Ten years holding shares in France Telecom: I can’t see the ‘Orange’, I can only see ‘red’

Ten years ago, I bought shares in Orange (the mobile business) and France Telecom (the parent of Orange), which are now one and the same company. I made two mistakes at the time:

  • After France Telecom’s share price had gone down by more than 80%, I thought that it was strongly protected against further price decrease, and would go up over the long term. It didn’t.
  • Even if profit margins in France were to decrease under competitive pressure in the fixed line business, I thought that France Telecom’s turnover would go up, driven by mobile services and the international business. It didn’t either.

So I was double wrong. And this is what happened to my original investment. Not a disaster, but certainly not great. Time to fire France Telecom?

The acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook: too expensive, or too cheap?

Obviously the SMS business has been a cash-cow for mobile operators for close to 20 years now, and it was high time that something happens to shake-up the status quo. This seems to be exactly what the WhatsApp team has managed to do. No surprise that it didn’t get unnoticed. On 19th February 2014, Facebook announced that it had agreed to acquire WhatsApp, a 50-staff company, for $19 billion (about 20% in cash and the rest in equity).

This looks mind-boggling at first. But WhatsApp currently has 450 million (mobile) users world wide. Also, in view of recent social media transactions, the pricing of the WhatsApp acquisition does not look so crazy. Sure, the Zuckerberg ‘kid’ and his shareholders must know what they are doing?

Why P/E ratios are useless, unless you are Warren Buffett

In a previous article (‘Stop using the IRR!‘), we explained why the Internal Rate of Return is a completely misleading and useless measure of finance performance; and recommended to use the ROE (Return on Equity), the ROIC (Return on Invested Capital), as well as the peak funding requirement, the payback period and the NPV (Net Present Value).

There is another die hard in business: the P/E ratio for a company listed on the stock market. This is the ratio of the share price to its earnings after tax.

The average P/E ratio of US equities was 14 in the 20th century, and roughly the same in other countries.

So now, this is how the story goes in the media: “P/E ratio lower than 10 – BUY! The stock is a bargain!”. Or “P/E ratio higher than 20 – SELL! The stock is expensive”.

Are Vodafone, France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom stocks underpriced?

This article is the follow-up to a previous article entitled „Time to dump your European service provider stocks?

Over the period 2004-2010, we have seen that a number of big European stocks have been down a bit or a lot. This includes three big names in the market:  Vodafone, France Telecom (Orange) and Deutsche Telekom. If these stocks have gone down over the last 7 years, does that mean that they are underpriced now?

Those who believe that the market is fully efficient will say that this question is absurd because the market is always at the right price. But firstly, there is considerable amount of evidence that the market is not fully efficient. And secondly it can be very useful to better understand what you have to believe about the future for stocks to be priced at their current level. If your beliefs are not what the market believes, then there is an opportunity to put a bet on what’s going to happen in the years to come.

How do you know whether a stock is underpriced for a start? If you have ever bought or sold stocks, we bet that in 95% of the cases you have not done any detailed analysis but relied on sentiment, gut feeling, what you read on the Internet or what your financial advisor has told you. But you should do the check yourself. This will take you a bit of time, but might avoid some costly mistakes. And in many cases, you will be surprised by the results. In all cases, you will learn something about the stocks that you contemplate buying or selling, and this is great news!

Time to dump your European telecom stocks?

This column might be unpopular. But if you are honest with yourself, you know that the truth often hurts.

Check a couple of big European service provider stocks on Yahoo Finance or your preferred financial web site. Look at the last 2 years, 5 and 7 years – take 7 years rather than 10 to hide the 2000-2002 dot.com crash, which was truly exceptional. What do you see?

We have done the check for you, for the following European service providers: BT, Deutsche Telekom, France Telecom (Orange), Telecom Italia, Telefonica, Vodafone. And added the Euro Stoxx 600 index on top as benchmark.

Breakthough on the stock markets?

I don´t know whether you have noticed, but something happened on the stock markets this week.

Take the DAX Total Return, a well-constructed index (unlike the Dow Jones).  The index had been hitting a ceiling at 6300 points a number of times this year but never managed to get through.  This week, we have passed 6400 points for a couple of days now.  This might be a sign that it is time for you to invest your money in stocks.

Last time the DAX reached 6400 points, this was in early September 2008, more than 2 years ago, before the Lehman disaster was announced.  6400 points were also reached in early 2007, while the DAX was on its way to a high of 8000 points reached only 6 months later.  Before that, you had to go as far back as February 2001 to see the DAX at 6400 points, on its way down to a low of 2200 points reached in March 2003.

Does that mean that the DAX could hit 8000 points soon?  I don´t know.  And nobody knows, really.  The only thing that I know is that the DAX has been at 8000 before: in March 2000, July 2007 and December 2007.  So getting there once more is not impossible.  Some say that as the DAX performance has been rather disappointing on a 10-year period basis (2000-2010: the lost decade for stocks?), the index has some catch up to do.