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Verizon profits miss target, hurt by deep discounts

Verizon Communications Inc., the largest U.S. wireless carrier, missed analysts’ fourth-quarter profit estimates as a surge in sales of deeply discounted phones squeezed margins.

Earnings, excluding some items, of 71 cents a share fell short of analysts’ average projection of 72 cents. Wireless profit margins narrowed to 42 percent, the New York-based company.

Below-cost prices on popular phones like Apple Inc.’s latest iPhones helped lure customers into two-year contracts. Those discounts, along with promotions for free tablets and holiday discounts, helped Verizon fend off competition from the likes of Sprint Corp., which offered to cut Verizon customers’ bills in half. Verizon warned last month that the moves would reduce fourth-quarter margins.

The shares fell 0.9 percent to $47.80 at the close in New York. The stock dropped 4.8 percent last year.

The company’s wireless profit margin shrank from 49.5 percent in the third quarter and 47 percent a year ago.

The lower margins show how expensive it was for Verizon to drive subscriber growth in the quarter. The industry has been trading short-term profitability in order to lock in more customers who will be paying them for years.

Verizon added about 2 million new monthly subscribers, beating the average estimate of 1.7 million, based on a Bloomberg survey of seven analysts. The majority of the additions were driven by 1.4 million new tablet customers. The company only added 672,000 net phone customers.

For the fourth quarter, Verizon reported a net loss of about $2.2 billion, or 54 cents a share, which includes year-end charges for pension adjustments, employee benefits and severance costs. Sales rose to $33.2 billion, while analysts had estimated $32.7 billion on average, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The company projects 2015 revenue growth of at least 4 percent, which would amount to about $132 billion. Analysts predict sales this year of $129.8 billion, or about 2.1 percent growth.