Evercore: Verizon, AT&T to post slowing growth in latest quarter while T-Mobile continues to roll

Verizon and AT&T will likely report slowing growth during the first quarter, according to analysts at Evercore ISI, while Sprint's creative accounting will help the beleaguered carrier avoid bankruptcy for at least the next few months. And T-Mobile will probably post even larger subscriber gains that it had predicted.

Evercore published a series of research notes on the four major U.S. carriers in advance of their quarterly earnings reports. Verizon, which will become the first tier-one operator to post results April 21, will report improved churn and higher margins during the quarter, Evercore predicted, due in part to increasing uptake of Edge, the carrier's equipment installment plan (EIP). But its strategy of focusing on lucrative customers will result in slower growth.

"With an expected Edge take rate of 71 percent, we forecast 1Q wireless service revs declining 4.6 percent year-over-year," Jonathan Schildkraut and Justin Ages wrote. "However, with nearly 50 percent of its base on EIP (we project 46 percent in 1Q), we believe the year-over-year growth in wireless cash EBITDA margins will continue to improve on the positive growth first seen in 4Q. On the subs side, VZ's commitment to signing profitable customers could moderate subs growth… but may also benefit EBITDA."

Similarly, AT&T's strategy of focusing on more profitable customers will result in higher margins year-over-year, Evercore said, but the operator is expected to report 340,000 postpaid net subscriber adds, down roughly 23 percent from the same period a year ago. AT&T will report 300,000 prepaid net adds, though, according to Evercore, more than tripling the 98,000 it gained in the first quarter of 2015.

Sprint, meanwhile, will continue to survive thanks in part to complex transactions such as the network leaseback deal it announced last week, which will enable it to borrow $2.2 billion from "external investors" including SoftBank, its parent company.

"FCF (free cash flow) is likely to remain negative, though the company promises that FY15 will be the peak year of FCF burn," the analysts wrote. "Despite these operational issues, S continues to creatively attract new capital -- which we believe will allow the company to avoid bankruptcy issues for the near-term. That being said, we believe the value in the equity remains speculative and we see more attractive risk adjusted returns elsewhere in our coverage."

Finally, Evercore raised its expectations for T-Mobile, predicting the carrier will report 925,000 postpaid net adds during the quarter, up from an earlier forecast of 850,000. The nation's third-largest carrier will continue to reap the benefits of its deployment of 700 MHz spectrum, the firm said, as well as aggressive pricing models and services such as Binge On.

The operator will continue to generate free cash flow, Evercore said, increasing its financial leverage in advance of the upcoming incentive auction of 600 MHz spectrum.

"Once the auction is complete, TMUS will likely begin to use FCF to reduce that debt burden -- creating a positive cycle of debt reduction, increasing FCF production, debt reduction, etc.," the analysts wrote. "Anytime that has happened in telecom historically, it has been very positive for the equity. That being said, the equity probably isn't going anywhere until this process gets started in earnest."

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