That loud rumbling sound you hear is either the herds of investors leaving
or, maybe, the rolling of massive printing presses spewing out the company's new tracking stock certificates.
Some investors and analysts say the prospect of more trackers this year -- probably the cable operation -- may quiet the exiting stampede somewhat. AT&T shares have plummeted 21% to a 52-week low of 38 1/2 in the three-day aftermath of a soundly disappointing earnings forecast, wiping $35 billion off AT&T's market cap. Shares of AT&T, the nation's most widely held stock, are now trading at a level not seen since late 1998.
Sensing there may be little downside left in this fall, and looking ahead to the distribution of what are essentially free wireless tracking-stock shares and other trackers in the wings, there is gathering sentiment on the street that the company's shares are due for some modest rebound.
AT&T issued a tracking stock for
AT&T Wireless Group
April 27. The shares ended their first day at 31 13/16 and closed at 30 1/2 Thursday. AT&T shareholders will receive shares of the wireless stock sometime this year.
AT&T Chairman C. Michael Armstrong, fielding a question on the possibility of additional tracking stocks told analysts on a conference call Tuesday that he's running two businesses, a growth business in some of his operations, and a declining business, namely consumer long distance. He said, in effect, the logic for a tracker was sound provided the business to be tracked is "operationally ready" and the move would release value to shareholders. This was precisely the same comment he made last year just prior to giving the green light to the wireless tracking stock.
Armstrong hedged that his options were open, but for some analysts the message was loud and clear.
"I expect we'll see a cable tracker by year end," says
Credit Suisse First Boston's
lead telecom analyst Daniel Reingold, who has a strong buy on AT&T. Credit Suisse advised AT&T on the TCI and the pending
Reingold and other analysts say AT&T's
division, which provides data and communications services to businesses, is another asset that could also benefit from tracking stock status.
The old-guard telcos have
embraced trackers as a relatively low-risk maneuver to raise capital, and segregate bookkeeping so divisions can be judged as a stand alone business yet remain under the larger umbrella.
Trackers are sold to the street as opportunities to invest in specific divisions of a larger business. Using the "sum-of-its-parts" valuation, popular among large-cap companies in decline, the intended net effect is that holders of the common stock will get to add the tracker to their holdings. Presumably one plus one will equal greater than two.
Ivan Arteaga, a fund manager with
, says the market is pretty efficient at recognizing hidden values and in some cases, trackers do help uncover opportunities otherwise buried. Gabelli holds a position in AT&T, but Arteaga, who oversees several international telecom and media holdings for Gabelli, has no AT&T position.
Arteaga didn't foresee a cable tracker, but says if AT&T pulled out a tracker for its data business and threw in the international operations "they might get some real value there."
Call it a bottom, or maybe a sympathy vote: The market may be ready to stop flogging AT&T for worse-than-expected performance in consumer toll calling and for botching its relations with big-ticket clients.
"I think the bad news is already in it, and given some of the strengths of the businesses inside I can see the value folks getting interested in AT&T at these levels," says Munder Capital Management money manager Alan Harris, who has numerous telecom holdings, but no position in AT&T.
"It's the teeter-totter effect," says Harris. "You have one side falling as AT&T's execution suffers -- something that was made clear in their earnings report. But on the other side, you start to see the value of AT&T's combined assets coming up."