Despite delivering impressive quarterly results, T-Mobile US still managed to disappoint the market Thursday.
The Bellevue-based wireless company reported a profit of $939 million and 1.75 million new customers for the second quarter, representing year-over-year gains of 20.1% and 11%, respectively.
But what investors and analysts had really wanted — and had been led to expect by earlier media reports — was positive news about T-Mobile’s proposed merger with rival Sprint.
Wall Street had been rife with reports that the U.S. Department of Justice planned on Thursday to give its formal blessing to the $26 billion deal between T-Mobile, the nation’s third largest wireless carrier, and Sprint, the fourth largest.
The deal, proposed more than a year ago, is seen by some industry experts as critical for the companies’ long-term success in the rapidly evolving, hypercompetitive wireless industry that is currently led by the much larger Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility.
But by Thursday, expectations for a big merger go-ahead announcement were fading.
A day earlier, T-Mobile rescheduled the release of its second-quarter results, from 9 a.m. Eastern on Thursday, before markets opened, to after markets closed. Then on Thursday, the company postponed its customary quarterly earnings call, where top executives discuss results with industry analysts.
A company spokesperson said the earnings call will be rescheduled, possibly for as early as Friday, but declined to comment on the reason for the postponement.
Media reports, however, pointed to complications at the Department of Justice.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Justice Department officials on Thursday were still negotiating with several state governments that have sued to block the T-Mobile-Sprint merger over concerns that reducing the number of U.S. wireless carriers from four to three will mean less competition and higher customer charges.
T-Mobile and Sprint contend that the merger is needed to allow the two firms to reduce costs and invest more resources into new services, notably the much-touted next-generation 5G network.
On Wednesday, The Journal reported that negotiators with the Justice Department, T-Mobile and Sprint had agreed to a complicated arrangement under which T-Mobile and Sprint would spin off billions of dollars in key assets that would be used to create a new wireless carrier. That fourth carrier, operated by satellite-TV company Dish Network, was meant to ensure that the wireless industry would remain competitive and keep consumer prices from rising.
But according to The Journal, several states have declined to drop the lawsuit.
Thursday’s setback is only the latest in a series of merger-related disappointments stretching back to 2011, when T-Mobile’s plans to sell itself to AT&T were nixed by the Obama administration.
It also marred what should have been a triumphant day for T-Mobile.
Revenues for the second quarter were $11.0 billion, a 4% year over year increase. Earnings per share for the quarter came in at $1.09, an 18% increase year over year, and well ahead of the $0.99 cents that analysts had expected.
Most critically, T-Mobile reported a net gain for the quarter of 710,000 “postpaid” customers, up 3% over last year, and raised its full-year estimate for new customers to 3.5 million to 4 million, up from an earlier estimate of 3.1 million-3.7 million.
Postpaid customers, who are billed each month for services already used, are widely regarded as the gold standard in the wireless industry because they’re less likely switch carriers than are customers with prepaid accounts. Although T-Mobile’s 66 million subscribers put it well behind AT&T (141 million), and Verizon (150 million), T-Mobile’s ability to add and keep new subscribers has impressed investors and analysts alike.
Yet despite such performance, T-Mobile shares closed down 0.9% Thursday, to $79.91, and were down nearly 2% from earlier in the week, presumably as news of the merger announcement delay rippled across the market.