Why does everyone hate Tegna stock (apart from the obvious)

April 8, 2024

Tegna, formerly Gannett, is a broadcast TV company (that’s the obvious part), which the market has been incomprehensibly punishing despite its free cash flow yield of 18% or potentially higher. In fact, a recent merger agreement valued the company at $24 (the stock is at $14 as of this writing) failed for regulatory reasons, not for any problems with the deal itself. And of course we have the 2024 election season coming up, which is always a lucrative time for broadcast television.

The reason I say that the stock is hated is that Tegna expended $600 million on share repurchases in the last couple of years (out of a market cap, adjusted for excess cash, of $2.2 billion as of this writing), and yet the stock has not moved. The company’s announcement of $600 million more in buybacks in the next two years have also left it unmoved. It is possible that the post-merger slump has chased away investor interest, but even so, a free cash flow yield this high cannot be ignored forever, as management in its 10-K has committed to returning half its free cash flow at least to the shareholders. The repurchases are a positive sign, as a company that is undervalued should be using its cash flow to repurchase stock, while a company that is fairly valued should be paying dividends, and a company that is overvalued should be focusing on using its stock to acquire other companies.

In fairness, broadcast television is a declining industry, but not necessarily a dying one anytime soon (and don’t forget that cable companies do pay local broadcasters to carry their content). But even a declining company can throw off considerable free cash flow, particularly as depreciation and amortization tends to outweigh new capital expenditures.

Turning to the figures, the election cycle tends to make year over year comparisons difficult, so it would be fairer to compare 2023 to 2021. In 2023, sales of $2.91 billion declined by 3% as compared to 2021 and operating income (not counting the merger termination fee Tegna earned because it is obviously nonrecurring), declined by 25%, which management attributed partially to a more difficult business environment that affected advertising revenue, as well as higher programming costs. Even so, taking excess depreciation into account, free cash flow for 2023 came to $400 million. The comparable figure for 2021 was $634 million, so one can see why there is market pessimism. The non-political advertising situation may improve in 2024 or it may not, but $400 million still represents a yield of 18% on what is essentially an off-year. For the election year of 2022, sales were up 8% compared to 2021, operating income was up by 25%, and free cash flow was $782 million. So even if the decline in free cash flow yields is permanent, political advertising in 2022 added $280 million to Tegna’s sales, and the Olympics also occur in even-numbered years, so 2024 is likely to improve on that $400 million figure to the tune of more than a hundred million easily, particularly as 20% of Tegna’s reachable households live in swing states.

Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out an accounting shenanigan. In the 2023 10-K Tegna reported the free cash flow figures for the two year period ending in December of 2023, and again for 2022. It is fair to present an odd- and even-numbered year together, but a reader who skims might miss the two year figure and conclude that free cash flow was over one billion in a single year, and furthermore might miss the significance of the even-numbered year being counted twice and the smaller, odd-numbered years being counted once each. The company computes that free cash flow in 2023 was $120 million less than in 2021, as their calculation differs somewhat from mine.

And for what it’s worth, the company’s bonds are rated BB+ or just barely sub-investment grade, and according to the St. Louis Fed, the current option-adjusted spread for BB bonds is just under 2% as of this writing, suggesting that new bonds (such as the ones Tegna will have to issue to refinance its existing ones in the next few years), would yield about 6.4% based on the current 10-year Treasury rate, so I do think an 18% cost of capital (or higher given that 2024 is an even year) is unrealistically demanding.

So, even in the absence of the catalyst of a merger I do think Tegna’s substantial free cash flow yield must be recognized by the market eventually, and I recommend it as a candidate for portfolio inclusion.

Disclosure: At the time of this writing I held shares in Tegna.

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