Telstra message: hold to the message

Analysts and investors were hanging on every word uttered by Telstra chief David Thodey and his team at Wednesday's annual investor day, looking for justification of the $5-plus share price.

Analysts and investors were hanging on every word uttered by Telstra chief David Thodey and his team at Wednesday's annual investor day, looking for justification of the $5-plus share price.

But nothing earth shattering was on offer. There was no new growth engines, no unexpected disasters and no big announcements.

But more crucially there were no pointers on future dividends or capital management, no real sense of capital expenditure plans, and nor would management be pinned down on medium-term margins. Telstra remained devoid of hints on how it will fare under the new government's revised national broadband network.

It reaffirmed its earnings outlook but several hours of executive presentations were frustratingly shy on detail.

Analysts are of the view that Telstra is fully valued at current prices. But investors have stubbornly supported it as a fail-safe, high-yielding stock. But it is priced for growth and management is making no suggestion that earnings are about to take off.

The biggest news of the day was a rearrangement of management, but it won't mean much to the average investor. To the extent it is a pointer to the future, Kate McKenzie was elevated to chief operations officer, which puts her in the biggest job inside Telstra, after Thodey. It would be a big call to suggest that she is next in line for the job (particularly as he is not expected to be leaving any time soon).

But she has definitely taken a meaningful step up the rung of the management ladder ahead of Brendon Riley, who has been moved to the new role of head of global enterprises and services.

Telstra is now such a big and well-held stock in the hands of super funds and retail investors that the company has to deliver regular updates. However, Thodey should be congratulated on the consistency of his message and performance.

The company sold the presentation as a new strategic direction but it was more a refinement of the old plan, with a slight change in emphasis.

Where the digital media part of the growth strategy was de-emphasised, given its performance to date has been underwhelming, Asia has been highlighted as an even more important growth engine.

The network applications and services side of the business took its place again as a central cog in the growth strategy.

But fundamental to driving the core business is still growing numbers in the company's primary products and giving them better service/improving customer advocacy in order to keep the ones they have.

Telstra has a natural advantage over its competitors because it has a better network, but is no longer alone in the pursuit of keeping customers happy.

This is now the central mantra of Vodafone and Optus. Telstra might be ahead in this regard but the others are getting their act together.

Complaints from phone and internet users to telcos have reached a five-year low, according to the annual report from the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman. It received 18 per cent fewer complains about landline, mobile and internet issues in 2012-13 than it did in the previous year.

For its troubles, Telstra has continued to pick up new customers in mobile, fixed broadband and fixed broadband bundles, but not at the nose-bleed rates that it has shown previously.

Wine saga rolls on

Treasury Wine Estates had to face its investors on Wednesday at its annual meeting, following a horrible performance in 2013, only to tell them the current half was also going to be difficult.

It still has an inventory problem despite the $153 million hit it has already taken due to excess wine stocks in the US - some of which have not yet been disposed of.

The strategic blunder it announced in July cost chief executive David Dearie his job, and his replacement has still not been found.

It is sticking to its growth story for its premium brands, including Penfolds and Wolf Blass, but now says the lucrative Chinese market is softening.

Interim chief executive Warwick Every-Burns (who has been a director since its demerger from Foster's) talked about the company's priorities, including expanding luxury brands and growing internationally. But whether it will get board support is another issue entirely.

Its share price has struggled to recover the ground lost in July and it fell another 2 per cent on Wednesday.

It is difficult to see how shareholders will be able to embrace a strategy other than one set by an outsider not tainted by the mistakes of the current regime.

The chairman told shareholders that the fundamentals of the existing strategy were working in three out of four regions. Unfortunately, the fourth was a disaster.

The author has Telstra shares.

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