Google Settles With Italy for $320m Over Unpaid Taxes (May 4, 2017)
★ AT&T Reports TV and Wireless Subscriber Losses in Q1 2017 (Apr 25, 2017)
AT&T reported Q1 2017 results today, and it looks to have been a grim quarter across its consumer business. It reported net adds of 2.1 million, but in reality saw a drop of 641k subscribers in the quarter due to the disconnection of 2.3 million subscribers as it decommissioned its 2G network and a removal of 400k reseller subs due to an unspecified “true-up” of its reporting. On the TV side, AT&T lost a total of 233k subscribers, a worsening of the past trend, which had been close to zero on a net basis between significant U-verse losses and good DirecTV gains. Those losses mostly came from those customers taking standalone DirecTV service without a bundle, and that’s worrying because although AT&T has been offering wireless-TV bundles since the merger closed, it can’t offer a national broadband-TV bundle, which is the one consumers mostly care about. That, in turn, is going to make it hard to turn that trend around, especially given that AT&T is already offering strong incentives for customers to bundle TV with wireless, including a $25 bill discount for TV and free HBO.
On the wireless side, connected devices (such as connected cars) continue to be the salvation for its overall subscriber numbers, because its postpaid business actually shrank in the quarter for the first time ever (as did Verizon’s), while its reseller numbers dropped like T-Mobile’s (possibly because big MVNO Tracfone disconnected 1.3m subs in the quarter). The re-introduction of unlimited plans was, however, a hit, with around 4.4 million new subscribers since the change, a more than 50% increase in that base. However, AT&T characterized its position now as being more or less the same competitively as at the beginning of the quarter, suggesting it doesn’t see any kind of permanent lift from the change. Financially, things overall were a little better – AT&T has been holding costs down in wireless which has allowed its margins to expand despite revenue challenges, and although equipment revenue is dropping rapidly due to much lower phone upgrade rates, that’s effectively zero-margin revenue anyway.
LeEco Suspends Shares on Chinese Exchange Before Wednesday Restructuring Announcement (Apr 17, 2017)
Uber’s financial results frequently leak through various online publications, and this year it seems to have decided to shortcut the process and speak directly to Bloomberg, which of course also gives it the opportunity to present the most flattering version of the numbers along with commentary. The highlights are that Uber grew revenues significantly year on year, but losses also grew. Uber emphasized that revenue growth outpaced growth in losses, but of course what you really want is for revenue growth to outpace cost growth, because that’s how you eventually become profitable, but that isn’t happening yet. Uber’s revenue growth was also helped by the different accounting treatment of UberPool rides (for which Uber records the full revenue as net revenue) versus other rides (for which it only reports its cut) which has the effect of making losses seem smaller in comparison to revenues, but is really just financial jiggery pokery. The headline financials shared with Bloomberg also exclude both the Chinese business, which was hugely loss-making for Uber, and various other items including car purchases (presumably as part of its autonomous technology testing operation). So these really are a pretty sanitized set of results, which nonetheless show significant and even growing losses.
Here’s our second LeEco story of the day, both fairly momentous (the first was news that the Vizio acquisition had fallen through). This one fits with the recent narrative of financial troubles at LeEco, and if the numbers in here are right, then things are indeed going very badly, with revenue of $15 million versus a target of $100 million in 2016 and layoffs of around a third of the US employee base planned. I’ve been skeptical of LeEco’s strategy from the beginning, and have only become more so as we’ve seen that strategy play out in the shadow of the financial troubles of the parent company. More broadly, LeEco’s struggles in the US demonstrate how different the US and China still are as markets, and how hard it is for companies to go either way across that chasm. No big Chinese company has yet been successful in the US, and Apple remains something of an exception as a US company that has done well long-term in China. LeEco was up against this from the beginning and its focus on an ecosystem play was always going to struggle without a big known brand like Vizio at the center of it here in the US.
Samsung sees bounce in Q1 ahead of Galaxy S8 – CNET (Apr 6, 2017)
The first part of this article suggests that the strong Q1 results Samsung is forecasting would be a bounce back from the Note7 debacle, but the reality is that Samsung already saw that bounce back in Q4 2016, which was its best-ever quarter for operating margins and flat revenues year on year despite the hole left by the Note7. This quarter would improve margins still further while also potentially maintaining flat or slightly increased revenues year on year again. What Samsung doesn’t tell us in these preliminary results notices is where the money is coming from, but last quarter semiconductors made a big contribution, and it’s likely that this division is the big hero again this quarter. It’s by far the company’s most profitable division, and although it contributes less revenue than the mobile segment, its contribution has been growing there too. So although the Note7 rebound narrative is attractive, this is really about components not phones, as the phone business continues to be roughly stagnant rather than thriving.
This is yet another sign that LeEco may be struggling financially because of an overly aggressive expansion into the US and into new product categories over the past year. It’s apparently struggling to meet payroll on time, and has also been struggling to close its acquisition of Vizio. It’s still somewhat baffling to me that LeEco pursued such an aggressive strategy in the US, because it’s meant not only stretching its tight finances even tighter, but also launching with quite a different set of assets from those that made it successful in China.
GoPro today both reiterated its revenue guidance for Q1 and announced fairly significant cost cuts including layoffs in an attempt to get back to profitability after five straight quarters of net losses. It will eliminate 270 current and planned positions, which equate to roughly 17% of its headcount at the end of Q4, and says full year operating expenses will be $582 million, which compares to $835 million in 2016 and $618 million in 2015, so a fairly significant cut. The fact that it still expects to hit the same revenue numbers makes me wonder what those people were doing that they can be so easily dismissed without impacting revenue growth. Operating expenses are weighted towards R&D and sales and marketing costs, so the cuts will likely hit hardest in those two areas, one of which would likely impact longer term sales while the other would be likelier to hit short term sales. So color me skeptical that GoPro can make these cuts and still hit its revenue numbers for the year, although investors clearly feel differently (the stock is up over 8% after hours).
Lenovo Reports December 2016 Quarter Results (Feb 16, 2017)
Lenovo continues to be a business in three quite different parts: in PCs, it’s the world’s largest vendor, grew slightly year on year, and is profitable; while in data centers and mobile it’s shrinking fast and unprofitable. Lenovo’s mobile business in China has collapsed by about 90% in the past two years, to the point that Lenovo didn’t even report China shipments at all this quarter, while it’s likely held up a little better outside of China, though it’s very focused on low-end shipments. Lenovo basically focused its whole earnings presentation on the PC business, with much less detail than usual on mobile, and the usual short shrift for data centers. This was a business that looked really good a couple of years ago, but looks much less so now. Another cautionary tale about the challenge of today’s smartphone market, especially for Android vendors, but also about the dangers of expanding too quickly through acquisitions.
HTC has another tough quarter, with revenue down 13% YOY, but smaller losses – TechCrunch (Feb 15, 2017)
I don’t typically track HTC’s financials that closely, because they’re so small (just $700 million in revenue last quarter) and such a minor player at this point, but it’s worth checking in from time to time, especially as HTC expands beyond its traditional smartphone business into VR and ODM manufacturing for Google. Interestingly, there’s very little sign of any meaningful bump in revenues or profits from either of these initiatives, which either means that their contribution is tiny or that the traditional smartphone business is declining even faster than in the past. Revenue was down 13% year on year, and the company has had negative operating margins for seven straight quarters and most of the last three years. On the Q3 earnings call, HTC said that it was near breakeven on its smartphone business, and blamed the VR business for the overall losses. It also refuses to talk about the Pixel business at all on earnings calls, citing the lack of public disclosure by Google (which is odd because Google has confirmed it). Regardless, it’s worth noting that the company’s gross margin is just barely in the double digits, which obviously doesn’t leave much room for marketing and other corporate costs. HTC is one of a number of what were major Android vendors a few years back which have faded considerably, and unlike Sony it doesn’t yet seem to have figured out how to make the business work at its new smaller scale.
Apple CFO says capital returns will rise if cash repatriation rate is lowered – Financial Times (Feb 14, 2017)
Apple CFO Luca Maestri spoke at the Goldman Sachs conference today, and although the audio quality of the broadcast was miserable, the FT seems to have been able to pick out the best bits. Two specific ones are detailed here – firstly, Apple still hopes to be able to repatriate more cash soon following a change in US tax policy, and secondly, it remains skeptical about more manufacturing in the US. On the former point, it sounds like Apple’s main focus for the repatriated cash would be increasing returns to shareholders and not big acquisitions – that’s not altogether surprising because it’s in keeping with past strategy, but there has been a rising chorus of voices saying that the returns to shareholders don’t seem to be having the desired effect on the share price. The US manufacturing comments also aren’t surprising – everything we’ve heard on this point as it regards Apple specifically has come from others – Donald Trump, Foxconn, and so on – not Apple itself. And certainly manufacturing any kind of high scale product like iPhones in the US would be almost impossible given the lack of appropriate infrastructure here.
via Financial Times
T-Mobile US Reports Q4 2016 Results (Feb 14, 2017)
T-Mobile reported its Q4 results this morning – the last of the major US wireless carriers to do so – and as usual it’s beating all the others handily on postpaid phone subscriber growth and making decent progress on growing its margins. It added several times as many postpaid phone subscribers as any other carrier, but in other categories like tablets and “connected devices” (think cars, machine to machine, connected utility meters) others were ahead, with AT&T leading the market in both those categories. T-Mobile says it has seen much higher porting ratios (the ratio of subscribers won versus lost from a particular carrier) against Verizon this quarter, which would help explain the latter’s rapid shift in stance on unlimited plans. T-Mobile continues to be quite a bit smaller than the big two, and that’s a big driver of its lower margins, but the fact that it’s willing to take those lower margins enables it to win subscribers with aggressive pricing, especially since its network performance and coverage is constantly improving. I continue to be skeptical that T-Mobile’s strategy is sustainable over the long haul – it’s very focused on phones, which aren’t growing much anymore, and hasn’t invested as its two largest competitors have in newer growth categories, but for now it continues to capture lots of attention and make the other carriers look bad.
via T-Mobile (PDF release)
I’m tying this story to the Apple is Doomed narrative because it would be easy to see today’s news as evidence that investors don’t think Apple is doomed at all. But if you take that approach, you’d also have to say that investors did think Apple was doomed nine months ago when its stock price fell to two thirds its level at today’s close, when in reality that movement tells you a lot more about investor skittishness than Apple’s actual prospects. Apple continues to be massively undervalued relative to major peers, and that reflects an ongoing skepticism that Apple’s ability to sell massive numbers of devices is about more than just smoke and mirrors. Apple is the exception in the consumer electronics market, which is otherwise characterized by low single digit margins at best, and I always suspect that some financial analysts think this is the result of some kind of sleight of hand that will eventually be exposed – there’s really no other explanation for the ongoing under-valuation. The massive swings in Apple’s stock price over time – its 12 month range goes from $89 to the $133 it hit today – are much more about investor skittishness than underlying performance. Certainly there was nothing in Apple’s last earnings that should have triggered such a significant change in sentiment – they were decent results, but guidance for the next quarter wasn’t great, and as usual there was nothing concrete about the company’s longer-term trajectory from management. I continue to be very bullish on Apple in general, but I certainly don’t base that conclusion on what’s going on with the company’s stock price.