Play The Percentages With BT Group plc

BTThe forward price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio — share price divided by the consensus of analysts’ forecasts for earnings per share (EPS) — is probably the single most popular valuation measure used by investors.

However, it can pay to look beyond the consensus to the spread between the most bullish and bearish EPS forecasts. The table below shows the effect of different spreads on a company with a consensus P/E of 14 (the long-term FTSE 100 average).

EPS spread Bull extreme
Bear extreme
Narrow 10% (+ and – 5%) 13.3 14.0 14.7
Average 40% (+ and – 20%) 11.7 14.0 17.5
Wide 100% (+ and – 50%) 9.3 14.0 28.0

In the case of the narrow spread, you probably wouldn’t be too unhappy if the bear analyst’s EPS forecast panned out, and you found you’d bought on a P/E of 14.7, rather than the consensus 14. But how about if the bear analyst was on the button in the case of the wide spread? Not so happy, I’d imagine!

BT Group

Today, I’m analysing Footsie telecoms firm BT Group (LSE: BT-A) (NYSE: BT.US). The data for the company’s financial year ending March 2015 is summarised in the table below.

Share price 388p Forecast
Consensus 28.7p n/a 13.5
Bull extreme 33.9p +18% 11.4
Bear extreme 20.0p -30% 19.4

As you can see, with the most bullish EPS forecast 18% higher than the consensus, and the most bearish 30% lower, BT’s 48% spread is somewhat wider than the 40% spread of the average blue-chip company.

BT’s recent bold move into pay-TV is probably one reason why analysts see a relatively wide range of plausible earnings scenarios. Changes in a business tend to cloud earnings visibility in the short term. For example, the game-changing sale by Vodafone of its stake in US phones firm Verizon Wireless is an extreme case: the EPS spread for Vodafone, which is now on the acquisition trail, is a super-wide 128%.

There has been good momentum within BT’s business since the financial crisis of 2008/9, reflected in a 345% rise in the shares over five years, 100% over three years, and 28% over one year.

In annual results released earlier this month BT said:

“We have made strong progress this year. Underlying revenue, adjusted profit before tax and normalised free cash flow have all grown and beaten market expectations”.

It’s no real surprise, then, that the market is rating BT close to — although still just on the value side — of the FTSE 100 long-term average P/E of 14, based on the analyst consensus EPS forecast. The bull extreme brings the P/E down to 11.4, but at the other end of the spectrum the P/E rises to 19.4.

Arguably, the big money has already been made from BT over the last five years, and the shares are now looking close to being up with events.

However, I can tell you that one of the Motley Fool's top analysts has just discovered a super growth opportunity that could deliver in spades over the next five years.

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G A Chester does not own any shares mentioned in this article.