexico. The company now provides coverage nearly across the entire country and expects to invest several billion dollars to continue developing its network in the country.
While the company’s International segment only accounted for 3% of total sales last year, AT&T believes its Mexican operations could eventually grow to be at least 25% of the size of its U.S. wireless business over the long term.
DirecTV’s exposure across Latin America provides additional opportunities for incremental growth in markets that are much less mature than the U.S., but these initiatives will take time to move the needle for a company as large as AT&T.
At the end of the day, AT&T seems to enjoy a strong economic moat due to its ability to provide customers with their video, data, and communication needs anytime, anywhere, and on any device. Few companies have the financial firepower and brand strength to effectively compete.
However, the telecom industry and consumer preferences are constantly evolving, making incremental earnings growth more challenging for the large incumbents.
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With the boom in smartphone demand hitting a plateau, Verizon and AT&T are both in search of new areas for growth outside of traditional wireless services.
The “internet of things” could bring new wireless data growth opportunities in areas such as smart cars and automated homes, but these categories are much smaller than the total revenue generated from smartphones today.
If growth in the wireless market remains weak, the battle for existing subscribers could intensify between carriers, pressuring the industry’s strong margins.
AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV was perhaps a move to lessen its dependence on the wireless market, but it also increased the company’s exposure to another area struggling for growth – pay-TV.
Perhaps the biggest long-term risk facing AT&T is the increasing pace of change in its saturated markets. The company took on substantial amounts of debt to acquire DirecTV, but it’s no new news that consumers are increasingly seeking out ways to avoid paying for TV. Netflix and Amazon Prime are two examples of streaming services that are enjoying strong demand.
AT&T is developing a set of DirecTV-branded streaming services that will launch near the end of 2016 in an effort to target cord-cutters.