Prognosis "Negative" for AT&T Spending, Says Fitch

Another credit ratings agency has laid down judgment on AT&T's (NYSE: T  ) increased outpouring of money.

Last week it was Moody's (NYSE: MCO  ) that announced it was placing "AT&T's ratings on review for downgrade." Moody's cited its concern that the No. 2 mobile operator's recently announced $22 billion capital maintenance and expenditure plan and the repurchasing of its shares would throw AT&T's debt-to-EBITDA ratio well past its downgrade benchmark.

Now its Fitch Ratings is going beyond Moody's "review" by announcing its downgrade of AT&T. Fitch has given AT&T a "Negative Outlook," which "reflects Fitch's expectation that AT&T's net leverage is likely to move up to a recently disclosed 1.8x upper boundary for leverage, which represents a notable increase from the 1.47x at the end of the third quarter of 2012 on a last 12 month basis."

Not all is negative
However, like Moody''s, Fitch sees AT&T's expenditures on improving its 4G LTE network as money well spent, helping it keep up with main rival Verizon's (NYSE: VZ  ) ever-expanding LTE network, and keeping it ahead of the newly strengthened Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) .

"Fitch believes increased capital spending will strengthen the company's competitive position and is a positive rating factor," Fitch wrote in its ratings explanation.

Fitch's problem with AT&T is with what Moody's called the carrier's "continued aggressive share repurchase," program.

"AT&T's continuation of stock repurchases, necessitating some borrowing as repurchases will be above free cash flow levels," Fitch said.

A cause for concern for income investors is that dividends are paid out of net operating income, a key figure for computing free cash flow.

Even though Moody's hasn't yet gone so far as to actually downgrade AT&T, its computation of the company's debt/EBITDA is even more worrying than Fitch's observation.

Where Fitch sees that leverage ratio going up to 1.8 times, Moody's calculates that number zooming up to 2.5 times, well past Moody's 2.0 times downgrade threshold.

Standard & Poor's had a sunnier outlook. It said last week its rating and outlook for AT&T were not affected by the company's capital expenditure plans, even though that agency's calculations put AT&T's adjusted leverage at 2.8 times. It said that fit an "intermediate" risk profile. S&P did not address the AT&T stock repurchases.

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