Vodafone’s growth this quarter was a touch disappointing; the annualistion of the COVID hit was a clear boost but no evidence of any tailwinds. The 1.1% growth in the European markets should be the real focus for investors.

We see some evidence of positive initiatives from Vodafone such as its new EVO tariffs in the UK but it still has much to prove on operating momentum, especially in Germany.

There are signs that Vodafone is slow-pedalling in some markets and with demanding EBITDA targets and with leverage still finely balanced, we expect this focus on profitability to continue. The UK may be a special case.

Epic Games, maker of mega-hit Fortnite, sued Apple over alleged antitrust violations around App Store rules and Apple’s 30% tax on in-app transactions. A decision could come soon, though it will be contested on appeal.

The implications of the case could be far-reaching, as Apple and other tech companies like Google design their platforms to extract high-margin revenue from the transactions they facilitate, including news subscriptions: a five-year basic in-app subscription to The Times costs £885, of which Apple takes £158. 

It comes in the context of a flurry of debate and decisions around tech antitrust and consumer protection: new laws may ultimately be needed, but regulators in the US and UK are proving they can be creative with their existing tools. 

Sales of used and new cars fell 18% in 2020, impacted by the pandemic’s closure of forecourts, and bottlenecks in the supply chain. Consumer demand for private over public transport has strengthened, however, pointing to a recovery of car sales in 202.

Market leader Auto Trader posted a 29% revenue decline in the year ending in March 2021, largely from necessary but self-imposed subscription holidays. Auto Trader revenues are set to rebound in 2021 as the car market’s recovery emerges.

The pandemic accelerated the transition of the consumer car buying journey from the physical forecourt to the digital space. Fully digital transactions are edge-case, but there is huge opportunity for scale players to facilitate transactions—needless to say, Auto Trader looks to be a key winner.

Mobile growth dipped again to -3.3% for what we hope is the final time as widespread lockdowns impacted paid-for usage in most countries.

BT and Vodafone joined the other European MNOs in guiding to improving trends in 2021—expecting EBITDA momentum to be 7-10ppts better—slightly ahead of the 5-7ppts for the European operators.

We may even see positive revenue growth next quarter thanks to the simple annualisation of the first lockdown, with the UK the most to gain and Germany and Italy the least. Investment is creeping up too with higher capex guidance and better 5G momentum.

The consumer books market has flourished during the pandemic: following early worries, publishers are reporting strong growth and profits

However, bookshops, the most important point of contact between the industry and readers, are facing their toughest challenge yet as ecommerce booms and continued home-working saps high street footfall                                                   

Publishers and authors are embracing new, online ways of promoting titles. These will require new ways of working, and are not substitutes for dedicated shops, which must be protected as much as possible

Vodafone’s additional investment to boost a growth story that isn’t yet delivering failed to impress investors who value cashflow much more than promises for tomorrow, particularly given Vodafone’s track record with restructuring plans and product development.

It’s a surprising time to be splashing the cash with leverage still finely balanced and riding on Vodafone delivering a 10ppt turnaround in EBITDA growth next year vs last. Commercial activity looks set to continue to be dominated by EBITDA promises.

Selling a stake in Vantage Towers (temporarily) solved a leverage problem, but is creating a control problem, with the uncertain level of its future capex adding to investor concerns.

The press industry lost £1 billion off the topline from the calamitous decline in print revenues due to pandemic-related mobility restrictions, partly offset by gains on digital subscriptions, much harder to precisely size in revenue terms.

Trapped at home for the most part, online traffic to BBC News and news publisher services boomed. Popular news sites marginally grew digital advertising while the quality nationals attracted 800,000 new paying subscribers to reach nearly three million in 2020.

The outlook for 2021, in the transition to the ‘new normal’, is mixed. Consumer work patterns and news, information and entertainment habits are unlikely to ‘bounce back’ to pre-pandemic levels, placing free commuter titles at particular risk. Signs of confidence through online innovation are welcome.

After a strong post-pandemic rebound, Sky has the opportunity to leverage its strong reputation with consumers to meet the challenge posed by new competitors and the studios’ direct-to-consumer transition, establishing Sky Q as the ultimate gatekeeper of video subscription homes.

Sports rights costs in Germany and Italy have been cut significantly, while Sky’s spend on UK Premier League rights will decrease in real terms. Savings will ease the financing of the shift to original content, which, associated with owner Comcast’s NBCU output, anchors the aggregation strategy.

Fibre deployment in the UK and Italy presents a subscriber and revenue growth opportunity, and underpins the gradual shift away from satellite to online content distribution.

Mobile revenue growth improved slightly to -3% this quarter, primarily thanks to a weakening in the drag from the loss of roaming.

European MNOs are guiding to improving trends in 2021—broadly stable revenues and EBITDA vs declines of 5-7% in 2020. This bodes well for guidance from the UK players around mid-May.

However, the outlook is far from rosy, with Q1 2021 still very challenging ahead of an annualisation of the pandemic drags from the June quarter. Growth prospects remain contingent on the resumption of travel and the economic climate.

Europe’s larger MNOs are falling over each other to demonstrate support for OpenRAN, which has become a primarily operator-driven standards initiative, with governments also firmly behind it.

This is driven by a desire to improve equipment interoperability from the current de facto monolithic standards, improve supplier diversity, and ultimately drive down cost.

While some movement towards interoperability is perhaps overdue, OpenRAN is not a panacea, and some trade-offs between price, performance, supplier diversity and reliability have to be accepted.