When self-dubbed "Papa" Hemingway was trying to decide on a title for his new novel, he was worried that For Whom the Bell Tolls would make people think of Ma Bell, AT&T
The company reported another uninspiring quarter this morning, capping an ugly 2002 during which it completed a 5-for-1 reverse stock split in order to reach a respectable share price. Twenty percent of that share price vanished after it reported an 8.6% decline in fourth-quarter sales, to $9.3 billion. Losses from continued operations were $611 million, more than double the loss in the previous fourth quarter.
Gains from one-time items, including its cable sale to Comcast
Management said that it won't provide forward earnings-per-share guidance anymore (yeah, why bother?), and stated that paying down its $23 billion in debt is "a key goal." It'll start by buying back $4 billion worth of bond debt, taking from its $8 billion in cash. Debt reduction may be good, but at the same time, when it's "a key goal," investors can't expect strong bottom-line results.
Excluding non-cash items, AT&T's free cash flow has been slight to negative each of the past six years, and last year its net change in cash fell by a few billion dollars quarterly as the company paid off debt. Improvements aren't likely anytime soon. This year, sales are expected to decline again. That the company is in this state and still pays a dividend, albeit diminished, could be argued as silly.
Management said that it doesn't foresee a turnaround in telecom spending yet, and that, along with disappointing results from BellSouth