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Kick Ass and S with Telco stocks

Kick Ass 2, the movie, previewed to a sell-out audience last month.  One of the main superhero characters played by Generation Z, Chloe Moretz certainly light up the movie with her fashionable purple hair, oscillating right-and-left as she kicked ass, while defending the city that she has grown to love.

As I watched the movie, I could not help as my hypothalamus light up purple - it is the colour that spells royalty and serendipity – what kicked my cerebrum cortex is that mobile data has emerged as the kick ass for telco stocks – no matter which direction you kick, the telcos benefit.

Telcos are enjoying and reveling in on customers, particularly Generation Z,  who increasingly become hook on mobile apps like Whats App, Free PP and WeChat to communicate and YouTube and Google Maps to surf the Net on the go for entertainment or information.

Not surprisingly, in Singapore like in most Asian countries, more customers, especially the younger ones, are upgrading to faster fourth-generation (4G) plans but come with smaller data allowances - in Singapore, the monthly data plans were cut from 12G to 2G.  Thus, most customers will end up paying extra for exceeding their data limits.

In the recent set of quarterly results for the period ending 30th Jun 2013, mobile data increased from 41.7% to 45% of Starhub’s ARPU on a YoY comparison.  M1 saw the same trend – mobile data increased from 37.3% to 41.2% amongst its 1.1 million post-paid customers which constitute half of its total mobile base. 

The largest telco, Singtel managed to maintain a flat 41% contribution from mobile data.  However, one discernible trend is that the kung fu kicks sent the no at $72 while M1 kicked in at $62.30

In terms on new customers kick-in,  Singtel excelled with 537,000 new 4G customers.  This exceed Starhub’s 362,000 and M1’s 307,000.

The superhero appearances for the telcos come in the form of customers exceeding their bundle’s limits – the incremental fee can be tremendous!   For instance, Singtel’s customers will have the extra fees doubled from the current month as each extra GB will be charged at $10.70 compared to $5.35 per GB previously.  Thus, Singtel customers using up to additional 10 GB from downloading movies, music streaming etc will pay an additional $107 instead of $53.5!  However, if you are on existing 3G plans which allow up to 12GB, there is no extra charge.

With the overheads and fixed costs covered, all these incremental revenue translate to almost 100% operating profits for the telcos, certainly kicking ass better in whatever directions!

The continuous shift to tiered data plans with smaller data allowances have started to lift all 3 telcos’ earnings recently.  Singtel’s latest quarterly net profits jumped 5.5% to $897 million on higher EBITA margin of 30.2% while M1 posted a 6.1% increase to $80 million.   Starhub’s quarterly net profits jumped a humongous 16% to $101 million on higher EBITA margin on 34.2%.

I think these telcos will kick ass further as fatter cash cows as habits like downloading data, uploading information on social media sites like Facebook on LinkedIn, are unlikely to abate.  As habits kick ass, they become customers’ daily living needs and character.

I have always advocated building a core investment portfolio around telco stocks due to its “safer” investment returns via dividends as opposed to capital gains.  Telcos exhibit strong business models throw up good free cash flows that can return gradual but increasing dividends to shareholders.  Previously, most market pundits have labeled them as “boring no-growth businesses” or industries that are considered matured.  To me, they kick ass with their 2Ss – sustainable and strong free cash flows.

Free Cash flows or FCF is a measure of how a company earns its hard cash less capital expenditure.  It is one of the key kick ass role that I watch :-

Thus, FCF = Operating Cash Flow – Capital Expenditure

I have always reckoned that FCF is a better base figure to use rather than Net Profits as dividends are paid out from cashflows although most investment reports use Net Profits as the base.

FCF is also a better foundation to understand and pick companies with good cashflow generation rate  rather than just companies with good profit growth rates which the stockmarket tend to over emphasize.  Investors should look out for companies that deliver strong profit growth rates, but shareholders do not partake it its profit growth if its cashflow do not allow for dividend distribution.

Essentially, a company’s cashflow is essentially utilized for:-

  1. Capital Expenditure to maintain the level of operating efficiency
  2. Pay off debts n thereby lower its gearing
  3. For payment as dividends to shareholders
  4. For profit retention

As these companies have been operating for many years, economies of scales have kicked in at this phase of their economic cycles in the various markets they operate in.  For the past few years for now, capital expenditure or capex, for these telecom companies have remained low and stable as compared to their Operating Cashflows which mean they throw out almost consistent FCF available for dividends distribution year after year.

For instance, using M1 as an example –

Telcos like M1 were normally touted then as “no growth mature” companies.  But the reality was that the earlier capital expenditure in building up their 2G, 2.5G and 3G networks, spectrums and base stations were depreciated at close to $100 million annually.  However, the latter is not a cash outflow item and while they  dent the profits, they do not affect the cashflows.  The result was that the FCFs then, were healthier than the underlying net profits.  However, most market analysis tended to focus on net profits and their lackadaisical net profit growth.  If only the market only knew where to kick ass?

Furthermore, if one studies the capex required for the next generation 4G/LTE spectrum, they cost a fraction of the cost of the earlier 2G/2.5G/3G spectrums.  This means more FCF available for distribution to telcos’ shareholders.  Both Singtel and M1 have increased their respective DPS and I expect Starhub to follow suit.  In doing so, the respective stock prices are certainly expected to Kick Ass 2.  In episode Kick Ass 1, their share prices have already risen by an average of 30% in the past 18 months.

So how does one position in the right stocks at the right time?  Of course, many investment professionals will tell you that market timing is very difficult and almost impossible to win all the time.  However, based on my own experiences, it can be perfected and improved, like taking taekwando kicks and flicks like the superheroes. 

Superheros we are not, but super investors we can inculcate, with tons of hard work and patience.


Gabriel Yap
Gabriel Yap

Mr Gabriel Yap, CFA was Senior Dealing Director with various stockbroking organizations, including a 3-year stint in Wall Street, for 20 years before he retired in 2009 to devote his money and time to philanthropy.  He has donated and assisted the Charities Aid Foundation, Australia and Little Bird NGO, the largest NGO in China.  He also oversees the running of Golden Saint Resources Anti-Aids clinics, a humanitarian and charitable program for the people of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

He still appears in popular media like CNBC,Bloomberg TV, CNA and Mediacorp Radio on stock markets, capital markets and industry analysis and travels round the world to give investment seminars and conferences. He runs investment firm GCP Global which invest in global equities, bonds, reits, derivatives, real estate and commodities.  GCP Global is anchor investors in several IPOs in Asia and Australia.

Mr Yap anchored the Money Savvy column in the venerable Readers Digest magazine for 2 years.   Mr Yap also currently contributes to MillionaireAsia and The Independent newspapers on all things finance and investments.Mr Yap is also Special Advisor of London listed Golden Saints Resources, GSR which owns 340 sq km of diamond and gold mines in Sierra Leone.  GSR presently has a market capitalization of S$100 million.

Mr Yap splits his time between his home in Australia and Singapore as well as Europe, Hong Kong and China.