AT&T Is Hit By Analyst Downgrade Citing WarnerMedia “Balls To Juggle” – Update

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UPDATED with closing stock price: Shares in AT&T slid more than 2% today after a downgrade and reduction in target price by Wells Fargo analysts.

The lowering to “market perform” from “outperform” and the trimming of the 12-month price target from $40 to $35 was chalked up to the company’s massive investment in entertainment content. WarnerMedia, the rebranded Time Warner TV and movie portfolio acquired in June in an $85.4 billion deal, will distract AT&T and drain resources, giving it too many “balls to juggle,” the Wells Fargo report said.

With $190 billion in debt (a level that CEO Randall Stephenson has projected will return to normal levels by 2022), the company will have a harder time building out wireless networks, said the report by lead analyst Jennifer Fritzsche.

“We remain somewhat concerned about how AT&T will prioritize its near-term uses of cash,” Fritzsche wrote. “And there are many mouths to feed. While we agree in the longer-term story of AT&T’s strategic perspective, we believe the stock will be range-bound over the near-to-medium term.”

AT&T shares closed at $32.67, though trading volume was below average. The stock has declined more than 15% in 2018 to date, not staging much of a rally even after a federal judge in June handed AT&T a decisive victory over government regulators. It has barely budged since the company first proposed buying Time Warner in October 2016.

The Department of Justice filed suit last fall to stop the Time Warner acquisition, saying it would harm both rivals and customers. Doubling down on its argument that the deal is anti-competitive, the government has appealed the ruling and the D.C. Circuit Court is slated to begin new hearings in October.

Should the Department of Justice somehow prevail in its appeal — an unlikely but nonetheless real possibility — the merger would have to be unwound. Doing so would be arduous but not impossible given that AT&T agreed to keep strict separation between its DirecTV distribution unit and the Turner networks pending the outcome of an appeal.

What is less certain is the precedent that a reversal would set for a marketplace percolating with constant M&A discussions during the past couple of years of economic boom times and angst about rising tech competition. Comcast, for example, redoubled its efforts to go after 21st Century Fox and Sky immediately after the AT&T-Time Warner ruling, though it eventually ceded Fox to Disney. A rebuke from the panel three appellate judges would undoubtedly cast a chill over media dealmaking, at least temporarily.

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