Value of a long-distance call

Facing tougher competition and regulation, BT is finding it has to run hard just to stand still
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The Independent Online
A FALL in profits of pounds 94m would be a catastrophe for most companies. But British Telecommunications, churning out profits at the rate of pounds 2.6bn and more a year, is big enough to regard a setback of that size as merely a minor irritant, and the shares rose 5p to 408p on Thursday's news. But, as the subsequent relapse to 400p indicates, the longer-term question is how far shareholders are prepared to stomach such irritation as a tighter regulatory regime and more aggressive competition combine to confine the group.

As operational inefficiencies have been gradually squeezed out of BT, so growth has slowed to a crawl. Instead, the shares have become the classic grannies' yield stock: hi-tech yet rock-solid, throwing off cash like last year's fashion, producing a yield which the stock market is content to leave at a comfortable 5 per cent-plus.

Yet, with a tag of pounds 25bn, BT has slipped from being the stock market's most valuable company to a mere fourth. That owes something to the rising price of oil, which has helped British Petroleum and Shell to overtake BT, but it at least partly reflects doubts about the telephone stock.

The precipitious fall in the BT share price last year shows how lightly it is regarded by the investment community. That fall, from 490p to 350p, was no fault of the company. It mirrored the collapse of the bond market as interest rates rose. In other words, BT shares are seen by many as a synthetic fixed-interest security.

That is bad news for BT's chairman, Sir Iain Vallance, and the rest of his top management, for it means their efforts are being set at naught or, even worse, taken for granted.

To some extent, this is the price of being a stock market Goliath. But few regard Glaxo Wellcome, BP, or Shell so disparagingly, even though all three are as intimately bound up with international government policy as BT.

The group is so low-rated because it is a dual short-term and long-term play - and the London market, true to form, is concentrating on the short- term aspect.

In crude summary, the short-term interest lies in the UK, while the long- term prospects are bound up with BT's ability to become a global telecoms giant - or, rather, one of what will be a clutch of giants carving up the world's telephones.

At home, the group's strategists recognise that it faces a treadmill. It has to grow the market faster than it loses market share, which it inevitably must as regulatory restraints bite and competitors rush to fill the vacuum.

Hence Maureen Lipman and now Bob Hoskins, fronting expensive television ad campaigns designed to persuade us to use the phone more than we already do. In that context the fax is a godsend, encouraging a whole new area of telephone use that will grow as more people buy fax machines for their homes. Every extra call helps to mop up what has become a huge overhead of premises, staff and equipment.

However, the UK market will become more and more treacly for BT, for two reasons. In the first place, its competitors will cherrypick, going for the profit-rich inner-city business and shunning the privilege of laying lines across remote moorland. That will remain BT's prerogative. Secondly, the most attractive customers - big companies, with hundreds of lines in constant use in a few office blocks - are continually finding new ways of shaving their costs.

However, multinational company customers also have their charms, in the shape of money-spinning international calls. The world is shrinking, and telephony is one of the main ways that is happening.

The snag is that all other national telephone systems are protected, often zealously, by their governments. This is a sore point with BT: Sir Iain has complained frequently that Britain has the world's most open telecoms market, while BT faces high hurdles elsewhere.

The answer has been to strike alliances, most notably in BT's case with MCI of the US. Last week saw a potentially spectacular example of the benefits from such tie-ups, when MCI set up a joint venture with News Corporation to distribute information and education down MCI's telephonic pipelines. One of the most important of these is MCI's Concert joint venture with BT.

But Sir Iain also underlined the constraints on his company when he admitted that BT had not taken part in the News Corp venture for fear of upsetting the UK regulators. That highlights another long-term prospect for BT: the whole multimedia revolution.

It is possible to send moving pictures down the telephone line, and BT has been experimenting in Colchester, Essex, with so-called "video on demand", whereby people can dial up films to be shown on their television sets. This is all part of the convergence of telephony, computers and publishers, which BT admits it does not yet know enough about to assess properly the eventual impact on the group's operations.

At the least, BT accepts that it will be some time before either the overseas or the multimedia prospects turn into bottom-line profits. Until then, says Richard Marriott, the group's strategy and planning chief, "we are largely dependent on the UK and the whim of the regulators".

That is why BT shares have been under such a cloud. But that makes them good value for anyone who wants the income from the dividend, and is prepared to wait for growth to come through.

Activities Telecommunication services supplier.

Share price 400p Prospective yield 5.8% Prospective price-earnings ratio 13.3 Dividend cover 1.5 1992/3 1993/4 1994/5 Turnover pounds 13.2bn pounds 13.7bn pounds 13.9bn Pre-tax profit pounds 1.97bn pounds 2.76bn pounds 2.66bn Net profit pounds 1.2bn pounds 1.8bn pounds 1.7bn Earnings per share 19.8p 28.5p 27.8p Dividend per share 15.6p 16.7p 17.7p