The telecommunications industry is a sprawling battleground. Investors can enter this sector from many different angles, either embracing or trying to work around the intense competition in a cutthroat industry. Here, I will show you how Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ), Sprint (NYSE:S), and American Tower (NYSE:AMT) can serve three very different investing strategies, all within the same sector.
For dividend lovers: Verizon
Let's start with the obvious telecom play. Many investors grab shares of industry titans Verizon or AT&T for their generous dividend yields. Verizon can boast that its 4.6% yield is the richest payout among the 30 members of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, while AT&T and its 5.4% yield would have made telecoms the two highest yielding Dow stocks if the company had not been unceremoniously dumped from the index this spring in favor of Apple.
These dividend payouts are unmatched among American megacaps. On a broader scale, AT&T ranks among the top 10 yielders in the S&P 500. It is an impressive feat, and dividend investors have plenty of reason to love the big telecoms. However, I would recommend Verizon over AT&T any day of the week, despite the richer dividend payout.
Between the two wireless network giants, Big Red shows a much deeper commitment to increasing its payouts over time. The company also keeps a much tighter focus on its core operations in the wireless market and is slowly stepping out of landline and FiOS markets. Meanwhile, AT&T wants to buy its way into brand new markets, adding risk and complexity to an already diffuse business model.
In short, Verizon offers a slightly lower dividend yield today but holds the promise of stable operations and growing payouts for years to come. And don't forget that Verizon boasts both a lower price-to-earnings ratio and higher profit margins than AT&T, which means you are getting a leaner business at a better price.
If you are looking for strong telecom dividends, Verizon is the way to go.
The turnaround gambit: Sprint
Sprint appeals to a very different class of investors. Here, we are looking at a stock that has lost almost 60% of its value since the start of 2014, pays no dividends, and only recently started poking its head out of a long, dark tunnel.
The company has been losing subscribers by the fistful over the last five years, first to hungry behemoths AT&T and Verizon, then also to upstart T-Mobile. That is the trigger behind Sprint's plunging share price.
But Sprint's ever-struggling turnaround efforts are finally starting to work. Chairman Masayoshi Son brought both fresh capital and underdog experience when he bought out the company. In CEO Marcelo Claure, he has found a kindred spirit with experience in building multinational telecom businesses on a shoestring budget.
Subscribers have started returning to Sprint's innovative low-cost plans and seem particularly infatuated with its tablet connections. It is a risky and expensive strategy, but Sprint management finally seems to have a shot at making it work.
If you cannot see Sprint's improved execution outweighing its business risks, growth investors could also bet on T-Mobile. The magenta Un-carrier is growing faster than any of its major rivals, is profitable while Sprint loses money, and reportedly has several buyout suitors waiting in the wings once again. But T-Mobile stock is priced accordingly. If (and the size of this "if" is up for debate) Sprint can pull this turnaround off, its shares are spring-loaded to double or triple your investment in short order.
Big risk, big potential reward. Those are the stakes for Sprint investors.
International low-risk growth: American Tower
Maybe you don't like Sprint's elevated risk or Verizon's stagnant growth. Staying within the telecom sector, more conservative growth investors or straitlaced value hounds can lean on American Tower.
This is an unconventional telecom play, in which you don't really care which handset or network wins the next holiday season. All you want is strong demand for wireless services in general, which has become a no-brainer bet in recent years. As long as Verizon, Sprint, and friends continue to build out and upgrade their wireless networks, they will need more tower space.
American Tower is the best-managed provider in that market. Its profit margin, revenue growth, and tower network footprint are all best-of-breed in America -- and the company's international growth ambitions are even more dominant.
Here, you get a low-risk ticket straight to substantial margins and impressive growth. The underlying wireless market will thrive for decades to come, keeping American Tower's services in high demand regardless of which network operators are winning or losing in 2025 or 2035. The big cherry on top is American Tower's thirst for tower sites in high-growth foreign markets such as India, Brazil, and South Africa.
"We believe that the network development trajectory we have seen in the U.S. will ultimately be replicated overseas," American Tower says. To put that claim into perspective, American Tower's sales and free cash flow have grown nearly sixfold over the last decade. If the domestic market is becoming saturated, you can expect American Tower to find plenty of food for international growth.
This is the thinking investor's bet on safe growth. I own this stock myself and would not be surprised at all if even Warren Buffett opened a position in American Tower. That is how seemingly ironclad this business is.
Anders Bylund owns shares of American Tower. The Motley Fool recommends American Tower, Apple, and Verizon Communications. The Motley Fool owns shares of American Tower and Apple and has the following options: long January 2017 $80 calls on American Tower. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.