See why the outlook for Singapore telcos is still muted

Even though results did not disappoint.

Singapore telcos delivered results which were largely within expectations, with StarHub tracking below forecast, but OCBC Investment Research said the outlook is still muted for the sector due to single-digit earnings growth expectations and the looming "spectre" of rising interest rates.

But investors who value their defensive earnings may overlook this pessimistic outlook when factoring their rebounding dividend yields.

Here's the full analysis from OCBC Investment Research:

StarHub missed our forecast. Both M1 and SingTel reported 4QCY13 results that came in within our expectations, while StarHub’s results tracked below forecast. M1’s core FY13 earnings was 3.5% above our full-year forecast and SingTel’s 9MFY14 earnings met 73% of our FY14 estimate. But due to lower-than-expected EBITDA margin, StarHub’s core FY13 earnings was 5% below our forecast. Interestingly, M1 declared a special dividend, which brought its total payout to 121% of earnings; StarHub kept its payout at S$0.20 as guided.

Review of Singapore mobile operations. Total post-paid mobile subscribers grew by a stronger-than-expected 2% QoQ to 4.53m in the Dec quarter, led by StarHub (+5.2%), SingTel (+1.1%), then M1 (+0.4%). Meanwhile, the decline in monthly ARPUs appears to be stabilizing; and telcos are optimistic that ARPUs should improve as more subscribers switch over to the new tiered pricing plans with less generous data bundles.

Little change to FY14 outlook. M1 continues to expect moderate single-digit earnings growth, although capex will be slightly higher at S$130m (versus S$125m in FY13). SingTel still sees mid-single digit decline in group revenue and low-single digit fall in EBITDA for FY14 (ending 31 Mar); but expects lower S$2.2b capex spend versus S$2.5b guided previously. StarHub is still guiding for low single-digit revenue growth with 32% EBITDA margin (vs. 32.9% in FY13).

Yields are still decent. As before, the spectre of rising interest rates is looming; but the recent pullback in the telcos’ share prices is starting to bring dividend yields back towards the 5% handle (4.8% average forecast). Hence we think that these stocks should continue to have a place in any portfolio also for their defensive earnings. Maintain NEUTRAL on the sector.

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