Could Nokia go bankrupt?

This struggling company will give you plenty of angst, even if it's on the way to a turnaround.

By Jim J. Jubak Jul 10, 2012 2:39AM
In its last update on Nokia (NOK), Standard & Poor's put the alternatives in front of the company and investors this way:
  • 30% chance that the company goes broke and in bankruptcy, equity investors recoup nothing.
  • 40% chance that the company is acquired/merges/liquidates for something like the $2.50 an ADR (American Depositary Receipt) that S&P estimates as the value of its intellectual property (patents and the like).
  • 30% chance that the company completes a successful turnaround and is worth $5 a share 12 months from now.
I'd agree with that list of alternatives for Nokia. (The stock is a member of my Jubak's Picks portfolio.)

But I disagree with the odds that Standard & Poor's places on the alternatives and to a lesser degree with the target price they calculate for the second and third alternatives.

If Nokia were to go bankrupt, equity investors would indeed probably recoup nothing. But I'd put the odds of that happening at 10% or less. For Nokia to liquidate through bankruptcy, management would have to be really, really stupid -- and very unlucky. (Not that stupid and unlucky aren't possible. The 2008 purchase of mapping software company Navteq for $8.1 billion certainly fits "stupid.")

The company finished the March 2012 quarter with $6 billion in net cash (at $1.23 to the euro.) Nokia is burning through cash at a significant rate -- operating cash flow was negative to the tune of $590 million in the first quarter of 2012 -- and severe downgrades to the company's credit rating make raising cash difficult and expensive. But Nokia will get an annual $885 million in platform support payments from Microsoft (MSFT). Including restructuring charges, operating losses, the reduced dividend payment, and the cash from Microsoft, Credit Suisse figures that Nokia will end 2012 with $4 billion in net cash and $3 billion at the end of 2013. (Microsoft owns and publishes Top Stocks, an MSN Money site.) 

For Nokia to go to bankruptcy and wipe out shareholders, it would have to burn through all that net cash and be unable to strike any deals to sell assets. I think this scenario is very unlikely.

A sale of the company well before bankruptcy -- or a sale of intellectual property -- is much more likely. I'd give the odds at 20% rather than S&P’s 10%. Since the ADR closed on Friday July 6 at $1.92, even S&P’s very meager $2.50 a share for intellectual property results in a 30% gain from the current price. (Wall Street also projects that Nokia would sell Navteq for about $730 million now so I think Nokia’s intellectual property is worth more than $2.50 an ADR.) That doesn’t recoup the losses that investors have taken since I recommended it for purchase on March 3, 2012 at $5.49 an ADR (that recommendation was showing a 65% loss as of the close on Friday July 6.) But if you want to know what to do now, it’s the potential gain and not the past loss that counts.

Which, in my reckoning leaves me with a 70% chance that the company will complete a successful turnaround.

Let's be very careful in how we define "successful." Nokia’s ADRs traded at $13.28 on March 25, 2010 and at $31.66 on Nov. 1, 2007.

I'm not talking about a quick return to either of those levels. That kind of success would require sales to return to something like the 100 million unit annual of 2010, and for the company to climb back near the top of the market share heap in either high end or low end smart phones, and for operating margins to recover to something like the 13.4% of 2006 or the 15.6% of 2007.

Not going to happen. Perhaps ever. Certainly not within the time frame of this recommendation.

But Nokia's new Microsoft Windows phone line looks like it is capable of generating enough in sales to first stabilize the company, then return it to profitability, and then produce a 7% or so operating margin. (Not the 15.6% of 2007 certainly.)

Right now, based on the very limited results of first quarter Lumia sales, Nokia looks to be on track to ship 41 million smart phones in 2012, according to Credit Suisse. That total would be made up of 22 million Lumia Windows phones and 19 million older Symbian phones. (On that same path, Credit Suisse estimates that Nokia will sell 55 million smartphones in 2013.)

We'll know on July 19 when Nokia announces second quarter numbers how good those projections are.

On the plus side, Nokia has launched its new low price Lumia 610 in markets such as India ($24 selling price.) On the minus side, Symbian sales have been falling faster than expected, Lumia had some "issues" at launch, and news that the phone, like all existing Windows phones, won't support all the features of Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8 operating system won’t help. There is, I'm afraid, a decent chance of negative news on sales on July 19. (Analysts were projecting that the company would announce a loss of 9 cents an ADR.)

To go straight to the bottom line, the Credit Suisse numbers would produce a further decline in revenue and breakeven in 2012. In 2013 Nokia would see growth pick up by some 5% and a profit of 16 cents to 21 cents per ADR.

I think validation of that path and greater certainty that the end of 2012 numbers would look something like that -- no more horrible surprises -- would result in a price of $6 per ADR by July 2013. (But if you're thinking of doubling down on Nokia or starting a new position, I think you'd be wise to wait until after the July 19 earnings report. Just in case.)

Think that price is unlikely for such a modest "success"? Not when so many on Wall Street -- 30% chance of bankruptcy at S&P, for example -- think the stock is going to $0. But don't imagine that, even if I'm right, that the path to $6 is going to be smooth. Nokia will give you plenty of angst along the way even if the company can produce a "successful" turnaround.

At the time of this writing, Jim Jubak didn't own shares of any companies mentioned in this post in personal portfolios. The mutual fund he manages, Jubak Global Equity Fund (JUBAX), may or may not own positions in any stock mentioned. The fund did own shares of Nokia as of the end of March. For a full list of the stocks in the fund as of the end of the most recent quarter, see the fund's portfolio here. 
Jul 10, 2012 4:05PM
I couldn't agree more.  Nokia has pulled the rabbit out of the hat before (remember their very high quality CRT displays and PCs that went bust--an older marketing faux pas).  This is a company that has been around for a very long time and has re-invented itself several times.  They need to lay off as many as 29,000 workers, but that is a tough thing to do with a Finnish culture.  They have started to do a better job of marketing with the name Lumia, instead of just a meaningless number.  With Microsoft's support and synergy, both may begin to do better, especially Nokia.  I'd sure like my investment in them recover.
Jul 11, 2012 12:38AM
In my opinion, the SMARTEST investment to do now, is to buy Nokia Bond. Company will not go bankrupt... if necessary Microsoft will buy or do some cash-help. Bonds are more than 5% now, and in my opinion will be paid 100%. Unfortunatly I already have Nokia Stock and i don't like to invest Stock+Bonds in the same company...
Jul 12, 2012 1:31PM
Sir, Nokia Lumia will be selling @ $240 not $24 in India.
Jul 10, 2012 9:07PM
So what!  That would bring our unemployment stat up to 8.4%....too darn funny!
Oct 15, 2012 7:49PM
It's not just hop with your any smartphone and with any operating system and it's done, no, the operating system dictates which applications one can use on the phone, and the application world is currently dominated with iPhone and android, and the smartphone users damn know this very well which will limits the user base for the specific platform, which in turn will limits the applications released for it in a chicken and egg situation.
Oct 15, 2012 7:42PM
I just don't think you understand the smartphone market. Nokia and Microsoft partnership is the losers not finding anyone better to partner with. This is a forced partnership, a loser partnership. Not to mention the booming market of the other smartphones, namely android and iPhone, hell, even iPhone is losing the long run.
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