Should I Invest in BT Group?

LONDON -- To me, capital growth and dividend income are equally important. Together, they provide the total return from any share investment, and, as you might expect, my aim is to invest in companies that can beat the total return delivered by the wider market.

To put that aim into perspective, the FTSE 100 has provided investors with a total return of about 3% per annum since January 2008.

Quality and value
If my investments are to outperform, I need to back companies that score well on several quality indicators and buy at prices that offer decent value.

So this series aims to identify appealing FTSE 100 investment opportunities, and today I'm looking at BT Group (LSE: BT-A  ) (NYSE: BT  ) , which is the U.K.'s leading fixed-line telecom company.

With the shares at 241 pence, BT's market cap is 18,974 million pounds. This table summarizes the firm's recent financial record:

 

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

Revenue (millions of pounds)

20,704

21,390

29,859

20,076

18,897

Net Cash From Operations (millions of pounds)

5,486

4,706

4,825

4,566

3,558

Adjusted EPS (pence)

23.9

16

17.3

21

23.7

Dividend per Share (pence)

15.8

6.5

6.9

7.4

8.3

BT is a big player when it comes to the world's providers of communications services, active in more than 170 countries. The firm provides networked IT, telecommunications, broadband, and Internet through businesses labeled BT Global Services, BT Retail, BT Wholesale, and Openreach.

Right now the company is pushing fiber-optic cable as a means of facilitating better broadband. It's a big job, but the directors reckon that around 10 million British homes and businesses are now close enough to a cable to get a connection. That said, so far only about a half-million have actually taken up the fiber-optic option, but BT is still the U.K.'s biggest broadband provider, and fiber-optic service is one area of the firm's business with growth potential.

BT needs to invest in areas of growth if it is to outperform on total return. The trading environment has been tough in recent years, and looking at the figures, BT's revenue and cash flow have struggled to keep pace with earnings growth recently.

BT Group's total-return potential
Let's examine five indicators to help judge the quality of the company's total-return potential.

  1. Dividend cover: Earnings covered last year's dividend just under three times. Score: 4/5
  2. Borrowings: Net gearing is around 700%, with borrowings just under four times earnings. Score: 2/5
  3. Growth: Earnings are growing, revenue is flat and cash flow is high but declining. Score: 3/5
  4. Price to earnings: A forward 9.6, which looks fair against growth and yield forecasts. Score: 3/5
  5. Outlook: Recent trading is satisfactory, and the outlook is optimistic. Score: 3/5

Overall, I score BT 15 out of 25, which makes me cautious on the firm's potential to outpace the wider market's total return going forward.

Foolish summary
There is good support for earnings from cash flow, but, along with revenue, cash flow appears to be declining from its historically high levels. Positives include a well-covered dividend, recently increased by 15% by directors who pointed out that such an act demonstrates their confidence in BT's future. I'd have been better encouraged if they had hiked the dividend without comment! For the time being, then, I'm cautious about investing in BT and shall keep the shares on my watchlist.

That said, I'm enthusiastic about other FTSE 100 companies right now, and on one selection I find myself in the company of master investor Warren Buffett. In fact, the company in question is the only U.K. company in which the American financial wizard is currently invested. You can find out why in The Motley Fool's report "The One U.K. Share That Warren Buffett Loves." For a limited period, the report is free, so click here to download your copy and find out the identity of the one U.K. share that screams "buy" to so many.

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