Should I Buy Vodafone?


LONDON -- It's time to go shopping for shares again, but where to start? Rain-soaked retailer Kingfisher? Recovering bank Royal Bank of Scotland? Or financial-services flyer Hargreaves Lansdown?

There are plenty of great stocks to choose from, and I'm enjoying doing some window shopping. So here's the question I'm asking right now: Should I buy Vodafone (LSE: VOD.L) (Nasdaq: VOD) ?

I own Vodafone
I remember the days when mobile-phone companies were zippy new growth motors, and investors piled in hoping to ring up fast returns. Somewhere along the way, they morphed into plodding utility stocks, and that's what Vodafone looks like now. I bought a belated stake back in August 2009, and ever since, it's been quietly humming away in my portfolio.

I barely give it a second glance, except when the dividend pops into my share account every six months. In these troubled times, that looks like the ultimate virtue. Should I buy more?

Wrong numbers
Vodafone's share price famously hit a high of around 4 pounds at the height of the dot-com boom. More than 12 years later, it trades at just 1.76 pounds. Clearly, its solid reputation is a recent thing. But it's not that solid: The stock has fallen nearly 8% since mid-August, and I'm not the only investor to sense a buying opportunity.

Vodafone has been hit by the lengthy tax dispute over its $10.7 billion purchase of Hutchison Whampoa's Indian unit in 2007. This was structured as an offshore transaction, and now the Indian government wants its share, even rewriting tax laws to allow it to tax any cross-border deals done since 1962.

That's crazy, but potentially costly. Vodafone has set aside around 1.4 billion pounds, just in case.

I'll put you on hold
Verizon Wireless
, in which Vodafone holds a 45% stake, is another worry. Vodafone investors were hoping for news of another dividend from the joint U.S. mobile-phone venture in September, but it wasn't even discussed. This led some analysts to question whether Vodafone's policy of handing all its free cash flow to shareholders would remain affordable.

Although mobile companies possess strong defensive characteristics, they aren't immune to the eurozone crisis. In the three months to June 30, Vodafone posted groupwide service revenues of 9.9 billion pounds -- a rise of just 0.6% over the year -- after European sales slowed.

It has also been criticized for making slow progress on cutting its operating costs and striking network-sharing deals. When analysts at Bernstein put Vodafone on "hold" after calling it a "buy" for more than three years, the share price rout was complete.

Game, handset, and match
Actually, it wasn't much of a rout. I wish Vodafone's share price had fallen more than 8%, which would make it a no-brainer buy. As it is, I think it's a buy anyway. With a current dividend yield of 5.4% and a forecast yield of 7.3%, where else would you put your money right now? Cash?

Trading on a forecast P/E of 11.1, it doesn't look too expensive, either. Vodafone has had its problems, but ultimately, it still rings the right numbers.

One life, one stock
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