Activist investor Corvex Management has disclosed a $1B (nearly 4%) stake in Crown Castle (NYSE:CCI), and is calling on the tower owner to either start paying over $4/share in quarterly dividends next year (Option #1), or over $1.60/share in dividends combined with ongoing buybacks (Option #2).
The first option would require a steep 80%+ payout ratio, but maintain CCI's net debt/EBITDA ratio around 4.5x (potentially ~6x with M&A). The second would involve only a 30% payout ratio, but boost net debt/EBITDA to ~7x (~7.5x with M&A).
Corvex argues "changing Crown Castle's capital allocation strategy would enable the company to attract a new class of yield-oriented investors," and that the company's plan to delay a full payout structure until the expiration of net operating losses in 2018-2020 is inadequate.
As for speculation Crown Castle could bid for Verizon's tower portfolio, Corvex thinks CCI should change its capital allocation plan before making any offer. "We do not believe that the company should complete a Verizon transaction by increasing leverage and then de-levering again with no material change to its payout ratio."
CCI's dividend yield is currently at 1.7%. The company reiterates it will discuss its capital allocation plans during its Oct. 20 Q3 CC.
Verizon (NYSE:VZ) has hired boutique i-bank TAP Advisors to find a buyer and work out a lease-back agreement for its 12K wireless towers by year's end, Bloomberg reports. It adds a deal could yield $6B, given how much AT&T received per tower in last year's $4.83B sale/leasing deal with Crown Castle (NYSE:CCI).
Crown Castle, American Tower (NYSE:AMT), and SBA (NASDAQ:SBAC) have all been buying towers at a heady pace. However, the rising debt loads produced by the purchases could make one or more of the companies respond cautiously to Verizon's move.
Verizon, for its part, is looking to de-leverage some after raising over $60B in debt to help pay for the Vodafone deal. The carrier had $104.2B in net debt at the end of Q2.
The IRS has ruled "the real property portion of Crown Castle's indoor and outdoor small cell networks and the related rents qualify as real property and rents from real property, respectively," under the rules governing REITs.
CCI already began operating as a REIT at the beginning of the year. With the IRS letter in tow, the company plans to "take appropriate action to include the qualifying portion of its small cell systems as part of the REIT effective January 1, 2015." Certain "non-qualified assets" will remain held in taxable REIT subsidiaries.
Nevertheless, Goldman's list of 50 stocks which "matter most" to hedge funds has outperformed the S&P 500 on a quarterly basis 66% of the time since 2001. The stocks this quarter (posted in order of the number of funds in which a name is a top-10 holding):
A special call-out to Northstar Realty (NYSE:NRF), Visteon (NYSE:VC), SunEdison (NYSE:SUNE), Macquarie Infrastructure (NYSE:MIC), and Lamar Advertising (NASDAQ:LAMR) for making the list of hedge fund hotels despite their relatively tiny market caps.
6 firms have hiked their SBA (SBAC +3.3%) targets following the tower owner's Thursday Q2 beat. 3 of them - Barclays, Pac Crest, and JPMorgan - have lifted their PTs to $125.
In addition to beating estimates, SBA raised its full-year AFFO guidance to $642M-$669M from a prior $616M-$652M. Revenue guidance has been hiked to $1.5B-$1.52B from $1.447B-$1.487B, and tower cash flow guidance to $1.021B-$1.031B from $989M-$1.009B. The outlook assumes the Oi tower acquisition will close on Dec. 1.
Peer Crown Castle (CCI +2.4%) has also rallied. The company missed AFFO estimates last Wednesday (while beating on revenue), but also raised its full-year AFFO/share guidance to $4.13-$4.18 from $4.04-$4.08. Site rental revenue guidance was slightly raised to $2.99B-$3B from $2.983B-$2.993B.
"The tower industry has several favorable characteristics ... such as recurring revenue streams with long-term contracts, high operating leverage and a benign competitive environment," writes Credit Suisse's Joseph Mastrogiovanni. 4G upgrades, data traffic growth, and pending spectrum auctions are all seen as catalysts.
At the same time, Mastrogiovanni sees U.S. M&A activity - particularly a potential Sprint/T-Mobile deal - as a risk.
American Tower (AMT), just started at Outperform, is his top pick in the space. He likes the company's international exposure (1/3 of revenue), and is the most insulated from M&A.
Crown Castle (CCI) and SBA (SBAC) have been started at Neutral. Mastrogiovanni likes CCI's long-term potential, but also notes it has "the highest exposure to U.S. consolidation risk." He sees SBA benefiting from a lack of master lease agreements with AT&T/Verizon, but thinks it's also exposed to industry M&A.
Worth noting: M&A only becomes a major issue if regulators approve a Sprint/T-Mobile deal. All signs suggest they still have their concerns.
Crown Castle CEO Ben Moreland has argued a pending auction for the high-frequency AWS band will lead to "thousands" of new cell sites. A larger auction involving low-frequency spectrum is set for mid-2015.
With a 2.91% gain in May, REITs outperformed the Dow, S&P 500, and Russell 2000, but fell shy of the Nasdaq's 3.1% gain. Leading the way for REITs were infrastructure plays, returning 6.55% thanks to strong demand from wireless carriers as they transition from 3G to 4G, writes Trepp's Susan Persin.
Speaking last week at NAREIT's REIT Week, Crown Castle's (CCI) Ben Moreland also noted boosted demand from first responder/public safety networks.
Manufactured housing REITs returned 5.03 in May, and UMH Properties management - also at REIT Week - noted shipments are low by historical standards and financing remains a challenge even with Warren Buffett being a fan of the sector: Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A, BRK.B) owns the two dominant lenders. Other players in manufactured housing: SUI, ELS.
TriQuint (TQNT) expects Q2 revenue of $215M-$225M and EPS of $0.06-$0.08, above a consensus of $200.3M and $0.04. Shares +6.5% AH. Merger partner RF Micro (RFMD), which reports on April 29, is up 3.1%. Both companies might also be getting a lift from Apple's March quarter iPhone sales print. (Q1 results, PR)
Fortinet (FTNT) guides in its earnings slides (.pdf) for Q2 revenue of $169M-$172M (above a $168.9M consensus), EPS of $0.10 (below an $0.11 consensus), and billings of $185M-$190M (+17% Y/Y). Q1 billings totaled $188M, +26% Y/Y and well above guidance of $168M-$173M. Shares +4.4% AH. (Q1 results, PR)
Crown Castle (CCI) has raised its full-year AFFO forecast to $1.346B-$1.361B ($4.04-$4.08/share) from a prior $1.318B-$1.333B. Site rental revenue guidance has been raised by $11M to $2.983B-$2.993B. (Q1 results, PR)