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BT dividend hike seen as unlikely by analysts as telecoms firm tackles costs, pensions and debt

“With the combined pension and net debt position a rather daunting £16.1bn, it’s hard to see the new CEO raising the dividend in May’s full years,” said George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown

CEO Gavin Patterson delivered his last set of quarterly numbers on Thursday

BT Group PLC (LON:BT.A) investors are eagerly waiting to see if newly appointed boss Philip Janson decides to cut the dividend to tackle the firm’s eye-watering debt and pension position.  

Outgoing chief executive Gavin Patterson delivered his last set of quarterly numbers on Thursday and now all eyes are focused on Janson and his plans for the business.

READ: BT reports better-than-expected third quarter earnings but warns of challenges ahead

Patterson has already taken steps to get the business back on track with a strategy that includes cutting costs by closing a final salary pension scheme, axing jobs and moving out of the central London headquarters in St Paul’s.

In a bid to fend off competition in the consumer division, he launched new packages that combine broadband, mobile and pay-TV as a single service and bill.

His strategy also included simplifying the corporate structure by merging the business and public sector businesses to create a single enterprise division.

Patterson has had the hard task of trying to keep shareholders happy on the one hand and politicians and regulators on the other.

Regulators and politicians want BT to roll out superfast fibre broadband to homes and businesses as quickly as possible while not overcharging customers for the service.

BT has spent £1.51bn on the fibre-to-the-premises programme (FTTP) in the year to date, adding to its already high costs base.

That, coupled with a massive debt pile and pension deficit, will mean it could prove difficult to justify giving shareholders what they want – a higher dividend.  

Dividend hike unlikely, analysts suggest 

“With the combined pension and net debt position a rather daunting £16.1bn, it’s hard to see the new CEO raising the dividend in May’s full years,” said George Salmon, equity analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown.

Salmon said he thinks Patterson is leaving the group on an upbeat note after third-quarter revenue and profit beat market forecasts. However, he added that this does not mean BT is out of the woods yet.

"Competition is fierce in mobile and broadband, and falling profits at Openreach are a timely reminder that regulation has the potential to limit progress at any time,” he said.

In the quarterly trading update, Patterson issued a cautious outlook by saying BT continues to expect regulation, market dynamics, cost inflation and legacy product declines to impact the group in the short term.

He added that improved trading and cost savings would offset these headwinds by the 2020/21 financial year.  

Investors wait to hear from new boss

“It could well be the case that his successor is the one to enjoy the benefits of Patterson’s efforts to create a leaner business,” said AJ Bell investment director, Russ Mould.

“Patterson himself expects the full benefits from this push to be apparent from the March 2021 financial year onwards.

“The market will be watching Jansen closely to see the direction he wants to take BT in. Might he look to rebase the dividend with BT yielding more than 6.5%, and how will he approach the expensive business of bidding for sports rights?” 

BT and rival Sky PLC (LON:SKY) paid less at last year’s Premier League action for TV rights. Ahead of the auction, the two broadcasters signed a deal to sell their channels on each other's platforms amid rising competition for Pay-TV.

Will Deutsche Telekom sell or raise its stake in BT?

On another issue, investors want to know what German rival Deutsche Telekom AG plans do with its 12% stake in the UK group now that its lock-up period has ended.

READ: BT investors fret over what German rival Deutsche Telekom might do with its big stake in the UK group

The German giant is now free for the first time in four years to either add to – or sell down – its BT stake, which had been widely seen as a potential foothold for a future takeover.

“A few years ago, a bid might have made sense, but BT is struggling, and any sustainable recovery depends very much on new chief Jansen,” said Lee Wild, head of equity strategy at Interactive Investor.

“The Germans have owned a 12% stake since selling EE to BT in 2015, and are unlikely to be in any rush to own the entire business at such an early stage in its turnaround. Political and economic turmoil also means there’s little logic to the idea of a huge telecoms merger in Europe right now.”

Quick facts: BT Group PLC

Price: 119.95 GBX

Market: LSE
Market Cap: £11.85 billion

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