Published by Nick McCullum on July 12th, 2017
When investors think of high-quality dividend stocks in the telecommunications sector, the first two businesses that come to mind are likely AT&T (T) and Verizon Communications (VZ).
However, there are plenty of other attractive investment opportunities in this sector.
Surprisingly, the Canadian telecommunications industry is a fantastic source of high yield dividend stocks.
BCE Inc. (BCE) – or Bell, for short – stands out as the undisputed leader in the Canadian telecommunications industry.
This blue chip stock is held in the portfolio of many self-directed Canadian investors. If you’re looking for information on additional blue chip stocks, the Blue Chip Stocks Excel Sheet contains pertinent investment information on all stocks in the Sure Dividend database with 100+ year operating histories and 3%+ dividend yields (including BCE).
Bell’s high dividend yield of 5.0% also stands out to income investors. Dividend yields of this magnitude are quite rare in today’s stock market. The High Dividend Stocks Excel Sheet contains a comprehensive list of all companies with 5%+ dividend yields, of which there are only 405 (including BCE).
BCE’s status as one of Canada’s most well-known blue chip stocks combined with its exceptionally high dividend yield help it to stand out to income investors.
This article will investigate the investment prospects of BCE in detail.
BCE is Canada’s largest telecommunications conglomerate with a market capitalization of US$ 40 billion.
The company is listed on both the Toronto Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker BCE. United States investors can purchase the company on the NYSE subject to a 15% dividend withholding tax, which is waived in retirement accounts thanks to a tax treaty between the two countries.
BCE stands for Bell Canada Enterprises. Unsurprisingly, it can trace its roots to the Bell system pioneered by the inventor of the telephone, Alexandar Graham Bell. Until 1975, AT&T had a significant stake in BCE (then called Bell Canada).
Today, Bell operates in three segments:
- Bell Wireline
- Bell Wireless
- Bell Media
Each segment’s contribution to 1Q2017’s revenues can be seen below.
BCE operates in the Canadian telecommunications oligopoly. Its major competitors are TELUS (TU) and Rogers (RCI).
Current Events & Growth Prospects
One of the most notable current events for BCE shareholders was the company’s recent acquisition of Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS), which closed in mid-March.
The transaction saw BCE purchase all of the issued and outstanding Manitoba Telecom common stock for $3.1 billion. BCE also assumed an additional $800 million of debt during the transaction for a total enterprise value of $3.9 billion.
The major benefit of this acquisition is the increased geographic exposure that Bell now has in Western Canada. This geography has been historically dominated by TELUS along with smaller regional players like MTS and SaskTel.
Post-transaction, Bell’s wireline footprint now extends to 73% of Canadian households, giving it a comprehensive reach across this large country.
Source: BCE Inc. First Quarter Earnings Presentation, slide 5
Bell also benefits from a noticeable addition to its subscriber base.
The MTS acquisition gives Bell an additional ~700k wireless, Internet, and television subscribers in the province of Manitoba, a region where Bell has been historically under-represented.
Further, the acquisition is expected to be immediately accretive to Bell’s free cash flow, an important metric for a company like Bell that pays a very sizeable dividend payment.
Source: BCE Inc. First Quarter Earnings Presentation, slide 6
All said, the integration of Manitoba Telecom will be the driver of Bell’s growth for the foreseeable future.
Competitive Advantage & Recession Performance
BCE has two major competitive advantages.
First, the company has tremendous brand equity among the average Canadian consumer. When shopping around for telephone, internet, or cable services, consumers are highly likely to choose Bell because it is such a well-known business.
Additionally, Bell benefits from being Canada’s largest telecommunications company. This allows them a geographic reach unattainable by its smaller peers. Furthermore, Bell’s industry-leading size allows it to realize economies of scale and pass these savings onto its customers.
Bell is a relatively recession-resistant business, as are most telecom companies. Simply put, consumers are not likely to cut their telecom bills in today’s highly connected world.
Bell’s resilience can be seen in the company’s performance through the last recession. BCE’s adjusted earnings-per-share during the global financial crisis can be seen below.
- 2007 adjusted earnings-per-share: US$2.35
- 2008 adjusted earnings-per-share: US$1.85 (21.3% decrease)
- 2009 adjusted earnings-per-share: US$2.37 (28.1% increase)
- 2010 adjusted earnings-per-share: US$2.85 (20.3% increase)
Note: Data in U.S. dollars because it is sourced from Value Line.
BCE’s adjusted earnings-per-share declined by ~21% during the Great Recession, but hit a new high in the following year and reported two years of 20%+ growth immediately following the economic downturn.
Thus, BCE can be seen as a relatively recession-resistant stock to hold in one’s portfolio.
Valuation & Expected Total Returns
Today’s market is trading at valuation levels exceeding its long-term average. This makes it difficult to find value in the stock market, particularly for blue chip stocks like BCE.
Fortunately, BCE does not appear to be grossly overvalued at today’s levels.
Bell reported adjusted earnings-per-share of $3.46 in fiscal 2016. The company’s current stock price of CAD$57.97 is trading at a price-to-earnings ratio of 16.7 using 2016’s earnings.
A price-to-earnings ratio of 16.7 is likely fair given the quality of Bell and its appeal to dividend investors. With that said, BCE is expecting a slight decline in adjusted earnings-per-share for the year-ahead period, which makes its forward price-to-earnings ratio slightly less appealing.
BCE is expecting adjusted earnings-per-share of $3.30-$3.40 for fiscal 2017. Taking the midpoint of this guidance band gives an adjusted earnings-per-share expectation of $3.35, a 3.2% decrease from 2016’s earnings.
Using the $3.35 midpoint of Bell’s 2017 earnings guidance and the company’s current stock price of $57.97 gives a price-to-earnings ratio of 17.3, still a fair value for a high-quality stock like Bell.
But how does this compare to Bell’s historical valuation levels?
Bell’s current valuation is compared to its long-term average below.
Source: Value Line
BCE’s valuation using either 2016 earnings or 2017 expected earnings is above its long-term historical average.
However, interest rates are near all-time lows right now, which pushes stock valuations upwards. Given our current interest rate environment, I believe that BCE is trading near fair value and is a potential buy for income investors today.
In other words, I expect BCE’s valuation to have a minimal effect on the company’s total returns moving forward. This means that investor returns will be primarily driven by the company’s high dividend yield combined with earnings-per-share growth.
BCE is one of the most well-known dividend stocks in Canada, largely due to its combination of dividend safety and high yield.
The company currently pays a quarterly dividend of CAD$0.7175 which yields 5.0% on the company’s current stock price of $57.97.
To get a sense of where BCE’s current yield falls relative to its typical dividend yield, consider the chart below.
Bell’s dividend yield is noticeably elevated above its normal level thanks to a long history of regularly increasing its dividend payment. The company’s high yield indicates that right now is a historically opportune time to initiate or add to a stake in this company.
Bell’s dividend is also very safe. The company’s quarterly payment of CAD$0.7175 represents a payout ratio of just 83% using 2016’s adjusted earnings-per-share of $3.46. While 83% would be a very high payout ratio for many industries, it is not unheard of in the telecommunications sector. Bell’s dividend is safe for the foreseeable future.
The remainder of BCE’s total returns will be comprised of earnings-per-share growth.
Since 2001, the company has managed to compound its adjusted earnings-per-share at a rate of ~6% per years.
I believe growth may moderate slightly moving forward. Investors can conservatively expect 4%-6% earnings-per-share growth over full economic cycles.
All said, Bell’s expected total returns are composed of:
- 5.0% dividend yield
- 4%-6% adjusted earnings-per-share growth
For long-term total returns of 9%-11% before any effects from changes in valuation multiples.
BCE’s blue chip reputation and unique combination of yield and safety make it appealing for income investors.
Recently, the company has expanded regionally through the acquisition of Manitoba Telecom Services and stands to benefit from society’s increasing reliance on communications networks and technology.
Thus, this company presents a conservative opportunity to boost the average yield of your investment portfolio. Bell is a buy for investors whose primary goal is income generation.