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Bankruptcy Guru Altman Z: Bernstein Right on Sprint

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- A Sanford Bernstein analyst on Monday put the odds of Sprint (S) going bankrupt in the next five years at 50/50. So, does the bankruptcy metric developed by New York University professor Edward Altman in 1968 -- which has been 72% accurate in predicting corporate bankruptcies two years prior to the filing -- have Bernstein's back?

Sort of.

Sprint is clearly at risk of bankruptcy based on the Altman Z metric, but so is just about every company in its capital intensive sector. Bernstein makes the case that Sprint's bet-the-farm strategy on Apple's (AAPL) iPhone will sink the firm as it tries to build out a network to support the device users' needs.

Sprint does rank most at risk among peers, however, many rank at a score where the bankruptcy risk is closer to Sprint's danger level than what would be an Altman Z "all clear" signal.

When it comes to Sprint specifically, there's a key difference between Altman Z and the Bernstein analysis. While Sprint's debt load is high, Bernstein says it should be able to handle its 2013 and 2014 maturities, and that it is after these two years when the real red flags will arise. The Altman Z score, on the other hand, is designed to predict a bankruptcy two years before the event.

For a detailed review of Sprint's issues and debt load as portrayed by Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett, click here.

The Altman Z score measures several aspects of a company's financial health -- including working capital, total assets, total liabilities, market capitalization, sales, retained earnings and earnings before interest & taxes (EBIT) -- to forecast the probability of a bankruptcy protection filing within two years.

Companies with a Z-Score of 3 or higher are considered safe with little danger of bankruptcy, while those with a score of 1.81 or lower are considered distressed and are more likely to go bankrupt. Anything in between is a grey area.

Most of the U.S. wireless companies are at risk of bankruptcy based on this Altman Z dividing line, though Sprint is the only carrier that has an Altman Z score that is negative.

Here is Sprint's Altman Z score based on the trailing 12-month period versus its peers:

  • Sprint: -0.44
  • Leap Wireless (LEAP): 0.16%
  • Verizon: 0.99%
  • AT&T: 1.29
  • MetroPCS (PCS): 1.37
  • United States Cellular (USM): 2.28
  • The Sprint bankruptcy risk isn't the only way that the Altman Z score factors in the iPhone world. For investors interested in having Altman Z red flag metrics at their fingertips, a smartphone app has been created for the Altman Z tool.

    -- Written by Eric Rosenbaum from New York.

    >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Eric Rosenbaum.

    >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to Eric Rosenbaum.

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