The world's second-largest cell phone operator, Britain's Vodafone
Results for the fiscal year ended in March were, as expected, more or less mixed. Revenue climbed by only about 1.6%, and pre-tax profits rose 3%. Also on the "less" side, free cash flow was down about 1% from the year-ago level.
That said, there were pockets of good news. The net loss for the year was cut by about 16%, and the company showed 14% growth in adjusted earnings per share -- an accounting treatment that excludes goodwill, a major expense for virtually all cell-phone companies.
On the operations front, the company added more than 16 million new subscribers in the year and ended with nearly 155 million subscribers around the world. Subscriber growth was particularly strong in Spain (up 18%) and the United States (up 17%), where Vodafone owns 45% of Verizon Wireless with Verizon
What spooked the market, though, was management's guidance for the next fiscal year. In contrast to the "high single digit" revenue growth talked about previously, management is now pegging growth in a range of 6%-9%. Similarly, management has revised EBITDA margin guidance down to "flat to down 1%" vs. earlier expectations of "broadly flat."
Lost in Wall Street's worrying about guidance was a pretty significant announcement regarding further efforts to return capital to shareholders. Not only is Vodafone planning to double its dividend, but the company also announced an $8.2 billion share buyback. This comes on top of a slightly smaller buyback that was completed in the prior year.
Despite this large return of capital, I'm not completely sure that I'd rush in to buy these shares. While fellow Fool Maynard Paton made his case here for Vodafone as a quality blue-chipper, I'm not sure I wholly agree.
True, Vodafone has a global presence, but that scale hasn't yet translated into a definitive competitive advantage that I can see. What's more, I'm concerned that Vodafone has a large presence in some mature (and slow-growing) markets and not nearly as much exposure in faster-growing areas.
I will say, though, that there is considerable operating leverage lurking beneath this behemoth -- just a minor operating improvement (a percentage point or two) could translate into some hefty profit and cash flow growth. What's more, the stock is trading at about par to its book value -- which suggests to me that Wall Street isn't expecting all that much.
So I suggest a compromise position between my own and Maynard's: Vodafone's performance may not merit "blue chip" status right now, but the company's assets clearly have more value than the market currently thinks, and management is clearly committed to shareholder well-being. Combine those two, and you have a stock that's at least worth a second look.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).