No doubt about it, there is money to be made by investing abroad. I've made the case for international investing plenty of times before, and I'll do it one more time. Today's subject? Philippine phone company Philippine Long Distance Telephone
Just to be clear right off the bat, the shares that trade on the New York Stock Exchange are American Depositary Receipts, so investors need to understand that they're not buying PLDT directly.
So what's the case for PLDT? Growth, my friends.
While total revenues were up almost 13% for 2004, normalized net income was up well over 200%. What's more, free cash flow was up about 65% year-over-year, an increase that allowed the company to pay down $500 million of debt and re-establish a dividend for common shareholders.
As has been the case for some time, the fixed-line business was sluggish on the top line -- growing about 3% -- while expense reductions allowed EBITDA (that's earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) to grow 19%. On the cellular side, revenues grew about 27%, while EBITDA was 31% higher. As the dominant carrier in the Philippines, PLDT already has 58% market share, remaining basically stable vs. a year ago.
To be sure, an investment in PLDT shares carries some risk. Generally accepted accounting principles in the Philippines are not the same as U.S. GAAP, and PLDT isn't exactly user-friendly in terms of distributing information to U.S. shareholders, particularly as it relates to little things. like, say, earnings.
What's more, PLDT is in some cases treated as a proxy for the Philippine economy or all emerging markets in general, so the stock can sometimes be far more volatile than the actual business. Simply look at a long-term chart, and you'll see what I mean. This is a stock that has had breathtaking rises and falls. And that's not to say that the business itself can't be volatile as well -- the company's decision to reinstate the dividend for 2005 follows roughly four years of no dividend.
That said, there is still much to like about the company. Although some analysts have seen the fixed-line business as an albatross around the company's neck, it does provide steady cash flow. What's more, small incremental improvements in margins or utilization translate into big gains in earnings for that segment.
Although price-based competition in the cellular market is a threat, the company is thus far holding its own. What's more, cellular penetration is only about 40% in the Philippines, as desperate poverty in some areas makes cell phones an unthinkable luxury.
That poverty is also part of the growth story. The Philippines economy continues to grow, and more and more people will find themselves wanting (and able to afford) a cell phone as time goes on. What's more, the country's long history with the United States, along with the fact that many of its citizens speak English, is making it an increasingly popular location for offshored manufacturing and call-center businesses.
Valuation also looks appealing. The stock trades at less than 12 times trailing earnings and about 16 times EV-to-FCF, and it boasts a double-digit return on invested capital.
The risk inherent in this stock certainly means that it's not for everyone, but investors for looking for some direct exposure to emerging markets might want to take a closer look at PLDT shares.
Want to learn about other foreign telcos? Check out these other Foolish takes:
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares), though he has owned PLDT shares in the past.