Verizon Communications (VZ -0.16%) is the largest wireless telecom in America, sporting 154 million customers at the latest cellphone census. Sprint (S) is far smaller at just 54 million subscribers but stands on the threshold of merging with T-Mobile US (TMUS -0.12%) and its Rolodex of 77 million accounts. Together, Sprint and T-Mobile would nearly stand shoulder to shoulder with industry giants Verizon and AT&T.
So should telecom investors bet on Sprint these days, or is Verizon's time-burnished heft just too much for the merging challengers to overcome? Let's have a look.
What Sprint needs
Let me be blunt: Sprint is hopelessly lost as a stand-alone business. The company absolutely needs the T-Mobile merger to happen.
As the only one of the four major networks to have lost more customers than it gained over the last two years, Sprint is standing on the edge of a steep cliff. It doesn't help the company or its investors that Sprint carries the weakest profit margins in its industry. Against that gloomy backdrop, it should come as no surprise that 18% of Sprint's shares are being sold short. T-Mobile's short-sale ratio stands at a far lower 3% and investors are betting against the two largest networks with just 1% of those total share bases.
So Sprint lives and dies by the success of the proposed T-Mobile deal. Together, the two companies would wield a strong portfolio of radio spectrum licenses and a respectable total customer base. I fully expect the pre-appointed CEO -- T-Mobile leader John Legere -- to use these assets as a platform for launching more of his famed Un-carrier policies in an attempt to shake up the wireless market. All of this sounds like good news for today's beleaguered Sprint shareholders, who have seen their investment lose 40% of its value over the last five years.
Why not stick with Verizon?
There is nothing terribly wrong with owning Verizon. The massive telecom offers a generous 4.4% dividend yield, solid cash profits, and a stable business platform overall. I would much rather own this stock than Sprint's if I were less than 100% certain that the T-Mobile merger will happen in 2019.
But it does look like the Sprint/T-Mobile combination will happen, with game-changing results. Under these circumstances, I find it hard to recommend Verizon's stalled innovation over the hungrier and more inspiring approach we'll see in the post-merger version of T-Mobile plus Sprint.
As the 5G revolution washes over the wireless market, this would be the perfect time to invest in a company with much to win in an all-out assault. And the buyout is structured as a pure stock-swap deal, giving today's Sprint's shareholders a 40% ownership stake in the new meganetwork. You might want to consider buying T-Mobile shares instead of Sprint's, but I see little reason to entrust my hard-earned investment dollars to Verizon at this point.