Investors hang up on telecom

Major phone carriers worldwide are stumbling amid a price war and a threat from Google's wireless instrusion.

By Jon D. Markman Jan 20, 2010 4:41PM

Major telecommunications carriers' stocks around the world have fallen hard over the past two weeks, initializing their descent well before the rest of the market. Here in the United States, the disconnect began when our two biggest old-line carriers, Verizon and AT&T, launched into an old-fashioned price war, slashing the costs of their wireless plans in an effort to grab market share.

 

But pretty soon the "sell telco" meme obtained a life of its own amid fears by investors that the battle for market share will annihilate earnings and set back the main players in irrecoverable ways.

 

What's remarkable to observe now is that it's not just an American phenomenon. Telephone comapnies -- once the quintessential "widows and orphans" stocks -- are now leading the global charge down. Check out shares of France Telecom, Portugal Telecom) Brazil Telecom, Deutsche Telecom, Hungarian Telecom, China Unicom and Vodaphone. They're all down hard since December, a span during which the MSCI World Index is up 5%. The only telecom carriers that are still buoyant are Nippon Tel and DoCoMo in Japan, and SK Telecom of South Korea.

 

These sell-offs are very disturbing, as telecom is at the center of most countries' economic life. I'm not sure exactly what is causing this mass die-off, but I will note that I told my newsletter subscribers on Jan. 3 that one of the things you could worry about in 2010 was this: "An unlocked Google wireless phone service, due to debut this week, blows up the telecom industry's business model without adding significant new revenue to Google itself, yielding many losers and no winners." 

 

That exact scenario appears to have unfolded on cue. Google has lost 6.8% this year, which is five times worse than the return of the average tech stock this year. It has fallen beneath its 50-day average for four straight days for the first time since a three-day excursion below that key support back in July. If bulls abandon the search leader by not picking it up right here, right now, then that's another nail in the argument for a lengthy correction.

By the way, the last time that GOOG gave up its 50-day average after a run higher was January 2008 right in front of a 65% collapse. And the stock tends to do poorly in the six to nine weeks following Jan. 15 anyway when in the current technical configuration, sinking 23% on average (-31% in 2008, -28% in 2007, -11% in 2005), according to Markethistory.com data. If this were to play out in a similar way, shares could fall as low as $464 by April. 

 

From a broader perspective, the main issue here is not just the telecoms or Google. It would be the loss of leadership from former leaders. That spells trouble.

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