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Why Neil Woodford Is Backing BT Group plc’s Takeover Of EE

Press speculation last month suggested BT Group (LSE: BT-A) (NYSE: BT.US) was eyeing up an acquisition of a UK mobile network operator: either O2 (demerged from BT in 2001 and now owned by Telefonica) or EE (jointly owned by Deutsche Telekom and Orange).

BT confirmed the rumours, and has this week announced it’s entered exclusive negotiations to acquire EE for £12.5bn in a cash and shares deal.

Initial scepticism

Renowned fund manager Neil Woodford was initially sceptical about the merits of such a deal. While BT already had plans for providing enhanced mobile services of its own, the prospect of a mega-acquisition was a whole different ball game, challenging Woodford’s previous investment thesis for backing the company.

According to one of Woodford’s team:

“The investment case has increasingly represented a cash return story over the last couple of years. As capex on the £3bn commitment to rolling out fibre starts to decline and revenues from customer subscriptions ramp up, we had envisaged improving cash flows and substantial growth in dividend payments”.

Naturally, Woodford was initially nonplussed by the idea of cash flows being directed towards acquisitions rather than back to shareholders.

From scepticism to enthusiasm

On further consideration, though, Woodford’s team have embraced BT’s strategic move, and are excited by the company’s “opportunity to become dominant in taking the ‘quad-play’ fight (broadband, fixed line telephony, pay TV and mobile) to the competition”.

They see a number of long-term benefits for the business, and thus for long-term shareholder value:

“Free cash flow prospects should ultimately be far more robust from the enlarged entity, less reliant on price increases and cost rationalisation, with the focus moving to meaningful growth from a cross-selling strategy. This should result in more management control and less susceptibility to price-based competition in the fixed-line market”.

The price is right

Not all analysts reckon BT has got a good deal. According to Deutsche Bank, BT’s offer is “more expensive than expected”; this “after some serious speed dating”.

Woodford’s team has a different view:

“BT has taken full advantage of its unusual position in these negotiations as a sole buyer with two keen sellers. It looks like a good price, particularly when considering the substantial cost synergies in areas such as IT, back office and procurement, which make the financial logic behind the deal even more compelling”.

If Woodford and his team are right on the pricing of the EE deal, and on the enhanced prospects for the enlarged group, BT, which is the CF Woodford Equity Income fund’s fifth-largest holding at 6% of the portfolio, could be a big long-term winner.

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G A Chester has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.