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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Will Ashworth, Contributing Writer
| February 25, 2019
It has been more than two years since real estate companies were pulled from the financials sector under the Global Industry Classification Standard (GICS) and put into their own sector.
Then late last year, the GICS reshuffled again, moving 26 companies from the telecommunication services, consumer discretionary and information technology sectors to a new Communications Services sector, creating GICS Code 50 – a combination of old media and new media.
Included in the move were three of the five FAANG stocks – Amazon.com (AMZN) and Apple (AAPL) remained in the consumer discretionary and technology sectors respectively – providing investors with a mixed bag of component companies, some with lots of upside potential, and others with very little. The regulatory issues facing some of the social media companies in the communications services sector worries some professional investors, for instance.
“The regulatory pendulum tends to swing from ‘not enough’ to ‘too much,’ and it will take time to balance,” says Scott Wren, senior global equity strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute in St. Louis. “In the meantime, we have to think about overregulation.”
To get past the headwinds, you need to focus on quality. That said, here are 10 communications services stocks to buy for a shot at outperforming the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index over the next few years.
Data is as of Feb. 24, 2019. Dividend yields are calculated by annualizing the most recent quarterly payout and dividing by the share price. Analyst opinions provided by The Wall Street Journal.
Market value: $161.1 billion
Dividend yield: N/A
Forward P/E: 57.2
Analysts’ opinion: 28 buy, 3 overweight, 10 hold, 0 underperform, 3 sell
If there’s a stock that represents new media, Netflix (NFLX, $363.02) would surely be at the top of the list. Although the company got its start in 1997, it wasn’t until it launched video streaming in 2007 that its business really took off.
“There’s clearly a strong demand for watching movies,” said Brian Pitz, then an analyst with Bank of America, at the time. “But the company’s earnings are going to be more negatively impacted.”
That’s not what happened.
In 2006, Netflix had $64 million in operating profits on $997 million in revenue, an operating margin of 6.4%. Five years later it had started streaming in Canada (September 2010) and was making $376 million in operating profits from $3.2 billion in revenues, an operating margin of 11.7%.
But it did flip from free-cash-flow-positive ($221 million in 2006) to free-cash-flow-negative ($2 billion in 2017) – the cost of acquiring video streaming content. Despite this negative FCF, Netflix is building a business that will stand the test of time. It set a record 8.8 million-subscriber net gain in the fourth quarter – a record for its final three months of the year – on the back of a huge influx of 7.31 million international customers to put its overall global count at 139 million.
“We recognize we are making huge cash investments in content, and we want to assure our investors that we have the same high confidence in the underlying economics as our cash investments in the past,” Netflix said back in its Oct. 16 letter to shareholders. “These investments we see as very likely to help us to keep our revenue and operating profits growing for a very long time ahead.”
Market value: $462.0 billion
Forward P/E: 18.2
Analysts’ opinion: 34 buy, 5 overweight, 9 hold, 0 underperform, 1 sell
Facebook (FB, $161.89) continues to walk a line between trying to convince social media users that it’s serious about privacy while monetizing and sharing extremely sensitive data.
For instance, Facebook is coming under fire at the moment after it was revealed that several health apps are sending highly sensitive personal data to Facebook – even if they’re not using Facebook. It’s also pulling its Onavo VPN app from the Google Play store as part of the continued fallout from discovering that it was, surprise, collecting gobs of data.
On the other hand, Facebook’s chief privacy officer, Erin Egan, spoke to a privacy conference in Brussels in 2018, assuring them that the company is 100% behind any privacy legislation introduced by the U.S. government.
“We support strong and effective privacy legislation in the United States and around the world,” Egan told the conference. “We recognize the value of regulation of privacy.”
Case in point, Facebook is using a new machine learning tool to find images of child nudity and removing them. It removed more than 8.7 million images during a three-month period mostly covering the third quarter.
If Facebook’s going to continue growing, actions like these – and tamping down on its data-privacy issues – will go a long way toward reassuring users that it cares about them.
Market value: $776.2 billion
Dividend yield: N/A
Forward P/E: 20.4
Analysts’ opinion: 38 buy, 4 overweight, 2 hold, 0 underperform, 0 sell
What’s Alphabet’s (GOOGL, $1,116.56) biggest problem if you’re an investor? You need a program to know who all the players are. Alphabet is no longer just a search engine company. It hasn’t been for some time. Now it’s Waymo, Verily (health-care research), Sidewalk Labs and more.
Now, it’s not even a tech company – technically speaking.
On Sept. 21, Alphabet, along with Facebook, were moved out of the technology sector of the S&P 500 and dropped into the Communications sector. However, make no mistake. With initiatives like Waymo, it is still very much a technology company.
“It’s moving into all of these new technology initiatives,” Jamie Murray, Head of Research at Murray Wealth Management, said in early October. “The Waymo self-driving car unit is potentially the next big thing out of Google that will take years to play out but if they get it right, it could be worth hundreds of billions of dollars and Google is right there at the forefront of that technology.”
Alphabet’s consistent earnings per share growth of 20% over the years are more than enough, suggests Murray, to justify a price-to-earnings multiple of 25 times earnings.
Market value: $171.8 billion
Dividend yield: 1.5%
Forward P/E: 16.0
Analysts’ opinion: 14 buy, 1 overweight, 7 hold, 0 underperform, 0 sell
It’s interesting that Netflix, Walt Disney’s (DIS, $115.25) biggest competitor in video streaming, announced in October 2018 that it would be borrowing another $2 billion to buy more content. It will keep Netflix competitive, but investors didn’t love the move given that interest rates have been on an upward slope for a while.
What’s that mean for Disney? Not much. That said, any weakness that Disney CEO Bob Iger, the long-time boss of Mickey Mouse, senses in its newest rival, he’s sure to take advantage.
Netflix has become a rival, of course, because Disney is launching its own over-the-top streaming service – expected in late 2019 – to compete with NFLX, putting up its Avengers, Star Wars and other brands up against Netflix’s collection of bought assets.
“We believe the company has the key mix of assets to be successful and the opportunity from this pivot could be substantial,” Barclays analyst Kannan Venkateshwar said in a note in which he raised his 12-month price target by $25 to $130. “We believe Disney’s Investor Day could prove to be a catalyst to frame the scale of the opportunity and help the company build a credible terminal value ‘story’ around the stock.”
Disney’s Investor Day will come on April 11.
Courtesy Electronic Arts
Market value: $28.7 billion
Forward P/E: 22.1
Analysts’ opinion: 20 buy, 2 overweight, 11 hold, 1 underperform, 0 sell
Since hitting a 52-week high of $151.26 in late July, Electronic Arts (EA, $95.92) stock has lost more than a third of its value. One of the reasons for this decline was the one-month delay launching Battlefield V, which resulted in the company lowering its full-year guidance. The stock also sank in February after the title sold fewer copies than expected.
What’s interesting about investor reaction is that the company is moving away from pay-to-play games of its favorite franchises such as Battlefield, FIFA and Madden, toward games-as-a-service.
In fiscal 2019, Electronic Arts have only scheduled the release of seven prepackaged games, opting to invest more of its capital into live services. EA earned $2 billion from live services in 2018, or approximately 40% of its $5.2 billion in annual revenue. Two years ago, it barely got a mention in the company’s 10-K.
“Because (Electronic Arts and peers) are able to release fewer products while generating far more revenue, this business model is not only sustainable, it’s extremely profitable,” Sam Desatoff wrote in trade publication GameDaily.biz.
As Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson said in July during its conference call for the first quarter of its fiscal 2019, live services help bring back lapsed players through greater engagement, which results in a stronger relationship over many years.
To wit, EA’s stock recovered quickly from its post-earnings drop in February after it announced that Apex Legends, a free-to-play game meant to compete with the popular Fortnite, gained 10 million players in just 72 hours.
Market value: $235.2 billion
Dividend yield: 4.2%
Forward P/E: 11.9
Analysts’ opinion: 12 buy, 0 overweight, 18 hold, 1 underperform, 0 sell
If you’re investing in Verizon (VZ, $56.92), don’t put much stock in its media business. It’s 5G and beyond that will make you money in the long term.
Tim Armstrong – CEO of the Oath business containing AOL and Yahoo – resigned Oct. 1. Verizon released its Q3 2018 earnings three weeks later. We now know why Armstrong walked the plank: Oath’s revenues were down 6.9% in Q3, it didn’t expect any growth in the near term and it abandoned its annual revenue target of $10 billion to $20 billion by 2020 – something Armstrong had promised as recently as June 2017.
Not going to happen.
Fortunately, Verizon is the first to launch a 5G network in the U.S., and that will get plenty of legs in 2019 and 2022. That more than outweighs the mistake of buying Yahoo.
During the third quarter, Verizon added 295,000 wireless postpaid wireless subscribers, nearly double the analyst estimate of 161,000. It then added 653,000 postpaid subscribers in Q4, again nearly doubling up analyst expectations. Its revenue growth projections for 2019 were weak, at just low single digits, but its cost-cutting initiative is on schedule to produce $10 billion in cumulative savings by 2021.
Verizon isn’t a growth play, but it’s a very profitable business that delivers a 4%-plus yield at the moment and looks like the early leader in 5G technology. It doesn’t need Oath.
Courtesy Studio Sarah Lou via Flickr
Market value: $19.3 billion
Dividend yield: 1.4%
Forward P/E: 7.9
Analysts’ opinion: 15 buy, 3 overweight, 13 hold, 0 underperform, 0 sell
Les Moonves was on top of the mountain at CBS Corp. (CBS, $51.69) until the truth about his management style pushed him out the door. Remarkably, CBS stock has performed relatively well since that time, down only 7% since his departure, which included the December hemorrhage with the rest of the market.
Keeping both CBS stock and Viacom (VIAB) afloat is the ongoing talk of the two companies getting back together after a 12-year separation.
“We read the appointment of Dick Parsons post-close Sept. 25 to interim CBS Chairman as elevating a voice friendly to Shari Redstone and consolidation,” B. Riley analyst Barton Crockett told MarketWatch in late September. “If CBS and Viacom can’t find better suitors outside of the family, we believe they will look to reunite (reversing their 2005 split).”
Of the two companies, CBS likely has a better chance of landing an outside suitor than Viacom. Its CBS All Access and Showtime direct-to-consumer subscribers have hit 8 million, roughly two years ahead of schedule. Now it’s looking for a combined 25 million subscribers by 2022.
Market value: $14.4 billion
Forward P/E: 8.0
Analysts’ opinion: 14 buy, 0 overweight, 13 hold, 1 underperform, 0 sell
Discovery Communications (DISCK, $27.51) is a good news-bad news kind of stock.
The good news is that its business is doing alright despite the restructuring charges associated with its $14.6 billion cash-and-stock purchase of Scripps Networks earlier this year. In the second quarter ended June 30, pro forma revenues grew 3% year-over-year to $2.84 billion while adjusted OIBDA (operating income before depreciation and amortization) rose 5% on a pro forma basis to $1.2 billion. Revenues improved 1% in Q3 backing out the acquisition, with OIBDA up 9%.
The bad news is that if you’re waiting for one of the larger media companies such as AT&T (T, $29.98) or Walt Disney to make an offer for Discovery, you might be waiting a while because both have massive acquisitions to integrate successfully.
However, one possible acquirer could be Comcast (CMCSA, $35.84), who lost out to Disney for Fox. But Comcast CEO Brian Roberts could be interested in expanding its content in Europe after winning the booby prize – the U.K.’s Sky Plc.
“If Comcast wants to expand across Europe they may need more content, such as Discovery,” BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield told CNBC last year.
Market value: $7.6 billion
Forward P/E: 24.8
Analysts’ opinion: 2 buy, 0 overweight, 20 hold, 1 underperform, 4 sell
TripAdvisor (TRIP, $54.94) is the world’s largest travel site, with more than 600 million reviews and opinions on over 7.5 million accommodations, airlines, restaurants and more.
If you’ve used TripAdvisor, you’re likely aware of the controversy surrounding fake reviews leading to some very disappointed travelers. To remedy that, it is going full circle by adding professional advice to the site – something it did back in its early days.
“It’s the biggest, most functional benefit to our entire audience,” CEO Stephen Kaufer said in September when launching the new site.
For travelers who are skeptical of reviews, this adds legitimacy to TripAdvisor, making it a useful information source for planning a trip. This change truly could take TripAdvisor to the next level, possibly reigniting growth in its hotel business.
So far, so good. The company grew revenues by 8% to $346 million in its fourth quarter, and it grew its adjusted profits from 6 cents per share in the year-ago quarter to 27 cents. That included a 25% boost to hotel adjusted EBITDA, to $79 million.
Forward P/E: 29.5
Analysts’ opinion: 2 buy, 1 overweight, 3 hold, 1 underperform, 1 sell
The past year or so has been busy for Rupert Murdoch, who sold the entertainment assets of Twenty-First Century Fox (FOXA) for $71.3 billion and in the same year lost out to Comcast for the right to buy European pay-TV heavyweight Sky.
Lost in the shuffle is News Corp. (NWSA, $12.98), the Murdoch’s publishing assets, which include The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s and the New York Post.
The Wall Street Journal continues to transform from a print-based media outlet to a digital one. In the fourth quarter, it grew digital subscribers by 25% to 1.6 million, a clear sign the transformation is working.
A part of its business that doesn’t get much attention (but probably should) is its digital real estate services segment, which includes Move, a website dedicated to helping people find apartments to rent. In fiscal 2018, the segment’s revenues increased by 22% to $1.1 billion, while its segment EBITDA increased 24% to $401 million, making it by far News Corp’s most profitable business.
Moving from old-school media to the new school of media, News Corp. could surprise a lot of people in 2019 and beyond.