Investors seem to be optimistic about Altice USA Inc.'s future as an independent entity.
Shares in Altice USA ended the day up around 10% on Jan. 9. Altice NV said late Jan. 8 that it plans to sell its 67.2% interest in Altice USA to Altice NV shareholders, structurally separating the companies. Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei explained during a Jan. 8 conference call that the split, set to close sometime in the second quarter of this year, will "significantly simplify the way each group operates" in terms of responsibilities and decision-making processes, a change that Goei believes will "add significant value."
According to multiple analysts and industry observers, the primary benefit of the transaction is that it will shield Altice USA from the difficulties the parent company has been facing with its European operations. "The Altice NV story, particularly in France, was problematic," MoffettNathanson analyst and long-time cable analyst Craig Moffett said in a Jan. 9 research note emailed to clients. He noted that the European business has been aggressively cutting costs to better compete in the French wireless market, leading to misses on revenue growth and heightening concerns about Altice NV's heavy debt load, which ended the third quarter of 2017 with €49.56 billion in net debt.
According to Moffett, Altice NV's debt had come to cast a dark shadow on Altice USA due to "concerns that the U.S. might somehow be called upon to bail out a weakened European parent."
Pivotal Research Group CEO and Senior Media and Communications Analyst Jeffrey Wlodarczak agreed, saying one of the "biggest overhangs on the U.S. business" was "the potential for the struggles in the French business to bleed into the U.S. business." He added that the spinoff "eliminates that issue."
Kagan analyst Tony Lenoir said there were multiple reasons to believe the time is now right to separate the U.S. and international business, noting that Altice NV's debt load has been "weighing heavily on the group's share price in the last six months." In terms of the planned spinoff, Lenoir explained, "I think Altice's top brass decided it was time to insulate Altice USA from the difficulties the conglomerate, Altice NV, is facing across its international footprint, particularly in Europe." Kagan is a research group within S&P Global Market Intelligence's technology, media and telecom offering.
But Freddie Lait — founder and chief investment officer at Latitude Investment Management, a boutique firm focused on global stocks that follows a long-only investment strategy — noted that the move not only stands to benefit Altice USA but also will help Altice NV.
"This spinoff will certainly go a long way to steady people's nerves and to allow [Altice founder Patrick] Drahi to continue to expand in the areas where he wants to in a more balanced way. The debt levels have been a real concern to me and other investors, and to see an attempt to reduce this burden is a clear positive," Lait said in an interview.
In connection with the split, Altice USA will distribute a special dividend in cash of $1.5 billion, of which Altice NV will receive €900 million. Altice Europe will use €625 million, or 69%, of its proceeds from the Altice USA special dividend to repay debt, while retaining €275 million on its balance sheet. "Altice Europe will remain highly disciplined and will not pursue any meaningful stand-alone M&A opportunities and will use excess cash flow to reduce its indebtedness position," Dennis Okhuijsen, who will serve as CEO of Altice Europe after the split, said during the Jan. 8 conference call.
One question for investors following the U.S. cable business is whether the company will pursue further M&A in the near future once the spinoff is complete. Asked about the company's plans during the conference call, Goei said that while the company is "long-term ambitious" about consolidation, "There's clearly no near-term focus here on M&A."
In the immediate future, Goei said Altice USA will remain focused on building out its fiber-to-the-home network. The cable company has announced plans to build a fiber-to-the-home network over a five-year deployment schedule that began in 2017. Altice expects to reach all of the cable footprint it acquired from Cablevision Systems Corp. and most of the footprint it acquired from Suddenlink Communications during that time frame. In addition, Altice USA is moving forward on its plan to launch a wireless offering through its mobile virtual network operator agreement with Sprint Corp. With the MVNO set to launch later this year, Goei said, "We have a lot of other stuff going on internally, [and] we don't want to take our eye off the ball."
But Goei also did not rule anything out. "To the extent that medium-term things become open to us, of course we'll be looking at it," the CEO said.