Here's What the Market is Missing on Sprint's Earnings

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Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

U.S. stocks are little changed on Wednesday morning, with the benchmark S&P 500 and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average up 0.09% and down 0.06%, respectively, at 10:25 a.m. EST. New Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen gave a solid, reassuring performance before Congress yesterday and the House of Representatives passed a clean bill to raise the U.S. debt ceiling -- what more can investors ask for in terms of a policy backdrop? As such, it's time to turn our attention back to earnings, with Sprint  announcing a major loss -- to investors' satisfaction.

The No. 3 telecom carrier posted a $1 billion loss for the fourth quarter, or $0.26 per share, but this was well ahead of the $0.33 analysts had expected; revenue of $9.14 billion was marginally above the $8.97 billion consensus estimate. In terms of 2014 guidance, the company expects EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization - a measure of cash flow) of between $6.5 billion and $6.7 billion. However, Sprint said that will be "overwhelmed" by an expected capital expenditure of $8 billion as it continues to roll out its 4G network. Still, investors appear to be content with these results and expectations, as the shares are up 1.4% at 10:25 a.m. EST.

My concern is the 58,000 contract subscribers Sprint managed to add in the fourth quarter, which badly lags the numbers its competitors put up during the same period: 780,000 for AT&T, 824,000 for Verizon Wireless, and 869,000 for the scrappy "junior" operator among the "big 4," T-Mobile . Furthermore, as CNET's Roger Cheng noted:

On the surface, Sprint added a net 58,000 new contract customers. But if you look at the fine print of the earnings report, the growth largely came from 466,000 tablets added in the period. Stripping out the tablets, Sprint lost 408,000 phone customers.

Finally, I'm concerned that Sprint CEO Dan Hesse appears to be clinging to the notion of a tie-up with T-Mobile in the face of clear opposition from regulators to further consolidation at the top of the industry. During the earnings call, Hesse opined "that further consolidation in the U.S. wireless industry -- outside of the big two -- AT&T and Verizon because they're so large -- would be healthy for the competitive dynamic of the industry, would be better for the country and better for consumers."

The trouble for Hesse is that regulators have made clear that they believe the opposite, and they're the ones who have the final say on any deal. At best, focusing on doing a deal with T-Mobile is a distraction for management at a time when it ought to have a laser focus on customer acquisition; at worst, it looks like a sign of delusion. Either way, it's not a reassuring sign for a company that appears to be losing traction relative to its top three competitors.

The article Here's What the Market is Missing on Sprint's Earnings originally appeared on

Alex Dumortier, CFA has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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