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Sluggish year ahead for Sprint

After reporting mediocre first-quarter results, the company says that its second-quarter and full-year results are likely to miss estimates.

    After reporting mediocre first-quarter results, Sprint said on a conference call Tuesday that its second-quarter and full-year results are likely to miss estimates.

    After reporting that first-quarter results came in just shy of analysts' expectations, the phone company said on its conference call that earnings per share and EBIDTA (earnings before interest depreciation taxes and amortization) would come in short of projections for the year. Analysts said Sprint may be the harbinger of more bad news for telecom companies.

    Sprint already warned in February that its 2001 earnings would be at the low end of previous forecasts. Shares in the beleaguered telecom company have plunged 60 percent over the past year amid a sell-off in its sector because of concern about shrinking sales of consumer long-distance services.

    On a conference call Tuesday morning, Chief Operating Officer Ron LeMay gave projections for the second quarter and the remainder of the year.

    Earnings per share are likely to be in the low range of 30 cents a share for the second quarter, putting them well below First Call's estimate of 38 cents a share.

    For the year, earnings are likely to be 10 percent to 15 percent below First Call's consensus estimate of $1.54, LeMay said. In Sprint's February warning, it had projected results would be at the low end of its previous projections of $1.65 to $1.75 a share.

    EBITDA for the year is expected to be $4.5 billion to $4.6 billion, LeMay said. The company's planned $6.2 billion in capital expenditures for the year has been put under review, and the company will "evaluate various alternatives to fund our growth plan," he added.

    Sprint reported first-quarter earnings of $315 million, or 36 cents a share. That didn't compare favorably with last year's $1.25 a share. The 72 percent decline was because of lower calling prices, stiff competition, and investments to build its data and wireless businesses, the company said. Income from continuing operations was $316 million, or 36 cents a share, including a gain of 1 cent a share from investing activities. First Call was expecting earnings of 37 cents a share. Last year, the company reported $445 million, or 50 cents a share.

    The company reported that operating revenues were $4.36 billion, down from $4.4 billion a year ago and slightly below First Call's expectations of $4.4 billion.

    The company's PCS Group, up 38 cents to $23.38, also announced first-quarter results Tuesday and gave its outlook for the remainder of the year.

    Bad omen for competitors
    Sprint's outlook doesn't bode well for competitors, which have yet to report their quarterly results.

    "We expect that 2001 will be a challenging year for telecoms," wrote Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein analyst Bruce Roberts in a preview of telecommunications earnings.

    The analyst held a "buy" rating on SBC Communications and Verizon Communications, an "add" on WorldCom, and a "hold" on AT&T, BellSouth and Sprint.

    Roberts said that data sales, driven by business customers, are being dented by the economic downturn. That's likely to put first-quarter sales growth rates below full-year estimates.

    "And if the economy doesn't pick up, we would expect 2001 full-year sales growth to be 100 to 200 basis points below guidance," Roberts added.

    The analyst trimmed his estimates for the year for the regional bell operating companies including BellSouth, Verizon and SBC, as well as the long-distance companies--WorldCom, AT&T and Sprint.

    Even the high-growth data and wireless businesses are being dented by the economic downturn, with Nextel Communications and Verizon Wireless reporting weaker-than-expected subscriber growth.