The telecom sector has always been the favorite hunting ground for a particular kind of investor. The largest businesses in this industry typically offer some of the juiciest dividend yields on the market. But as we head into 2015, some telecoms look attractive to a new breed of shareholders -- the ones seeking extraordinary share returns rather than just generous dividends.
Here, I will explain why T-Mobile US (NASDAQ:TMUS), American Tower (NYSE:AMT), and Sprint (NYSE:S) fit that untraditional investing bill right now. Hold on to your hats, because you're in for a wild ride.
Will the Un-carrier carry on?
Both T-Mobile and Sprint are unusual in one important way: They are telecoms but don't pay any dividends at all. Instead, their investors are betting on strong share price gains over the long run. And that's where they part ways, otherwise running very different strategies.
T-Mobile is the quintessential iconoclast, right down to its magenta-shirted and salty-tongued CEO, John Legere. Management takes pride in upsetting the apple cart. The current series of re-imagined telecom strategies is even named after its lack of respect for the status quo. As the self-titled "Un-carrier," T-Mobile looks for subscriber growth through new features like improved Wi-Fi calling, unlimited music streaming, and most recently, (don't you dare call it that) data rollover built into regular plans.
Wireless consumers are lapping it up. Legere's unconventional tactics have led to fantastic subscriber growth, and T-Mobile routinely adds more new subscribers per quarter than either of its much bigger competitors, Verizon and AT&T.
And yet, T-Mobile's share prices have plunged in 2014. The stock is down 26% year-to-date, as the awesome subscriber growth has failed to materialize as profits. Moreover, T-Mobile always seems embroiled in takeover talks but never gets to walk down the aisle. Investors hoping for a quick and easy buyout premium have been denied this exit several times and may be losing patience with that particular investing thesis.
So here T-Mobile stands, growing quickly at the expense of its larger rivals but also losing market value. I see no reason why John Legere would quit his Un-carrier campaign in 2015, but the negative market reaction is starting to shape up into an opportunity. That's why I wouldn't be surprised to see T-Mobile crushing the market in 2015, as the stock catches up to Legere's innovative growth run.
Bigger discount, bigger risk -- and bigger ambition
Sprint is less of a thought leader and more of a massive turnaround play for telecom investors.
The company has been hemorrhaging subscribers for years, hampered by a lackluster network and no particularly fresh pricing strategies. A catastrophically debt-laden balance sheet hasn't helped Sprint recover, either.
These days, Sprint has the financial and strategic backing of Japanese telecom billionaire, Masayoshi Son, and his Softbank business. Not one to mince words, Son has said that he wants to run "the world's number one company." His majority ownership of Sprint is an important piece of that overarching ambition.
To that end, Son recently rinsed out Sprint's executive suite and installed a new CEO. Under Marcelo Claure, the company has simplified its pricing plans and started copying some of T-Mobile's Un-carrier ideas, which at long last produced some subscriber growth in the third quarter.
Sprint and Claure still have a long way to go before declaring the company a winner again. But you won't find me betting against Masayoshi Son's deep pockets and business acumen after building his own multi-billion dollar empire. Sprint shares have fallen a heart-stopping 63% in 2014. In my mind, that drop just might be setting investors up for an incredible rebound in 2015.
So many growth drivers, so little time
But you don't have to pick a winner in the never-ending wireless carrier wars to beat the market with a telecom stock. Without American Tower, the carriers wouldn't have anywhere to install their networking equipment in the first place, and this company is set to keep growing as long as the wireless industry exists.
American Tower signs decades-long lease deals with all of the major carriers, often amending them to add more assets per tower and lengthening the commitment terms. This alone is a substantial growth market with plenty of runway ahead.
But then, American Tower also works to capture a large slice of the same business in faster-growing overseas markets like South Africa, India, and Brazil. The company is getting in on the ground floor as many of these countries have hardly any wireless infrastructure to speak of. And the rewards should roll in over the decades as developing nations start joining the wireless world.
On top of all that, American Tower is organized as a real estate investment trust, which means it does pay dividends. Required to pay out at least 90% of its GAAP pre-tax income in the form of dividend checks or else lose the coveted tax benefits of being a REIT, American Tower offers a 1.6% dividend yield. That's not a huge payout, but it's a good start -- and with so many growth drivers available, I fully expect the dividend to ratchet up over the years as well.
American Tower shares haven't plunged to offer discount buy-in prices at the end of 2014, but it's never a bad time to buy top-quality stocks. As Warren Buffett says, it's better to buy a great business at a fair price than a fair business at a great price. And I think American Tower is one of those great businesses.