It's easy to look at a Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR ) chart since last week's fourth-quarter earnings report and conclude that the high-speed wireless operator is on track to a full recovery. After all, its shares jumped more than 10% on the announcement.
Then again, the jump erased all of 48 hours' worth of price declines, and the stock still finished down by 4.2% for the week. After a steep drop today, the stock once again trades at pre-earnings levels. Moreover, Friday's spike wasn't based on terrific financial results but on optimistic management comments, which may or may not come true when all is said and done. In the end, I can't blame the enormous cadre of Clearwire short-sellers for their bearish view of the stock.
The tale of the tape is rather grim: Revenue more than doubled to $181 million, but analysts wanted at least $196 million. Non-GAAP losses per share widened by 47% to $0.81 -- far worse than the $0.53 consensus.
The good news consisted of raucous subscriber growth and a rosy outlook on 2011. Specifically, management expects that a reworked wholesale agreement with joined-at-the-hip partner Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) is "imminent" and should improve Clearwire's revenue per customer to a "substantial" degree. Assuming that these issues work out the way Clearwire wants them to, management sees the company becoming profitable in EBIDTA terms in 2012.
To put that plan into perspective, consider that Clearwire's adjusted EBITDA was a negative $497 million this quarter on $181 million in sales – that compares with an adjusted EBITDA loss of $295.7 million in last year's fourth quarter. The Sprint talks have to end up in an absolutely mind-blowing Clearwire win in order to produce that kind of drastic turnaround.
Meanwhile, the company burned $1.2 billion of operating cash last year, before you even look at the $2.7 billion it spent on capital improvements. Clearwire is selling its long-term investments and taking on new debt to finance it all -- and remains in dire need of either stronger operations or fresh cash (and ideally a bit of both).
Clearwire made a big bet on WiMax technology early on, but it's becoming increasingly clear that LTE will be the hands-down winner. The company is hedging its bets by running LTE tests on its networks and talking hardware makers into producing chips that work with both standards.
Clearwire may survive into the era of widespread 4G networking and beyond, but it'll be a close call. AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) saved themselves a heap of headaches when they decided on LTE support years ago. Clearwire and Sprint had a shot at turning their early 4G readiness into a competitive advantage, but the competition is catching up fast and the window of WiMax opportunity is closing.
Like any other turnaround bet, Clearwire could make you drastically rich when you buy in at today's pessimism-tinged prices. On the other hand, the risks are high, and you could end up losing it all. Me, I'm not touching Clearwire's stock with a 10-foot pole.
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