Does an Alcatel-Lucent Buyout Make Sense?

Alcatel-Lucent  (NYSE: ALU  ) had it rough in 2012. Shares of the telecom equipment maker fell 18% even as the S&P 500 benchmark gained 14%. Heck, Lucent has a tough half-decade in the rear view mirror. Over the last five years, the stock has plunged a heart-stopping 76%. The networking sector is lagging the broader market as a whole, but Alcatel is one of the worst performers in an already weak industry:

 

5-Year Return (adjusted for dividends where appropriate)

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Alcatel-Lucent

(76%)

***

Juniper Networks

(21%)

**

Cisco Systems  (NASDAQ: CSCO  )

(10%)

****

LM Ericsson

(4%)

***

S&P 500

23%

N/A

Sources:Yahoo! Finance and Motley Fool CAPS.

At these price levels, Alcatel-Lucent starts to look like a tempting takeover target. But what would a presumptive buyer get?

Upside and downside
Telecoms the world over were expected to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure equipment last year, but the never-ending worries about fiscal collapse in Europe and elsewhere kept pushing those investments further and further back. So the networking renaissance everybody had expected never came.

And ever since the Alcatel-Lucent merger, the combined company has been saddled with a downright stressful amount of fixed costs. That pressure made death threats out of the challenges facing the entire industry. Allow me to demonstrate in song! ...no? Okay, how about with a chart?

 Chart

Alcatel-Lucent data by YCharts.

In short, Alcatel spends pretty much all of its revenue on operating costs, leaving no room for profit, structural improvements, or even manufacturing costs. Juniper and Ericsson share this problem to some degree, but Alcatel is simply the poster boy for insufficient operating income. Cash flows often dip below the breakeven point, and Alcatel has $2 billion more debt than cash on its balance sheet nowadays.

 Chart

Alcatel-Lucent data by YCharts.

Who do you love? 
That being said, management started cutting costs in a big way last summer, and the effort is showing some results. Most importantly, the company didn't slash its crucial research and development budget to meet its budget goals. So Alcatel hasn't destroyed its future just to survive in the present. Investors responded to the improvements by boosting share prices a staggering 69% in the last three months. That newfound moxie just might be enough to attract a buyout deal.

Cisco would be the only rival with enough financial gusto to make an Alcatel buyout work. But Cisco chief John Chambers has promised to simplify his operations, not bulk up on another major acquisition.

That leaves private equity on the table. Deal financing is easy to come by at low, low interest rates, so 2013 could go down in history as a record year for leveraged buyouts. Dell  (NASDAQ: DELL  ) is getting the party started, if its discussions with Silver Lake Partners go anywhere. You could argue that Alcatel-Lucent is the Dell of the networking world, laser-focused on a market that's out of favor right now.

It's a risky bet, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a private equity offer this year, somewhere around the $3 per share. It's by no means a sure thing, because it'll take some doing to whip Alcatel into shape even with a fresh source of capital. If you invest here, please don't take out a second mortgage to finance the position -- only use money you could afford to lose, in case the dreams of buyouts and turnarounds never come true.

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  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2013, at 9:37 AM, dlkeins wrote:

    How would a buyout work considering the widely distributed shares? A buyer would need to convince several thousand shareholders to get control over ALU. I guess that is risky and expensive.

  • Report this Comment On January 20, 2013, at 11:30 PM, paule32 wrote:

    I truly can't understand the Telecom's reluctance to spend the money needed for their buildout.It's going to have to be spent and sooner rather than later would be best for all concerned. Their partners are already hurting and their customers will be right behind, with all of the new smart-phones and tablets coming on line each and every day.Perhaps a little less concern for the immediate needs of the share-holders and a little more concern with where they need to be 2-3 years down the road would go a long way to improve everyone's bottom line in the long run.

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