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CenturyTel, Inc. (CTL)

Q4 2008 Earnings Call Transcript

February 19, 2009 11:35 am ET

Executives

Tony Davis – VP, IR

Glen Post – Chairman & CEO

Stewart Ewing – EVP & CFO

Karen Puckett – President & COO

Analysts

Simon Flannery – Morgan Stanley

Batya Levi – UBS

Frank Louthan – Raymond James

Michael Rollins – Citigroup

Christopher King – Stifel Nicolaus

Don Yaeger [ph]

Nicholas Pentiotopolous [ph]

Allan Bear [ph]

Operator

Good day, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to CenturyTel’s fourth quarter 2008 earnings conference call. At this time, all participants are on listen-only mode. Later, we will conduct the question-and-answer session and instructions will be given at that time. (Operator instructions) As a reminder, this conference call is being recorded. I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Tony Davis, Vice President of Investor Relations. Mr. Davis, you may begin.

Tony Davis

Thank you, Sayid. Good morning, everyone, and welcome to our call today to discuss CenturyTel’s fourth quarter 2008 earnings results released earlier this morning. During today’s call, we will refer to certain non-GAAP financial measures and we have reconciled those measures to GAAP figures in our earnings release, which is available on our Web site at www.centurytel.com.

Your host for today’s call is Glen Post, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of CenturyTel. Joining Glen on our call today is Stewart Ewing, CenturyTel’s Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer. Also available during the call today is Karen Puckett, CenturyTel’s President and Chief Operating Officer.

We will be making certain forward-looking statements today, particularly as they pertain to guidance for first quarter and full year 2009, selected information regarding 2009, and the pending (inaudible) transaction, and other outlooks in our business. Please review our Safe Harbor Language found in our press release and in our SEC filings, which describes factors that could cause our actual results to differ materially from those projected by us and our forward-looking statements.

Our call today will be accessible for telephone replay though February 25th, 2009 and accessible for webcast replay through March 11, 2009. For anyone listening to the tape or webcast replay of this call or for anyone reviewing a written transcript of today’s call, please note that all information presented is current only as of today and should be considered valid only as of today regardless of the date listened to or reviewed.

At this time, I will turn the call over to your host today, Glen Post. Glen?

Glen Post

Thank you, Tony. Appreciate your joining us today as we discuss CenturyTel’s fourth quarter 2008 operating results and our guidance for our first quarter and full year 2009. Our diluted earnings per share, excluding non-recurring items was $0.88 for the quarter or $0.05 ahead of our previous guidance, and $0.06 ahead of first call consensus of $0.86. These increased earnings are driven by continuing reductions in our call structure along with the impacts of the 2008 income tax that reflects our effective 2008 income tax rate.

Operating revenues, excluding non-recurring items for the quarter was $642.6 million, which was then our previous revenue guidance $635 million to $645 million. Our revenue increases during the quarter, approximately $70 million, resulted primarily from gross associated with our 15.5% increase in high speed Internet customers. This increase has more than offset our revenue decline of approximately $32 million, primarily attributable to previously anticipated access line losses and lower access revenues.

We continue to see strong demand for broadband services during the quarter growth as with tier growth and beta revenues 9.5% for fourth quarter of 2007. This increase was primarily driven by an addition of more than 85,000 high speed Internet subscribers in the last 12 months.

We also generated strong free cash flow of $114 million during the fourth quarter for the full year 2008, which generated a record $584 million of free cash flow driven by 12% lower CapEx in 2008 versus 2007.

Our 2008 capital investment were primarily focused on maintenance or sustaining capital. Also, we were focused on increasing our broadband capabilities, our switch digital video operations, along with the expansion of our core fiber network. We added nearly 13,300 high speed Internet subscribers during the fourth quarter, which represents the 2.1% sequential growth in broadband customers.

We ended 2008 with more than 641,000 high speed Internet subscribers, 36.3% penetration of DSL enabled lines, and 32.1% penetration of total access lines. We’ve experienced taxes by loss of approximately 42,900 during the quarter, which equates to a full year 2008 loss of 6.4%. From the overall standpoint, 34.7% of our residential customers are served with one of our bundle offerings, compared to 31.5% a year ago.

We also continue to experience solid demand for our satellite video products and we added nearly 13,000 customers during fourth quarter. and ended 2008 with nearly 118,000 total satellite video subscribers, which was more than double the level of service a year ago. We believe we’ll continue to see solid demand in this service in the months ahead.

Before turning the call over to Stewart, I want to make a few comments regarding operations and our progress towards completing the pending transactions with (inaudible), our bundle offering – I’m sorry – we’ll continue to work towards the remaining Federal and state regulatory approval that’s necessary to close the transaction, and we expect to close the transaction in second quarter of the year. We are excited about this combination. It obviously creates a company of impressive scale. We expect to realize substantial synergy to both increase operational efficiencies and enhance our revenue opportunities. That transaction is expected to be free cash flow plus share accretive, and the first full year after closing of the combined company – will be financially strong with pro forma leverage or approximately 2.1 times operating cash flow including synergies on full run rate basis.

The strong capital structure should provide us the financial flexibility to fund our operational needs going forward and return substantial capital to our shareholders to both dividends and opportunistic share repurchases. In addition to our financial strength, the combined company will be strategically and competitively well positioned. Both companies have excellent network, so we believe we can leverage to drive increased revenues to roll out new products for a large consumer base as well as EMBARQ diverse mix of business and enterprise customers.

CenturyTel’s integrative systems should allow us significant customer service and more market efficiencies, both reducing our operating cost and improve the customer care experience. We believe leveraging is the best practice is the system of the combined company along with greater scale and scope of our operations will strengthen our competitive position in the marketplace.

In summary, this combination creates a larger, financially stronger company, which we believe is – will be well positioned and significantly increase shareholder value in the months and years ahead.

With that, I’ll the call over to Stewart to provide additional detail on our results for the fourth quarter and to update you on our financial guidance for 2009.

Stewart Ewing

Thank you, Glen. During the next few minutes, I will cover some highlights of our fourth quarter 2008 operating results and briefly discuss additional financial matters. I will conclude comments this morning with a discussion of first quarter and full year 2009 provided in our earnings release, which was issued earlier today. As a reminder, all comments regarding actual results for fourth quarter 2008 and 2007, excluding those non-recurring items detailed on the financial statements accompanying the press release.

For fourth quarter 2008, operating revenues decreased 2.3% to $642.6 million from $657.8 million in the fourth quarter a year ago, which was in line with our previous guidance. Voice revenues for fourth quarter 2008 were $215.4 million versus $245.5 million in fourth quarter 2007. This 4.5% decrease in voice revenues was primarily driven by revenue declines associated with anticipated lower access lines.

Network access revenues were $198.1 million versus $216.6 million at fourth quarter 2007. This decline of $18.5 million was primarily driven by revenue declines associated with lower intrastate methods of use and reduced universal service funding.

Data revenues increased 9.5% from $122.1 million in the fourth quarter a year ago to $133.7 million in fourth quarter 2008, primarily driven by strong high speed Internet customer growth and demand for high bandwidth services during the last 12 months that more than offset revenue declines associated with lower dial-up Internet revenues.

Fiber transport and CLEC revenues increased 7.2% to $41.2 million in fourth quarter 2008 from $38.5 million in fourth quarter of 2007 due to wholesale revenue growth. Other revenues were $54.2 million, compared to $55.1 million in fourth quarter 2007.

Our operating expenses decreased 3% from $473.9 million in fourth quarter of 2007 to $459.5 million in fourth quarter of 2008. This decline in operating expenses was primarily due to a lower cash expenses and lower depreciation expense due to fully depreciated assets, which more than offset cost increases associated with the growth of our high speed internet customer base.

For fourth quarter 2008 we generated an operating cash flow margin of 48.5%, modestly lower than the fourth quarter 2007 operating cash flow margin of 48.9% 2008. Operating income for fourth quarter 2008 was $183.1 million, slightly lower than fourth quarter 2007 operating income of $183.9 million.

Other income was approximately $3 million lower in fourth quarter of 2008 than in the same quarter a year ago due to favorable 2006 audit adjustments recorded in fourth quarter 2007 related to our wireless partnership, in which CenturyTel owns a 49% interest. Net income for the quarter was $87 million, compared to $89.8 million in fourth quarter 2007.

Overall, 2008 was a solid year financially for CenturyTel. At year-end 2008, CenturyTel’s debt to equity ratio was 1.05 to 1 and net debt to full year 2008 operating cash flow was 2.4 times. As Glen mentioned earlier, we achieved a record $584 million in annual free cash flow. So CenturyTel continues to maintain a solid balance sheet with good access to liquidity.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, CenturyTel filed a Form S-3 shelf registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission on February 9 that is valid for a period of three years. We’ve filed this shelf to replace our prior shelf registration statement that expired in early December 2008. I also want to make it clear that CenturyTel does not have any near term plans to issue securities under this prospectus. Further, as stated in the prospectus, if we were to plan to issue any securities of any nature at any time in the future, we would provide a prospectus supplement at that time containing specific information about the terms of that particular offering.

I also want to make sure that everyone understands that all financing related to the EMBARQ transaction is in place. You will recall that on January 23rd, CenturyTel and EMBARQ jointly announced that EMBARQ had entered into an amendment to its current revolving credit facility with its current bank group that is effective upon the close of the transaction. This amendment to EMBARQ’s credit facility eliminated the need for the $800 million financing commitment letter CenturyTel had secured at the time of the transaction announcement last October.

So to summarize, the shelf registration statement was part of our normal procedure to have a current shelf registration on file with the SEC at all times and there are no current plans to issue any securities under that shelf. And all financing is in place to complete the EMBARQ transaction. Furthermore, long term debt maturities for CenturyTel are only $20 million in 2009 and $519 million in 2010, $500 million of which matures in October of 2010. During the end of 2010 EMBARQ has only $4 million in long term debt maturities. Accordingly, we believe our strong cash flows, limited debt maturity, and excellent liquidity position us to take advantage of opportunities in meeting the challenges that may arise.

Finally, I’d like to discuss the first quarter and full year 2009 guidance provided in our press release this morning. First, the 2009 outlook information in the release we issued this morning and my prepared remarks are for CenturyTel only and do not include any benefit or impact of the pending acquisition of EMBARQ. Additionally, cost incurred by CenturyTel in 2009 related to the pending EMBARQ acquisition will be treated as non-recurring items and, therefore, are also not included in the 2009 outlooks or my comments. Also, first quarter and full year 2009 guidance are based on shares outstanding as of the end of 2008.

For first quarter 2009, we anticipate total revenues in the range of $628 million to $638 million. We expect diluted earnings per share for first quarter 2009 to be in the range of $0.77 cents to $0.81 cents. This decrease from fourth quarter 2008 is primarily due to increased non-cash pension expense in the range of $0.03 cents to $0.04 cents per share, lower universal service funding of about $0.02 cents per share, the impact of adjusting our effective tax rate in the fourth quarter of 2008, another $0.02 cents to $0.03 cents per share, and application of a new accounting pronouncement impacting our calculation of EPS, about $0.01 per share. These items, in the aggregate, represent approximately $0.08 cents to $0.10 cents per share.

For full year 2009, CenturyTel anticipates operating revenues to be modestly lower than 2008 operating revenues. The company expects revenue increases associated with the growth in high-speed internet and date revenues to be more than offset by revenue declines associated with lower access revenues, reduced universal service funding, and access line losses.

For full year 2009, CenturyTel anticipates its diluted earnings per share in the range of $3.20 to $3.30. We outlined a number of items in our earnings release that we expect to impact 2009 and should it assist you in updating your 2009 models. I will not cover those in detail on the call. However, I do want to point out that incremental non-cash pension expense of 50 basis points increase in our 2009 effective tax rate versus 2008 and the new accounting rule regarding calculation of diluted EPS collectively impact 2009 diluted earnings per share by nearly $0.20 cents.

Finally, from a capital expenditure stand point, we currently expect full year 2009 capital expenditures, including any EMBARQ related – excluding, rather, any EMBARQ related acquisition, integration, or post closing capital expenditures to be between $280 million and $300 million in line with our 2008 capital expenditures, which were $287 million.

That concludes my prepared remarks for today. At this point I will ask the call to provide further instructions – operator to provide further instructions for the Q&A portion of our call.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

Thank you, sir. (Operator instructions) First question comes from Simon Flannery [ph].

Simon Flannery – Morgan Stanley

Okay. Thank you very much. Good morning. It looks like, from your guidance, that your revenue trends, access line loss trends to be fairly consistent ’09 versus ’08. You haven’t really talked about the economy that much in your comments. Perhaps you could give us a little bit of what you’re seeing in terms of the impact, business versus consumer, and what your expectations are over the next several quarters, how it’s effective bad debt, gross (inaudible), things like that? Thank you.

Stewart Ewing

Well, Simon, I’ll start regarding the economic impact. We have seen some impact from the economic turn down – downturn, rather. And in the last quarter we started seeing a little bit of that in September as we discussed in our last call. Primarily we’re seeing on the business side reduced business starts, business downsizing, and business call cutting, grooming, and networks. I think it’s where we’ve seen it more directly.

We have seen consumers also looking to – looking for value, looking to reduce costs where they can. And we expect the economy to continue to put pressure on voice lines and revenue. But we also expect prodigiously a good demand for broadband and for video services in the months ahead. Even with where we are with the economy. So we are seeing some impact and we’ll continue to see that as, I think, virtually every company in our industry and every other industry, obviously, in the months ahead.

Simon Flannery – Morgan Stanley

I guess, what you’re trying to say is the rural differentiation between the urban and the rural companies. But have you compared yourselves to some of the bells [ph] for example? That you’re not seeing the sort of pressures they’re seeing, say, in the enterprise phase?

Stewart Ewing

Yes. That’s true. We’re not seeing the – have an impact or seeing the impact that they’re seeing today. It is a differentiator at this point in time.

Simon Flannery – Morgan Stanley

Okay. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Batya Levi [ph].

Batya Levi – UBS

Okay. Thanks a lot. I want to ask a question on the margins. Working with all the (inaudible) within the guidance, I believe we can assume, roughly, a modest decline in revenues about 2%. But some way, higher decline EBITDA is suggesting margins be under pressure by about 100 basis points or so? Pension will be a big driver of that. But adjusting for bad core margins, I think it’s going to be still lower about 50 basis points. Do you think that’s the right way to think about the guidance?

And I also wanted to ask about the cable competition. Have you seen any change in the competition from cable bearers in the fourth quarter? Is your overlap with their region of – still about 40% to 45%? Or have you seen an increase in that? Thank you.

Stewart Ewing

Batya, yes. Your analysis of the margins, I think, is correct. And regarding the (inaudible) competition, it’s in the 45% range. Probably 43% to 47% is our estimate there, Batya. And we are seeing some impact in the – in the Soho space. Again, the cable competition there are some in some of our – some of our markets. So as they are expanding. They are offering end-of-the-business sector.

Batya Levi – UBS

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Frank Louthan [ph].

Frank Louthan – Raymond James

Great. Thank you. Can you give us an idea of where some of the costs contained in the issues are coming from? Is this more on the billing side or is this maybe some potential synergies you’ve identified looking at EMBARQ? Who’s idea of that? And is there any cash impact from the pension for this year? Thank you.

Stewart Ewing

Yes, Frank. It’s mostly personnel related costs and some call center related costs in terms of the cost containment. But our folks have done a really good job throughout the organization controlling cost. Additionally, we hope to see our fuel [ph] cost be a little bit lower in ’09 than they were in ’08.

Glen Post

And over pensions this year we are – we do plan to make a contribution.

Stewart Ewing

We made a – we weren’t required to but we made a $50 million contribution at the end of 2008, Frank. We’re not required to make a contribution again in 2009. We’re basically 85% funded to the ABO or PBO, rather, 95% to the ABO. Our required contribution for 2010 would be about $4 million. So, we’re in pretty good shape there.

Frank Louthan – Raymond James

Great. Thanks.

Operator

Our next question comes from Michael Rollins [ph].

Michael Rollins – Citigroup

Hi, good morning. I have a question, first, on the EMBARQ cost, I think management described that the planning process for integration was underway. And I was wondering if you can give us an update in thinking about, if I’m remembering correctly, it’s $300 million of OpEx savings to the merger. Over what case should you begin to achieve those synergies in the back half of ’09 and into ’10. Can you give us some sense there? Then the second question I had was just regarding, just any further thoughts you have on the stimulus package and invading your CapEx if you’re going to be broadening the coverage for the DSL footprint in terms of homes passed over the course of 2009. Thanks.

Stewart Ewing

Okay. Michael, first of all on the synergies. We’ll see some in ’09, they’ll increase in ’10. We’re looking, probably 18 months to really see the full impact, a lot of those synergies will come from moving from – to CenturyTel’s back office system and we’ll have a lot of synergy – move the billing systems over, expand the customer care systems over. So a lot of it – a lot of the impact we’ll see in a – on the line of 2011 is our view right now. But there’ll be significant earlier, but before we see the real impact of the $350 million, if you’re referencing, will be to the full lines for 2011 timeframe.

As far as the stimulus package, we do anticipate. We’ll apply for some broadband grants in our hardest to reach, un-served markets, and possibly some of the underserved markets, depending on how the NCIA defines us to categories of support. It’s really still too early to fully understand the eligibility or the application criteria of the legislation. Like the rest of the industry, we’ll be reviewing the legislation, looking for opportunities to seek funding for ourselves or working with our communities and states to help them secure funding to meet infrastructure needs.

Michael Rollins – Citigroup

Okay. Thanks very much.

Operator

Our next question comes from Christopher King [ph].

Christopher King – Stifel Nicolaus

Good morning, and thank you. Just to follow up on the question regarding the stimulus. I know you guys have made several filings in the past, noting that high transport cost in the rural areas really impede the business model from potentially being what it otherwise would be. Just was wondering if special access re-regulation’s something that you guys are constantly looking at and has that been a part of recent discussions with regulators? Thanks.

Glen Post

We really haven’t addressed our regulators at this point Chris, it could be something we could look at in a month ahead, but right now it’s not going to – a key focus for us.

Christopher King – Stifel Nicolaus

Is the business case, or expanding DSL even with the stimulus package, being what it is, does that – is the stimulus sufficient enough on a stand-alone basis to make that business case work, with transport cost being what they are and a lot of your–?

Steven Ewing

We’re not sure yet, we’re going to – depend on how it works, we don’t know enough about it, we’re hoping it will be, but we are still in the process of evaluating – we’re waiting to hear really, more from the folks who are going to be making the decision on distribution or how they distribute the funds.

Christopher King – Stifel Nicolaus

Okay, thanks very much.

Operator

Our next question comes from Don Yaeger [ph].

Don Yaeger

Hey, guys, just a follow up sort of to that previous question. Given that you have the wireless spectrum and both Verizon and AT&T are trying to – or talking about trying to accelerate their move to LTE, doesn’t that open an opportunity for you guys to sort of accelerate your move to LTE . And use it as – to supply more broadband to the other servable markets.

Glen Post

Don, we do utilize the opportunity it afforded us through 700 Mhz spectrum ownership and the fact that Verizon and AT&T have announced a pretty aggressive move in 2010 and rolling out 700 Mhz that’s a positive force. Of course our license currently covers 53% of our – CenturyTel, but plan on we – we have a plan to try to increase that. Of course EMBARQ does not have any of that, any spectrum.

So we’re looking at possibility – possible ways to carve out spectrum or work with other carriers to gain access to spectrum because we do think it is a very efficient way to provide broadband access in rural areas. So it is an opportunity and offers a general access and a more efficient access in a lot of our markets as would provide mobility – data – high-speed data mobility to our customers.

Don Yaeger

Okay. I’m assuming to sort of CapEx dollars on the LTE’s bill that would be in 2010, 2011?

Glen Post

That’s right, it would be 2010 before there would be any significant dollars and even then we’ll roll out a few markets and then we’ll enter the stake [ph] on a selective basis as we prove success of the technology roll-out.

Don Yaeger

Okay, now just one other regulatory question. Obviously, with Chairman Martin gone, there’s no momentum on his regulatory plan for the rural companies. But have you guys – seems like a lot of the rural players just sort of resigned to the fact that something’s going to happen on, intrastate access. Can you discuss a little about what your strategy is on interstate access rate and how you might work with regulators to make that bit of little more palatable?

Glen Post

First of all, we support reform in the access, inter-state, intra-state access. Process we think there should be a unified rate to avoid overcharge in the system. We think it needs to be done in a way that rural customers don’t suffer. And I think, that’s – we need fund to help, make – to cap with that transfer of funding our dollars of access revenue. But we think it can and should happen, I think we’re going – you said, the emphasis by the SEC is – it’s going to be a while before they focus on this again, maybe the third quarter of the year, but I think there’s enough history there that they’ll come back with a proposal and start working with the industry on a – moving forward on a more unified rate. Reforming access basically.

Don Yaeger

Great, thanks guys.

Operator

(Operator instructions) Our next question comes from Nicholas Pentiotopolous [ph].

Nicholas Pentiotopolous

I’ve got a question on regulatory front please. I noticed you filed a notice in New Jersey, indicating that you did not require a change of license transferred type of approval. The state doesn’t seem to have responded to that stance, could you update us on that, it seems that it could endanger your June closing.

Stewart Ewing

Yes in New – we really don’t think that’s an issue with the state, we think they’re on board with our position there. We haven’t had an official’s response, but we are continually in-touch with them, talk with them, we think it’s a matter of time, for – we’ll have approval there, in New Jersey.

Nicholas Pentiotopolous

Thank you.

Operator

Our next question comes from Allan Bear [ph].

Allan Bear

Hi, good morning. What of the dividend policy for this year, is there any change?

Glen Post

No Allan, no change in the dividend policy this year, we still expect in the 50% payout range and even after the EMBARQ acquisition, we expect that – we’ve announced that our goal as the – our dividend for now will remain as the $2.85, $2.8 – no $2.80, excuse me, level.

Allan Bear

Thank you.

Operator

This concludes our Q&A Session for today’s conference, I would now like to hand the conference to Mr. Glen Post for any closing remarks.

Glen Post

Thank you. Just a couple of operating points I want to make. We did grew – grow consumer wallet share from a little less than $44 per share now it’s $50 per share – excuse me – per customer, to nearly $50 per customer year-over-year. So 13.5% increase and our purveyors do it. It’s been a major focus of ours and we’re pleased with that. Our line loss business increased in both consumer business segments so we continue to be encouraged by the trend in markets. We’ve had cable competition for more than six months as line losses in those markets have improved over 6%, year-over-year.

And finally we, we think there are going to be ways to drive additional broadband services over time. We continue to experience solid growth on our IPTV product in Columbia and La Crosse and we are pleased in the service and the progress we’re making there. We are seeing a significant impact – positive impact on customer churn where we have the video products so we’ll continue to pursue, our expansion of that service that as it speeds, especially with the EMBARQ acquisition looking it up through these new markets, to expand that service.

In closing, CenturyTel concluded 2008 with strong fourth quarter and full year financial results especially on one of the challenging economic environment that we faced. We believe we’re well positioned to enter 2009 we will remain focused in the must-have on improving customer retention and expanding our market share. We’ll continue to work diligently towards the completion of the EMBARQ merger. We believe that the CenturyTel – EMBARQ combination represents a great strategic opportunity that will diversify our markets.

In addition our combined high quality broadband networks and IT systems, along with our enhanced financial and operational skills should provide significant advantages for our customers.

We appreciate you participating in our call today and we look forward to speaking with you in the weeks and month ahead.

Operator

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for participating in today’s conference. This concludes our program for today, you may all disconnect and have a nice day.

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