Guru fund manager Peter Lynch used to argue that small investors could get a step ahead of the big shots on Wall Street – or Bay Street, for that matter – by focusing on companies they understood and whose activities they could witness first-hand.
Well, Rogers Communications Inc. is understood by just about everyone who owns a phone or watches cable television, rents a DVD or reads a magazine. And the picture emerging from these activities is clear: This is a company whose best days are over.
While analysts focus on big-picture figures such as blended ARPU, EBITDA and NAV, small investors can get a better look at Rogers from the consumers’ perspective, which is considerably closer to the ground. What they can see is mounting evidence that Rogers’ key areas of business are being threatened.
Those shuttered DVD-rental stores are one of the most blatant examples of this shift, but of course that was a tiny part of the Rogers empire. Rogers’ magazine publishing, threatened by declining readership, also isn’t a huge part of the business.
But the cable-TV business is not so tiny, and it too is being threatened by new technology. Cutting cable has become a hot topic of conversation, and not just among frugal consumers looking to save money on their monthly bills.
Alternatives that allow you to watch programs over the Internet are seen as modern, for the savvy consumer who wants choice. And behold the rebirth of the rooftop antennae: Far from retro, these over-the-air devices for receiving television signals are hailed as the new-new thing.
Big investors might wait until this threat starts showing up in Rogers’ financial results. But nimbler small investors can see the threats a lot sooner, simply by walking around their neighbourhoods and gazing at rooftops.
Meanwhile, Rogers’ big push into home phones coincided with the technology’s obsolescence: Witness the number of people – perhaps you, too – who have given up land-line phones for cellphones and smartphones.
Aha, you might say, now there’s a promising business: And small investors can see the obvious infatuation with the latest iPhone.
Well, not so fast. While it is true that wireless communications are on the cutting edge, this is a terribly cutthroat line of work.
Rogers made its move into this area relatively early, when the field was wide open and customer growth was explosive.
Now, everyone over the age of five has a cellphone and competition is intense, forcing carriers like Rogers to pay generous subsidies on new handsets to attract and pin down customers.
Cable and telecom companies used to be famous for their take-it-or-leave-it approach to customer service, which investors could witness first-hand. But do you get a sense that you are now in the driver’s seat?
As a consumer, that’s great news. As an investor, it’s a sign of trouble.