Vodafone’s performance this quarter was hit both by COVID and an underlying deterioration in its operational momentum—disappointing given regulatory easing and easier comparables.

Vodafone’s guidance has been more prudent than most going into this pandemic and these results support that cautious stance. Whether it’s a case of Vodafone underperforming or the sector being less resilient than expected will emerge over the coming weeks.

The IPO of Vodafone’s towers business is imperative to maintaining its leverage targets and dividend. It will need to sell a chunky slice of equity and realise a hefty multiple in challenging market conditions.  The profile of the asset for sale will help but it all remains very finely balanced.

Premium sports subscriptions are the primary sector weakness in the current crisis, and they look set to drive fixed operator revenues down 10% next quarter and Sky’s EBITDA down by 60%.

As lockdown eases, latent broadband demand can be more easily sated, and sports subscriptions will bounce back from the September quarter. A surge in working-from-home is likely to increase both the quantity and quality of home broadband demand, with ‘failover’ mobile backup also likely to be of greater interest.

Openreach will benefit from accelerated demand for full fibre, converged operators will be best-placed to offer mobile backup for broadband, and operators with a strong corporate presence will most easily target demand for home-working products.

European mobile service revenue growth strengthened very slightly to -0.3% this quarter but, with many positive and negative factors at play, it would be wrong to conclude that we evidenced a convincing improvement in momentum.

Most operators have reiterated their financial guidance in spite of COVID-19 but there is caution from Vodafone and those exposed to sports rights (BT and Telefonica).

The outlook benefits from continued lockdown measures (reducing churn and spin-down) and the annualisation of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter. However, competition in Spain remains intense and the sector is exposed to any economic downturn.

The slow recovery in UK mobile continued this quarter with a 1ppt improvement in service revenue trends.

In spite of operator guidance to the negative, the sector is likely to remain relatively resilient in the face of COVID-19 in the short term, with its various impacts affecting operators differently depending on their business mix.

The outlook is relatively robust with the impact of some regulatory initiatives muted by lockdown measures and the annualization of some financial drags from the middle of next quarter.
 

Vodafone’s financial metrics appear to be slowly ticking up and it is making some progress in narrowing its performance gap to peers. Signs that it may be moving away from a discount-led convergence strategy in Germany are very positive.

Organic EBITDA growth is highly flattered by one-off items and, as is frequently the case, even this headline EBITDA growth for FY20 is wiped out by currency depreciation in ‘Rest of World’ countries.

This lack of real progress on EBITDA and FCF and the muted outlook for both exacerbates Vodafone’s tight leverage position. There seems very little prospect of it unsettling the O2/Virgin Media JV in the UK.
 

BT’s March quarter appeared to have been going reasonably well until COVID-19 hit, with full year guidance still being broadly met, but the new financial year will be hit harder, with BT Sport, SME and new fibre connection revenue particularly vulnerable.

BT’s full fibre roll-out has been temporarily slowed by COVID-19, but it is accelerating its ambitions regardless increasing both its 12-month (4.0m to 4.5m) and longer term (15m to 20m) coverage targets.

BT is suspending and then rebasing its dividend, in part to cover the above costs. While we regard BT’s fibre investment as a good one, investors and analysts alike have been frustrated by a lack of clear multi-year guidance of the benefits, perhaps as a result of BT not wanting to reveal its negotiating hand to the regulator, government and retail partners.

O2’s merger with Virgin Media seems more of a marriage of convenience than a determined pursuit of synergy benefits. With the owners effectively selling their stakes, the combination will be well-advised to exercise caution in any convergence strategy that they pursue.

O2’s results this quarter appear to be fairly decent with all metrics ticking up slightly, although caution is advised in interpretation and pressure on ARPU has not eased.

With the mobile sector reasonably well insulated from COVID-19 and O2 likely to fare better than most in out-of-contract discounts, the short-term outlook is relatively robust, but competitive and macroeconomic vulnerabilities remain on the horizon.

The press has reported on an imminent merger of O2 and Virgin Media (UK). This is not likely to be driven by the pursuit of revenue synergies as dis-synergies are more likely if the brands are merged.

Cost synergies are real, albeit a bit tangential. However, in a mature market even modest synergies are worth pursuing.

A full regulatory review may be required but approval is likely. Market impact is somewhat nuanced, with the benefit of a distracted competitor short-term and a larger but still rational operator ultimately.

European mobile service revenue growth improved by 1ppt to -1.2% primarily as a consequence of diminished competitive intensity in France. Trends elsewhere were largely flat.

The mobile sector is playing an important role in tackling COVID-19 and is likely to be relatively resilient in the short term with a broadly neutral financial impact. Longer term it will be exposed to the fortunes of the economy.

There are reasons to believe that the improvement in trends evidenced in the last quarter may continue as churn reduction takes the heat out of some markets, cuts to intra-EU calls annualises out and for most countries, end-of-contract notifications will only begin to impact in 2021.