AT&T (T -2.41%) is putting the brakes on stock buybacks. The Dallas-based telecom giant announced that due to coronavirus, they would forgo a $4 billion share repurchase plan.
This did not sit well with investors as share prices plummeted just after the opening bell. AT&T stock fell to just above $28 per at the open before staging a recovery to nearly $30.
The company had previously agreed to this share buyback under an accelerated share repurchase agreement. AT&T has now canceled this ASR, citing the need to "maintain flexibility." The company will instead invest the money in serving customers, taking care of company employees, and investing in the 5G network.
To be sure, the outbreak has likely put some pressure on AT&T's network as more turn to streaming services such as Netflix for entertainment. Also, both AT&T and archrival Verizon have temporarily canceled customer shutoffs to help its most vulnerable customers during the pandemic.
Moreover, the $4 billion could go a long way in funding other company priorities. AT&T spent $19.635 billion in 2019 and more than $20 billion per year in previous years on capital expenditures. Much of this cost goes to continuing the construction of its 5G network. This and other spending priorities have also taken AT&T's long-term debt to $151 billion. While that has come down from 2018, it still represents a tremendous burden for a company worth $201 billion after subtracting liabilities from assets.
AT&T is a tech stock that also faces significant dividend costs. Its payout of $2.08 per share now yields about 6.7%. This dramatically exceeds the S&P 500 average of more than 2.4%. Still, with a streak of consecutive dividend increases that now spans 35 years, the company is likely reluctant to sacrifice its Dividend Aristocrat status by ending the annual payout hikes.
Now, with the share buyback off the table, AT&T should have more cash available to fund its numerous priorities.