Saturday, 13 March 2021

TELCO RENT-SEEKERS EVICTED BY MYDIGITAL, DIM PROSPECTS AHEAD

 

If there’s a prime example of rent-seeking behaviour in emerging economies over the past 30 years, academics would be hard-pressed to find a better candidate than Malaysia’s dominant telcos.

These companies had enjoyed fatter margins, better cash flows, and higher profits than their global counterparts. They offer shoddy service and slow speeds but maintain premium pricing for customers. Our Southeast Asian brethren pay cheaper rates for better speeds.

Link

These telcos are still high-debt entities that have truly enjoyed their monopolistic status. In fact, most of their annual cash flows and profits generated scarcely go towards paring down debt, but flow towards shareholders in the form of dividends instead. Yes, Malaysian telcos historically offer the highest dividend yields compared to global peers.

Long term shareholders are taken care of. There’s little to no threat to competition, and the telcos can afford to endure a terrible reputation for service non-reliability. Customers can’t turn to anybody else, really.

 Source : The Edge Weekly article

These are entrenched attitudes, and they have (on a relative basis) enjoyed the fruits of making the most money for doing the least effort.

Malaysia’s mobile telecommunications industry have long matured, and the market looks far more likely to shrink rather than expand. The industry does not have any strong earnings catalysts like new customer acquisitions or margin-enhancing service rollouts.

As a matter of fact, many of them are reliant on…. foreign workers. The prepaid business, to name just one example, is not exactly a breeding ground for innovative thinking.

But the telcos’ days of joy are coming to an end, specifically due to the government’s move to develop 5G technology and infrastructure via Digital Nasional Bhd, a special purpose vehicle.

This is because the 5G SPV ownership model that the government introduced under the MyDigital blueprint will disrupt mobile telcos’ business models, and revenue and cost structures in the long run.

Although the asset-light model under MyDigital is envisaged to enhance telcos’ efficiency, telcos need to do a lot of reparation works to their balance sheets. Specifically, reducing their long-term debt levels as their assets are reduced.

For example, as at December 31, 2020, MAXIS‘s non-current debt stood at RM9.5 billion. Repaying some of these borrowings over the next few years would almost certainly jack up its finance costs and crimp its dividends.

The inevitable compression in margins and yields may lead to industry consolidation with telcos signing pacts to save themselves. Just like some Malaysian banks, we are of the view that there are too many telcos right now in a country of 30 million people. A few of them have no reason for existing.

Then there's the shareholding factor. As a heavily institutionalised sector, telco stocks need foreign institutions’ support to prop up their stock prices. 

 Nice.....

But with the dark, ominous clouds hanging over the mobile telco industry, the foreigners have little incentive to hold on to their Malaysian-listed mobile telco stocks.

....0.1% difference??? (Link to article)

Unless there’s a chance that dividends can return to historical levels, only then can share prices plausibly fetch historical-level premiums. Otherwise, what else is there? Telco is not a growth sector, and its value proposition is diminishing.

 

WHO BENEFITS FROM MYDIGITAL, AND WHO LOSES OUT?

Which one uncle?

If we are not being total cynics over the government’s capability to pull this off, the MyDigital blueprint was designed to tilt the benefits of the digital economy to the rakyat. In effect, mobile telcos and their shareholders will have to surrender some of the profits.

Of course, this could all crash and burn spectacularly. Perhaps the next government won’t be so keen on this fancy SPV, hence continuity must be assured. 

DNB’s CEO Ralph Marshall has already said that investments will be ‘front-loaded’ over the next 2-3 years, meaning that a substantial portion of that RM15 billion (he said 25% of it) would be spent early and fast to lay the foundations of 5G. Depending on how intensive the rollout is, operations and maintenance costs alone would cost "upwards of RM600 to RM800 million a year".

Plunk down the billions and whichever government in the future picks this up will have no choice but to see the project through, lest they be accused of flushing billions of taxpayers’ money down the drain.

When it comes to this grand national 5G leap forward, there’s an idealistic point of view, and a pragmatic one.

The model is an untested one, because everywhere else in the world the development of telecommunications infrastructure is driven by the private sector funding and public sector regulatory guidance as part of a PPP. See how the EU does it.

Satisfying af... link to full document

Although the Finance Minister has clarified that the costs of this government-led initiative will now be 'borne by the private sector', the proclamation was light on details. If we were to venture a wild guess, financing would likely come from the SPV issuing new debt, the kind that is government-guaranteed and one that becomes a contingent liability.

Then there are the issues of capability and competence. Entrusting a government – a slow-moving bureaucratic mess, not to mention one with a lack of sophistication – to roll out 5G technology can be a laughable notion. It’s easy to poke fun at this.

We’d spare our political views, but here’s a pragmatic one. By keeping this to the government, it’s the equivalent of shooting oneself in both feet.

Left foot : tens of billions of ringgit foregone by not auctioning off the spectrum. We’re talking about critically needed government revenues, and a mechanism that is practised widely globally. But now it’s all lost, just like that. Denmark has just started, the UK has just started a second round of auction (with minimum bids of £1 billion), and then there's the US of A:

Right foot : execution risks. You can have a team of the smartest people in the world, but if the business strategy is fundamentally flawed, there’s no hope. An untested one perhaps gives you a 50:50 chance.

This MyDigital strategy is not just a RM15 billion bet. On a nett basis, after factoring in revenues lost from not selling off the spectrum, the deployment itself may ultimately cost upwards to RM40 billion and beyond. The exact figure may be unknowable, but the costs are very real.

Coming back to the private sector. Unfortunately due to the rent-seeking mentality, the telcos here do not operate like any other in the world.

Case in point : telcos expect to be allocated spectrum for free because they would bear the cost for capital expenditure (the aforementioned private sector investment).

Such an endeavour works best when there’s a clear economic incentive to deliver the best service for users. This requires a long-haul flight away from rent-seeking, but that’s how it should work.

But the reality was more like ‘Give us the spectrum, we’ll make it work, but the reward is that we get to gouge the customers anyway. No guarantee that connection speeds won’t die when a user passes by a thick brick wall, but at least it’s better than nothing, right?’

It’s not perfect though, because private sector competition brings with it duplication of resources, with individual telcos committing capex in the service of itself, and not to build infrastructure that can better serve everyone as a whole.

This is why yellow brand works best in one district, but suddenly green brand delivers super-maximum speeds in the housing area right beside it. The end result? Everyone gets spotty coverage.

And this is why the idea of a private sector consortium to handle a 5G rollout was doomed from the beginning. Nobody wants to cooperate. Everyone’s scared of overspending their allocation to the benefit of a competitor. 

Evidently not.... link to article

At best, they might end up having an SPV with three co-CEOs (from the different colours), a 15-member board with five each from the telcos, and so forth. You get the idea why this won’t work well. Unfortunately Malaysia is not the EU, and the telcos here are big fish in a small pond.

In fairness, all the permutations were probably considered at length by the powers-that-be for Malaysia’s 5G plan. We view the willingness to make a U-turn after making a mistake – like the earlier revocation of 5G spectrum awards – as a virtue, not a flaw.

And so the decision to create Digital Nasional Bhd was a calculated one. It might even be based on clear logic. But like KVMRT’s eventual cost or what 1MDB was supposed to have become, it’s going to be all about execution risks.

In no uncertain terms, the government has signaled to the telcos that their rent-seeking days are over. Creating this SPV is a high-risk high-return maneuver.

And believe it or not, the government seems to have put its own economic (and possibly political) self-interest behind to deliver on this high-concept, incredibly sophisticated, and no-room-for-failure plan.

It almost feels like – dare we say it – that this final decision was made on moral grounds. Better service for everyone. Higher speeds. Putting a stop to customer neglect. High hopes indeed.

But of course, even before it has started, the costs are already massive. And should anything go wrong, successive governments will be left to pick up the mess left behind by their predecessors.

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