At this point you have to wonder if even a market meltdown would affect the stocks of Canada's largest telecommunications companies.
When the S&P/TSX Composite Index plummeted over 300 points on Monday, with major commodity producers going down the tube, the telcos barely budged. Telus lost just 14 cents; Rogers actually climbed 12 cents.
Their historical returns are even more stunning. Robert Bek at CIBC World Markets ran the numbers and on a total return basis the sector is up about 25 per cent in the past year, and 54 per cent since the TSX peaked in March 2011.
"What began as investors' clear pursuit of simple yield soon reflected a desire for dividend growth as well, with a focus on sustainability implied by strong free cash flow generation," he noted.
After such a wild ride, investors usually want to know what could drive stocks higher. Mr. Bek turned the question on its head. "What could stop the party?" he wondered.
The key concern: regulatory risk. "Given the difficulty in handicapping both the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission and Industry Canada, and the massive effect decisions from each can (and do) have on the sectors, this is likely the single biggest concern we have for a shifting landscape that could quickly disrupt the positive thesis playing out."
Then there's industry disruption, particularly from new video sources. What happens if Netflix's experiment with producing television series pans out? Or if Apple TV takes off? It's all very theoretical at this point, but the worries persist.
Management turnover is another concern. For now it appears that Rogers is the only major telco who will get a new chief in the near future, after Nadir Mohammed announced he will retire. A new boss could mean a new direction.
As you can see, though, the worries are rooted in speculation rather than real threats that we know are already changing the landscape. And some of the others he identifies are actually subsiding rather than growing.
Take wireless. "Given that wireless is such a key growth element, and a core component of the bundle, the prospects and outlook for wireless really drive the overall valuation sentiment," Mr. Bek noted. There are two things that could really send things off the rails: if consumers start using less data, and pricing wars. The first is highly unlikely because mobile usage is growing at solid rates, and pricing wars aren't so much a fear anymore.
"After a few years of disruption, given new entrants, price slashing, heavy-handed regulation, and outside capital involvement, the past year has seen the market stabilize and the Big Three regain their footing," Mr. Bek wrote.
Plus, the futures of all three wireless startups are extremely uncertain right now, so who knows how big of a threat they'll be. For all we know, the federal government may allow one or more of them to get scooped up by an incumbent.
Another threat that's suddenly less daunting: the return of the commodity boom. Investors like telcos for their yield, but rebounding commodity stocks could throw that all off. Even if this does play out, a recovery will take some time to materialize.
(Tim Kiladze is a Globe and Mail Reporter.)
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