Shares of wireless carrier
were taking a beating Tuesday, a day after the company cut its subscriber forecasts.
Following a series of negative reports from analysts, investors drove shares of the nation's fifth-largest operator down 36 cents, or 14%, to $2.22 -- a new intraday low for the stock since it began trading separately from
shares in 1998.
Sprint reduced its estimates on its current third-quarter subscriber targets Monday, saying that that so many subscribers had failed to pay their bills that it expected to actually lose customers -- which is unprecedented among major wireless carriers, which have been steadily adding to their customer base this year.
The company said that after deactivating deadbeat subscribers in its Clear Pay program for credit-strapped customers, it would achieve a "modest net loss in the quarter." Its churn figure, the rate at which customers leave the service, would be driven to the high 3% range, up from 2.9% in the last quarter, the company said.
A flurry of analyst reports followed the news. "We expect that Sprint PCS will have difficulty meeting its guidance and consensus estimates for the next six to 12 months," said Matthew Janiga, a Lazard Freres analyst, in a research report. "We see limited value for equity holders." The firm initiated coverage of the company on Tuesday morning with a sell rating.
Thomas Lee, a wireless-services analyst at J.P. Morgan, said in a research note, "The trends are not a surprise; it is the magnitude." He reaffirmed a market performer rating. "We believe the major flaw in the Clear Pay strategy was that?by offering the most liberal credit policy, Sprint PCS became the easiest company target for subscription fraud."
Lee reduced expectations for 2002 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization to $2.7 billion from $2.9 billion, and cut 2003 estimates to $3.6 billion from $3.9 billion. He also expects the company to record a net loss of about 8,000 subscribers in the third quarter, compared with a previous estimate of a net addition of 400,000 subscribers. For the full year, the firm reduced its net additional subscriber estimates to 1.5 million from 2.1 million.
The Clear Pay program, which dates back several years, essentially helped the company expand its subscriber base by attracting less credit-worthy customers. In recent months, the company has relaxed some of the rules in the program, but it indicated recently that it has taken steps to fix the program's loopholes, including tightening up credit-screening requirements and requiring more customers to pay a deposit.
UBS Warburg analyst Collette Fleming reduced the company's price target to $8 from $14, and reiterated a strong buy rating on the stock. "Over the past year we believe that Sprint PCS has significantly tarnished its reputation," Fleming said. The company "has become associated with the wireless alternative for credit-challenged customers."