A Comcastic Omen for America

02/21/2012 10:30 am EST


Igor Greenwald

Chief Investment Strategist, MLP Profits

With economic apocalypse postponed, consumers have stopped ditching cable service and are signing up for broadband in droves, writes MoneyShow.com senior editor Igor Greenwald.

Remember the New Normal, bracing us for years of austerity, slow growth, and miserly investment returns? Remember the buying sprees for gold, guns, and other apocalypse staples?

Also, remember how cable was done? How we were all going to rip out the cord in favor of the live stream from the barricades or, best case, a Netflix (NFLX) DVD?

Well, you can forget all that. Because last week brought an omen so auspicious it might mark the passage from our checkered recent past to a delightfully predictable future. I’m referring to Comcast’s (CMCSA) quarterly results, delivered like a belated valentine on Wednesday.

Turns out the new normal looks a lot like the old normal: with our behinds parked in front of the TV or laptop screen, passing the time after work. For a cable industry that until recently looked like a legacy business under siege, this represents exciting progress. Ditto for consumers who, far from ditching cable, have embraced its broadband offerings now that most no longer fear for their jobs.

Comcast’s earnings topped estimates by 6 cents a share, and the company emphasized its resurgence by boosting the dividend 44%. It also unveiled a $6.5 billion share buyback, with $3 billion to be spent on stock this year along out of cable’s cash flows.

But the really big surprise was that video defections slowed to a mere trickle of 17,000, from 135,000 a year ago. At the same time, Comcast added 336,000 broadband users, a 15% acceleration of the growth seen a year earlier.

Oh, and business services revenue grew 37%. Comcast has been highly successful in targeting small businesses within its footprint with a service offering combining broadband and multiple phone lines, and now plans to move up the food chain to mid-size companies.

The stock jumped 5% after the results as analysts gushed, and it’s easy to understand why. Capital spending has come down sharply in recent years, and has the potential to shrink further, while the economy and growth opportunities are looking up. A turnaround at NBC would be a very pleasant surprise, while the rest of NBC Universal is an undervalued asset acquired affordably from a motivated seller.

Sure the stock is up 23% year to date, but that hardly seems out of line with the dramatic improvement in its prospects. At 6.4 times trailing cash flow, the shares are hardly expensive, especially in light of the recent business momentum.

The day after Comcast’s report, one aggressive options player unloaded more than 12,000 March 28 puts on the stock, according to OptionMonster. The seller pocketed some $500,000 in premium on a bet that the stock won’t fall below $27.59 by next month’s expiration.

The best-case scenario here is that he’s wrong and everyone gets to buy Comcast as cheaply.

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