Use Weakness On Canadian Wireless Decision To Buy Rogers, Bell

Includes: AAPL, BCE, RCI, T, TU, VZ
by: Rocco Pendola

It's no secret that I am a big fan of Canada. I was born just one mile from the Canadian border in Niagara Falls, New York. I grew up only 2-3 miles away from what some folks refer to as "God's country." And I have been a Toronto Maple Leafs fan for quite some time. Heck, I attended the final game ever at Maple Leaf Gardens at the corner of Carlton and Church.

But, it's not simply that I have a special place in my heart for Canada. Sure, I stand and sing the national anthem before most hockey games that I watch, but I also consider the nation an excellent place to invest. I could not be more bullish, over the long-term, on two Canadian companies in particular, Rogers Communications (NYSE:RCI) and Bell Canada (NYSE:BCE).

On Wednesday, the conservative Canadian government made history, as it opened the door for foreign ownership of wireless companies:

... (the) move that would allow non-Canadians to own 100% of firms with a market share of 10% or less.

It says this exemption from foreign investment restrictions would continue even if these companies grow naturally to occupy more than 10% of the market, but would not if these firms get bigger through mergers or takeovers.

Industry Minister Christian Paradis sold the decision as a way to level the playing field. Rogers, Bell and Telus (NYSE:TU) command a 90% share of Canada's wireless market:

The Harper government understands that Canadian families work hard for their money and that they want their government to make decisions that will help them keep more of it ...

I responded to this in an update sent to subscribers of my options investing newsletter after the news broke (RCI and BCE represent two of my biggest positions):

I see this as nothing more than a token political move by Canada's conservative government. The initial quote of the excerpt says it all. The publicly-floated theory behind this decision is, simply, that loosening of foreign ownership restrictions in the industry will increase competition, provide a more level playing field and, as a result, lower prices. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. These things always sound better on paper and coming from politicians' mouths than they do in practice.

In any event, I call it a "token" move because this is the same government that allows Rogers and Bell to effectively operate as monopolies ... Rogers and Bell not only operate in every area of telecommunications (Internet, cable, etc.), but they own the country's most lucrative and important media properties in both local, regional and network radio and television (outside of CBC); all or parts of sports teams such as the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto FC and Montreal Canadiens; and major venues such as Air Canada Centre and Rogers Centre. But, certainly, the Harper Government is looking out for hard-working Canadian families.

And that's only the beginning of why this move will likely have little, if any, long-term impact on business at Rogers or Bell. Not only does Canada allow the two companies to dominate telecom, media and major professional sports to a stunning degree, but the companies appear set to deliver Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) forthcoming iTv to Canadians.

Just think about this ... a Canadian wakes up in the morning, makes a call on his landline, checks a text on his iPhone, turns off his home security system, flips on CityTV to check the weather, changes the station on the cable or satellite box he rents from Rogers or Bell and checks the scores on either TSN or his regional Rogers SportsNet channel. He then heads out the door, wearing a Toronto FC cap and Blue Jays t-shirt, stops off at Air Canada Centre will call and picks up tickets left for him for that night's Maple Leafs game.

Before this Canadian arrived at work, he did about eight or nine things and Rogers or Bell was either behind and/or made each move possible. Of course, this will not be wholly accurate until the two companies close their deal to purchase Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment later this year.

In any event, I don't think Rogers, Bell or Telus, for that matter, are losing sleep over this news. Rogers and Bell certainly are not. This is political posturing. However, it's likely to anger some folks in a nation where some factions loath the idea of non-Canadians owning their companies. Plus, there's no guarantee that a foreign entity will even want to swipe up one of Canada's fledgling wireless carriers anyway. I highly doubt Verizon (NYSE:VZ) or AT&T (NYSE:T), America's best-positioned telecoms, have room on their full plates for such an acquisition.

And as far as the second part of the announcement goes, some believe it provides little, if any, advantage to smaller carriers. The government set rules for wireless spectrum auctions set to occur in 2013. From the above-linked Globe and Mail piece:

At first glance, the moves seem to be more geared toward smaller players ... The government has also decided to give more teeth to previous rules that said incumbents had to share their wireless towers with new entrants and allow competitors to roam on their networks.

Early reaction from at least one new wireless competitor, Mobilicity, was positive.

"I think the government is committed to breaking up the oligopoly and creating some competition," Stewart Lyons, Mobilicity's president and chief operating officer said in an interview ...

But others were not so pleased. Anthony Lacavera, chief executive officer of Globalive, said that the rules changes do not permit new players to buy up enough spectrum to build and launch next-generation Long Term Evolution (LTE) wireless networks.

"It's a total disaster," Mr. Lacavera said. "As it's written, there's no point in new entrants showing up for the auction."

In the also above-linked WSJ article, Lacavera added:

... (the government) has come out with a spectrum auction policy that's going to leave new entrants starved for spectrum and unable to offer a robust" next-generation wireless network.

Not to get all political on you here, but, as I see it, the Harper government is doing its best impersonation of American politics. If you're Canadian, this ought to scare you.

If you're an investor anywhere in the world, there's no reason, however, to turn bearish. I remain confident in Canada's future in almost all sectors, primarily natural resources, telecom and media, but also in areas others have questioned, such as real estate and banking. I express this bullishness via an ongoing long position in the iShares MSCI Canada Index Fund (NYSEARCA:EWC) as well as regular buys of RCI and BCE, which I plan to step up on any near-term and short-sighted weakness.

Disclosure: I am long AAPL, BCE, EWC, RCI, VZ.