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Telecommunications Network Operators: 2Q19 Market Review

This market review provides a comprehensive assessment of the global telecommunications industry based on financial results through June 2019 (2Q19). The report tracks revenue, capex and employee for 130 individual telecommunications network operators (TNOs). For a sub-group of 40 large TNOs, the report also assesses labor cost, opex and operating profit trends. Our coverage timeframe spans 1Q11-2Q19 (34 quarters). The report's format is Excel.
The global telecom industry continues to be constrained at the top line. Annualized revenues declined YoY by 1.6% in 2Q19, to $1,821B. Revenue decline moderated slightly in 2Q19 as single quarter revenues fell -0.4% YoY to $453B. Second quarter capex was strong, recording 5% growth from 2Q18 to $72B. Annualized capex thereby increased slightly to $303B in 2Q19, from $299B in 1Q19 or $302B in 2Q18. The capex uptick was due mainly to China. Telco spending on employees, or labor costs, amounted to $290B in 2Q19 on an annualized basis, roughly flat YoY.
Telcos are beginning to deploy 5G and invest in the media business, but most are doing so cautiously as recession warnings are growing. On October 14, the IMF downgraded expectations for 2019 and said the macroeconomic outlook remains “precarious.” Recessions tend to hit telco revenues hard. A slowdown in telco revenues result in both additional layoffs and a slower growth rate in 5G spending. Few telcos have room in their budgets for a 5G capex splurge. Telco profit margins remain tight, nothing new for the telecom industry. Operators are getting more concerned about debt, though, and more interested in open networking, cloud partnerships, asset spinoffs, and other tactics to reduce capex requirements.
Key findings of our 2Q19 “Market Review” include:
1) The long-term revenue growth rate of the telecom sector is in the 0% to 2% range, after adjusting for currency translation. In 2Q19, single-quarter revenue dropped by 0.4% YoY on a fixed exchange rate basis. Actual revenue growth in 2Q19 was lower, down 0.5% YoY to $453B. Both figures are slightly below the sector’s long term growth range.
2) Even the modest growth currently achieved by the telecom sector requires high levels of capital investment in networks. The industry’s long-term capex to revenue ratio (capital intensity) is in the 16-17% range, on average (16.6% in 2Q19). Telcos also use M&A to expand into adjacent markets; AT&T-Time Warner is just one example. The debt from such deals can drive up the operator’s interest payments and make it harder to fund capex, however. Such deals also inevitably come with layoffs.
3) On a revenue per employee (RPE) basis, the telco sector has been stagnant since 2011: the annualized figure was $362K that year, and the average figure for the last four quarters was $353K. Labor costs per employee, on an annualized basis declined YoY by -0.2% in 2Q19 to $55.8K. Over the last 12 months, the fastest growing operators on an RPE basis include Omantel, Zain, Reliance Communications, Shaw, and Telenor.
4) Telcos employed 5.2 million people in 2Q19, in line with 2Q18. We expect employee totals to begin declining in the next 1-2 years. India alone may cut up to 100K employees in that timeframe, due to Jio’s consolidation & BSNL reforms.
5) Annualized capex for 2Q19 alone was 16.6% of revenues, a little higher than 1Q19. That was due to a strong second quarter. Single quarter capex grew 5% YoY in 2Q19 to $72B, after two consecutive single-quarter declines. This increase mainly came from China’s big three telcos, which combined generated capex of more than $11B in 2Q19 (YoY increase of 16%). The market’s average capital intensity will exceed 17% by the end of this year.
6) The M&A climate remains strong for the sector in 2019. Many telcos see their core markets declining, and are buying their way into other markets while also streamlining their asset base. Noteworthy recent deals include the merger of T-Mobile and Sprint, Comcast’s acquisition of Sky, the merger of Vodafone India and Idea Cellular; and Vodafone’s $18B acquisition of Liberty Global’s Germany and Eastern Europe cable and broadband assets. All eyes are set on the much talked about merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, which will result in the combined entity to become the second largest mobile operator in the US. However, after the M&A deal paperwork is signed, integrating operations and actually achieving synergies continues to be a challenge for telcos. Managing the debt from these acquisitions is just as hard, as AT&T and others are discovering.
7) Telco industry operating margins have been very stable for the last 11 quarters, hovering at around 13.7%, on an annualized basis. Net margins vary substantially, impacted by depreciation costs, taxes, debt payments, workforce restructuring, and a whole host of other factors. In order to grow margins, many operators plan layoffs or similar workforce restructuring (e.g. voluntary retirement). At the same time, telcos are hiring in new technical areas (e.g. SDN) and are always hiring salespeople. On a per-employee basis, the global average for labor costs (on an annualized basis) in 2Q19 was $56k, down 0.2% compared to the year earlier. As 5G approaches, telcos will see their sales & marketing costs grow. They will continue to look for ways to reduce the labor cost component of customer acquisition & retention costs (CAC and CRC), through both technology investments & business partnerships.
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Matt Walker
Chief Analyst