Nokia (NYSE:NOK), which reinvented itself this decade as a telecom equipment supplier, is still waiting for the 5G gold rush.
The new mobile phone standards will require new base stations and radios that can handle both huge amounts of data and new swaths of frequency bandwidth.
The question has always been how fast, and how urgent, the equipment gold rush will be. There is also the question of how much of that gold Nokia will get.
That’s because, while Nokia owns old-line phone equipment brands Alcatel and Lucent, it’s not the only supplier. Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), also once known as a mobile phone brand, is in the market. So is Samsung (OTCKMKTS:SSNLF). The market power of Chinese competitors Huawei and ZDF, and U.S. startups like privately held Altiostar Networks, which recently won Rakuten’s business in Japan with a software upgrade, will also be tested this year.
The First Quarter
The first clues to Nokia’s success will come in the March quarter report, now due to be delivered April 25. Analysts are expecting profits of 3 cents per share, about $170 million, on revenue of $5.77 billion.
Any profit would be welcome because Nokia hasn’t had a positive bottom line since 2015. That year was also the heart of the 4G buildout. Since then, network owners have been buying frequencies or hoarding cash, to prepare for the technology now being introduced.
Analysts will be looking, not just to the numbers, but to Nokia’s success in winning 5G contracts. Network operators are looking to stagger their rollouts, spreading the cost out over several years. Nokia is also facing unspecified “compliance issues” at Alcatel-Lucent, the base station equipment unit it acquired in 2016 .
Those problems, which don’t seem to be shared by its primary competitors, are behind the Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) “sell” rating on Nokia, issued April 15, that hit the stock hard. Goldman notes that Samsung recently won the business of Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and that Huawei is now equal to Nokia in market share.
Nokia, Not Nokia
Consumers have been seeing Nokia phones in stores for three years.
But while these phones are Nokia-branded, and the company gets royalty payments on them, they’re the product of another company. That’s HMD Global, staffed by former Nokia executives, who picked up the business from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) in 2016 and have their phones made by Foxconn, the same people who make the Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone. The designs are built around Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG, NASDAQ:GOOGL) Android software.
The hope was that HMD phones would be a credit to the Nokia brand, but there are problems. Some went to the wrong countries, sending data back to China. The company’s head of design left. The new designs, which compete with the Samsung Galaxy line, are drawing indifferent reviews, due to issues that should have been ironed out in the design phase.
The Bottom Line
Given the collapse of Nokia after the launch of the iPhone, it is remarkable that it remains a consumer brand and an industry player.
But it’s not yet a winner.
Analysts are hoping Nokia can earn 42 cents per share next year, which would make the stock dirt cheap at its April 17 price of $5.70 per share, a forward price to earnings multiple of just 14.
Whether it can hit that mark, however, is increasingly questioned. There are 30 analysts following the stock, and five have downgraded it in the last three months, with less than half now saying you should buy it.
I wish the company well, but not with my money.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing, he owned shares in MSFT and AAPL.