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Stock Analyst Update

US Cellular's Operations Destroying Shareholder Value

There's little to like in the firm's fourth-quarter results or guidance.


There was nothing to like, or to be surprised about, in  US Cellular’s (USM) fourth-quarter results. Total revenue was flat year over year, but service revenue dropped 8% on continued wireless customer attrition. The firm lost 4,000 postpaid smartphone customers and added only 4,000 prepaid customers--both are at their weakest levels in two years. Management also guided for flat revenue and a decline in adjusted EBITDA in 2017, below market consensus and triggering a 7% stock price drop. We maintain our view that the firm’s operations are destroying shareholder value, and we reaffirm our no-moat rating for the stock. However, we plan to keep our fair value estimate at $42, as we consider the value of the firm’s spectrum assets to potential bidders. The shares are fairly valued, in our opinion.

US Cellular lost a total of 25,000 net postpaid phone customers, much worse than the 2,000 loss a year ago. Some of the loss was cushioned by a 23,000 gain in connected devices, which generally generates much lower revenue per device than phones. Postpaid customer churn was flat year over year, but connected devices churn spiked to 2.49% compared with 1.95% a year ago, raising some doubts over how sticky or profitable these customer lines are. US Cellular’s prepaid business was also weak on small net customer gains and flat churn year over year. Average revenue per customer also experienced the heftiest decline in two years. Due to operating deleverage, the firm booked an operating loss, which was around the same range as the operating loss of last year.

Despite a gloomy outlook for 2017, we believe the firm faces no current liquidity issues, with $586 million in cash and $1.6 billion in total debt that is very long-dated. Capital spending in 2017 is projected to be only about $500 million. We continue to believe that the company’s spectrum assets on its balance sheet are carried at a cost significantly below the going rate in recent auctions. 

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Alex Zhao does not own (actual or beneficial) shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar’s editorial policies.