Odds of a Sprint/T-Mobile tie-up 'less than 20%,' BTIG says

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The odds of a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile over the next two years are less than one in five, Walter Piecyk of BTIG Research opined.

Some investors have become concerned about the future of the U.S. tower industry over fears the wireless market could see significant carrier consolidation under the incoming Trump administration. Barack Obama’s administration discouraged major tie-ups in the segment, blocking AT&T’s attempted acquisition of T-Mobile on antitrust grounds and essentially forcing Sprint parent SoftBank to abandon its bid for T-Mobile two years ago.

But shares of both T-Mobile and Sprint have risen in recent weeks on speculation that federal regulators will display a lighter regulatory touch under Trump. And it only increased after Trump announced last week that SoftBank will invest $50 billion in the U.S. in an effort to create 50,000 jobs.

In a note this morning examining the U.S. tower industry, though, Piecyk said multiple factors weigh against a merger of the nation’s two smaller major operators.

“If SoftBank/Sprint bought T-Mobile, it would be a clear negative for tower companies and likely greater than has been represented in the recent notes of our peers,” the analyst wrote (PDF, reg. req’d). “The deal-related churn and lack of a fourth wireless operator would have a long-term impact on the growth of tower leasing, a key driver of valuation. Thankfully, we believe the odds of a Sprint/T-Mobile deal are less than 20 percent, not only because of obvious regulatory issues, but also based on the lack of interest by T-Mobile controlling shareholder Deutsche Telekom. “Sprint management also expects to out-execute T-Mobile over the next two years, making a deal more attractive for them over time, but not in 2017.”

Some analysts continue to harbor concerns over the health of the tower industry due to other factors as well. Carriers have tightened their capex belts in 2016 as competition increased and growth slowed, and network buildouts eased in advance of the deployment of 5G technologies and services. But Piecyk said there are plenty of reasons for investors to feel good about players such as American Tower, Crown Castle International and SBA Communications.

“We remain bullish on the investment opportunity of wireless tower companies,” he wrote. “Stable growth in a high margin, low capital intensive business should still be attractive to investors, even in an uncertain interest rate environment.”