When it comes to 5G opportunities, Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) seems almost forgotten. Bulls have pressed the 5G-based case for Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) for years now. Nokia (NYSE:NOK) has drawn the attention of value investors. China’s Huawei has been the subject of media coverage and political uncertainty. Ericsson stock, in contrast, draws seemingly little notice.
Despite the lack of interest — or perhaps because of it — ERIC stock might have the most appealing case for 5G bulls. Valuation is reasonable. A multi-year turnaround offers scope for improvement and already has borne fruit. Early returns in the 5G race also suggest room for optimism.
There are reasons for caution. Political pressure on Huawei hasn’t been the catalyst for either Nokia or Ericsson that some hoped. Ericsson stock has been an awful multi-year investment. Shares have dropped 13% over the past decade, while the NASDAQ Composite has more than quadrupled. Somewhat incredibly, ERIC’s performance actually is negative over the last quarter century (though, to be fair, investors would have generated positive returns including dividends).
So this is a bit of a “this time is different” case, which always is risky. But it’s certainly an intriguing “this time is different” case.
The Ericsson Turnaround
One pillar of the case for Ericsson stock is that the company qualitatively has plenty of room for improvement. By the company’s own admission, Ericsson’s culture turned toxic in the past. In December, the company agreed to over $1 billion in fines payable to the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The DOJ noted that the company’s conduct “involved high-level executives and spanned 17 years and at least five countries.”
Ericsson said months earlier, at its Investor Update, that its own investigations had uncovered additional ethical and legal breaches. And so the company is working aggressively to improve its culture and its compliance competencies.
Those efforts go beyond simply avoiding criminal or dubious activity. Ericsson has simplified its operating structure and taken out roughly $1 billion in costs, while reinvesting some of those savings in much-needed research and development. It has exited lower-margin contracts.
This simply looks like it should be a better company going forward. And the efforts already have helped the company’s results.
The Numbers Improve
Ericsson’s results have steadily improved of late. Gross margin dipped below 30% in the last three quarters of 2017. Excluding restructuring charges, the figure climbed to 37.5% for full-year 2019.
That expansion helped drive a strong improvement in operating profit, which excluding one-time costs (including the U.S. fines) more than doubled last year. Ericsson sees more room for growth ahead, with the company targeting 12-14% margins in 2022 against an adjusted 9.7% in 2019.
That expansion alone would drive earnings up at least 25% from current levels. Sales growth should continue as well. After 4% constant-currency organic growth in 2019, the midpoint of 2020 targets suggests an increase over 3% in reported sales.
If 5G can accelerate that top-line growth, Ericsson’s fundamentals can become attractive in a hurry. Excluding the U.S. fines, 2019 free cash flow neared $1.8 billion, or about 54 cents per share. Excluding $1 per share in net cash on the balance sheet, ERIC is trading at less than 15x free cash flow based on 2019 numbers. If margins expand and sales grow, that multiple either has to dip into the single-digits or, as would be more likely, ERIC stock has to rally.
5G and the Case for Ericsson Stock
To be sure, that case rests on Ericsson taking solid share in 5G from Nokia and Huawei. The news there admittedly remains somewhat mixed.
Despite U.S. pressure, Huawei still is driving sales in Western countries. For instance, German lawmakers have pushed to ban the Chinese supplier from their country’s telecommunications network. Yet Huawei, along with Nokia, still scored a big win with Telefonica Deutschland (OTCMKTS:TELDF).
Nokia remains a formidable competitor. At least some of what 5G deployments Ericsson has won have come through lower upfront pricing, as Bloomberg has reported. And the race for 5G wins is only in the early stages. It’s possible the pressure on Huawei could be eased through a broader U.S.-China trade deal or a new presidential administration in 2021.
Meanwhile, Nokia has a turnaround strategy of its own, and a reasonable valuation if its own targets are hit. (The fact that the company already has pulled down 2020 guidance, however, impacts that company’s credibility.) Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) has pulled back and has 5G exposure. Investors even could look to telecommunications providers AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ), or even China Mobile (NYSE:CHL).
Even out of the group, though, Ericsson stock has a sneakily attractive case. The giants in the space don’t have the same turnaround benefits on the way. Nokia’s credibility seems too damaged. It’s Ericsson that might have the most attractive case in 5G, and if the company delivers on its promise, Ericsson won’t seem undercovered for too much longer.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.