American Tower Exec Insights: Diving into the Dividend

On Thursday, American Tower Corp A (NYSE:AMT) reported its first quarter earnings and discussed the following topics in its earnings conference call. Here’s what the C-suite revealed.

Dividend Distribution

Jason Armstrong – Goldman Sachs: I guess maybe a couple of questions. First, just wanted to follow-up on the last comment on dividend distribution, and just thinking what that could be in 2013, 2014 and beyond. You said the relationship between AFFO and earnings per share sort of implies 30% AFFO payout this year that should go up over time. Can you be anymore granular on what that may look like in 2013 just given what you know on NOLs, bonus depreciation, kind of how that runs off? And then second question, just with everything that T-Mo wants to accomplish over the next sort of year, year and a half, and the pace that they want to move at, would you expect contractually that this could probably take the form of an MLA similar to what we saw from other carriers?

A Closer Look: American Tower Earnings Cheat Sheet>>

Tom Bartlett – CFO: Jason, let me take the first one and I think Jim will take the second one. With regards to the dividend distribution – and we’ve given some pretty clear guidance around what we expected the distribution to be this year because it was very – we thought it to be very helpful given the fact that this was the first year, in fact that we were going to be paying a dividend relative to our movement to a REIT. But let me give you a few data points that could be helpful to understand how we think about this distribution growth over the next few years. First of all, we have an internal goal of sustaining long-term double-digit AFFO growth. We’ve historically been able to generate and we have that continued goal going forward. Our current payout ratio as a percent of AFFO is in the 28% to 30% range depending upon the guidance that we’ve given; the $0.84 to $0.90, based upon the midpoint of our 2012 outlook. Over the long-term, as our NOLs and depreciation tax yield decline, as you identified, our distribution should begin to increase as a function of AFFO growth and a higher payout ratio, and this would obviously result in the distribution growing faster than our AFFO growth rate. Now, clearly, this is all going to be a function of where our Board lands on that, and it’s within their sole discretion, but hopefully that gives you a couple of data points; it will be helpful to kind of think about that going forward.

James Taiclet – CEO: Yeah, Jason. This is Jim. Regarding T-Mobile and their future, our goal with each of our customers is to contribute to making them successful in their technology deployments and upgrades, and at the same time optimizing American Tower’s revenue growth trajectory with that customer and minimizing churn risk, especially sort of episodic churn risk. You can expect that we’re going to apply those same principles in our collaboration with T-Mobile going forward, and we’ll be able to talk more about that when we have some conclusions with them.

AFFO

David Barden – Bank of America: If I could just maybe follow-up on sorry the AFFO and the div question again another way, which is philosophically look you guys have raised the AFFO guidance target as a result of paying out a $0.21 dividend, the low-end of your dividend range has come up. So as you think about AFFO growth maybe being in excess of expectations, is your recommendation to the Board to try to consume your NOL faster or does the higher AFFO may be emboldened you to move to the higher end of dividend expectations? The second question I had, Tom, just on India, you said it was fully reserved. Could you talk a little bit more specifically about what that means for reporting and if we had to kind think through a bad case scenario for the Indian market license issues, what does that mean for AMT?

Tom Bartlett – CFO: David, on the second one, on the India, we looked at some of those companies, some of the smaller companies that we didn’t think candidly would be back in the market relative to some of the events that are going on, and they represented roughly 3% of the revenue stream in India and we in essence have canceled those or set up an allowance, if you will, for those, and that charge actually hit in the first quarter relative to our run rates. So there isn’t any longer, anymore run rate revenue coming for them and that’s included in the churn numbers that we outlined today.

James Taiclet – CEO: And only about by 0.3% exposure David to the entire Company, which has already been reserved, so I think it’s past us. Let me just say a word on the second topic and Tom can add more color if you like, but again we’re working to optimize growth in the business, David, and the yield for our shareholders at the same time. So that would imply that we’re going to work with assets we have as efficiently as we can, acquire new assets at attractive prices, and show growth in the dividend as well to reflect it on both dimensions. So, that’s the philosophy. We will work with our Board on this, we’ll give them recommendations every quarter, every year what those relative growth rates ought to be, but our expectation is that our dividend growth will be faster than the average (REIT) and it will also exceed our FFO growth, that’s our expectation and that’s how we’ll philosophically work with the Directors.

David Barden – Bank of America: Apologies to follow-up, so can I interpret then that while you’re raising your AFFO guidance but you’re not raising or changing your dividend expectations that the inference is that you’ve decided to reserve that incremental benefit for incremental investment in growth as opposed to incremental investment in dividend returns?

Tom Bartlett – CFO: Yeah, I think that’s fair David. We’re talking about 2012 and that we had a range for the dividend between $0.84 and $0.90, so clearly we could be at the high end of that particular range. I think that, as Jim pointed out going forward, I think that the right way to think about this is to look at kind of the AFFO growth, and looking at the distribution we think that’ll outpace that AFFO growth, and there are awful lot of things that are going – that can go on from a tax return perspective in terms of looking what taxable income is, bonus depreciation – all kinds of items. So, I think the best way to think about it is just as Jim laid out, that we would expect that the dividend to be our goal; would be to have it higher than our AFFO growth going forward, and we think that, coupled with the AFFO growth in the business really provides an attractive return for our shareholders.

James Taiclet – CEO: And to put a final point on the topic, David, for you is, we take capital allocation very seriously; we always have here. This is another aspect of capital allocation. So, as you’ve already seen in 2012, we’ve raised the midpoint of the guidance for the dividend for the full year. So you can see that there is some allocation between the outperformance of the business to funding more business growth and to raising the dividend already. So, that’s how again, I would philosophically look at it going forward. We’re going to just try to make intelligent capital allocation decisions, especially when business outperforms.