When it comes to finding great dividends, the telecoms can’t be beat. Thanks to their stable demand and fixed operating costs, the major telecommunication providers have long been able to provide their investors with a steady income and high yields. That’s certainly been true for giants AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon (NYSE:VZ) over the last decade or so. And, as a result, both VZ and T stock have become staples of many retirees’ portfolios.
However, growth at both AT&T and Verizon has slowed in recent years. Wireless saturation is near 100% and upstarts like T-Mobile (NASDAQ:TMUS) have driven down prices for wireless and data plans. That hit T & VZ right in their wallets. To compensate for that, each telecom took a similar, yet different path to finding future growth.
The question now is: which of the two major telecom stocks — AT&T or Verizon — makes more sense for your portfolio today?
VZ & T Stock Make Some Big Moves
These days, investors can’t think of Verizon or AT&T as strictly old-fashioned telecoms. It’s no secret that landline usage has fallen off the map. Meanwhile, new wireless subscriber growth has basically flatlined. At this point, everyone has a smartphone and perhaps a secondary device hooked up to wireless networks. Moreover, thanks to fungibility among carriers and price wars, consumers are able to switch with ease. Because of this, the major U.S. telecoms like T and VZ have had to look elsewhere for growth.
For AT&T, that meant becoming a media powerhouse. Cable television provider Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) set the trend when it purchased NBCUniversal. T followed a similar playbook by adding exposure to cable with its buyout of DirecTV. These gave the ability to offer triple-play services as well as wireless service to its consumers. Like CMCSA, AT&T then added content origination with its mega-sized buyout of Time Warner. This acquisition gave T ownership of HBO, Turner Broadcasting as well as Warner Bros. entire movie catalog. The idea was that AT&T could now bundle original content with its own private network of mobile/wireless video and satellite services.
Verizon is playing in the same sandbox, albeit it’s building a different castle. VZ decided to go hard into web properties. This included buying AOL and Yahoo. The idea was that the firm could become a major player in digital advertising and the mobile web. The firm also beefed its other tech operations with Telogis and Fleetmatics Group. These cloud operations allowed businesses to take advantage of fleet operations software that can be used on VZ’s wide and high-speed wireless networks.
Not What VZ Stock & T Stock Bargained For
As you can see, the shift in both AT&T and Verizon was designed to offer tangential services using their huge networks. T was setting itself to be an all-in-one media and content provider. It would make the movies and then distribute them over its satellite and mobile video operations. And there would be some exclusivity in that. AT&T recently unveiled its plans for its own streaming service to accomplish this goal. VZ went hard into the lucrative world of digital advertising, data mining and cloud services.
Unfortunately, neither operation has proved too fruitful for either T or VZ.
The combination of AOL and Yahoo is basically worthless for Verizon. At the end of last year, the firm wrote down the goodwill of the deals by just under half — or a whopping a $4.6 billion. And the hits kept coming. Verizon Media showed a big 7.2% decline in year-over-year revenues. The company specifically blamed lower ad revenues for the dip.
Things haven’t been great for AT&T either. It turns out providing cable services is just as sticky as providing wireless ones. People continue to cut the cord at a fevered pace and adopt streaming instead. That’s hurt DirecTV in a big way. The firm has lost nearly 1.3 million video subscribers over the last two quarters. It’s streaming service — DirecTV Now — has lost nearly 20% of its total net subscribers in the last 6 months. This is a huge issue if your entire M.O. was getting people to watch your produced, movies and T.V. shows on your exclusive networks. The firm continues to bleed traditional cable subscribers — via its U-Verse business — as well.
So, neither transition is working out the way AT&T and Verizon planned. To make matters worse, both stocks are now heavily indebted because of the buyouts, mergers and plans to change their business model. At the end of March, T had more than $169 billion in debt on its balance sheet. Verizon is doing a tad better at $113 billion. That’s a major problem for both stocks if these efforts don’t pan out.
Should You Buy T Stock or VZ Stock?
Given the struggles at both AT&T and Verizon, neither one makes a compelling purchase right now. Those debt loads are pretty scary considering the assets used to make them aren’t performing as planned. Honestly, I’d be worried about their dividends — the reason why people buy them in the first place — if things don’t improve.
But if I had to make the decision today, I’d most likely go with Verizon. The firm has at least acknowledged that its move in advertising was a poor choice and has removed the Band-Aid on these operations. The write-downs, layoffs and cost-cutting efforts will make it much easier for the firm to bounce back. And these brands — like Tech Crunch and the Huff Po — are valuable to someone, if it decides to sell them. Meanwhile, it’s gone gung-ho on its 5G network services.
On the flip side, AT&T has decided to double-down on its problems — launching four different streaming services in a bid to regain customers.
In the end, both major telecoms have plenty of warts and may not be big buys at all. But if investors were looking at them both, VZ stock gets the slight nod over T stock.
At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any stock mentioned.