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Despite a $1 billion loss ZTE is seeing light at the end of the tunnel

ZTE

The Chinese telecom vendor ZTE reported a total annual net loss of over $1 billion from its business in 2018 but is foreseeing returning to profit in Q1 2019.

After a roller-coaster year, ZTE reported a total operating revenue of RMB 85.5 billion ($12.7 billion, at the exchange rate $1=RMB6.7233) in 2018, a 21.4% decline from a year ago. The net loss amounted to RMB 6.9837 billion ($1.04 billion), down from a net profit of RMB 4.57 billion from 2017, or a decline of 253%. After pulling off a surprising return to profit in Q3 last year,  the net profit in Q4 came down to RMB 276 million, narrowed by more than a half from the RMB 564 million from the previous quarter, despite that the quarterly revenue increased by over 38%.

When looking at the results by business lines and by sector, we can see that its consumer business, mainly smartphones, which account for more than a quarter of ZTE’s business before the US sanction, suffered the heaviest decline. The unit’s total revenue came down by 45%, and only accounted for 22% of the total business in 2018. The revenue from carrier’s network business shrank by 10.5%, and that from B2B business including public sector was down by 6%.

When it came to its performances in different markets, the heaviest decline came from its business in mature markets in Europe, Americas and Oceania, where the revenues dropped by 45%, followed by that from Asia, which was down by 25%. The domestic market, representing 63.7% of ZTE’s total business, suffered a decline of 12%. Its business in Africa actually registered a growth of 8.4%, despite that it only accounted for less than 5% of ZTE’s total business. Incidentally, it was in Africa that ZTE reaped the highest gross margin of 48%, compared to 38% in China, and only 13% in Europe, Americas and Oceania.

The decline of the annual total business could largely be attributed to the heavy fines of $1.4 billion ZTE had to pay the US government for the settlement in the middle of last year, in addition to the wholesale change of management and the board. The market has chosen to look at the upside after the ban was lifted. Its share price had already gone up by over 50% by the end of last year and has now more than doubled the low of last July.

Looking forward, ZTE predicted that it would generate between RMB 0.8 billion and RMB 1.2 billion ($119 million to $178 million) net profit during Q1. To power future growth, the company spent 12.8% of its income on R&D during 2018 and will continue to do so this year. In particular, ZTE “has continuously concentrated on the core 5G technical fields and further intensified 5G R&D investment.”

However, 5G is a long play, and is a game that there is no guarantee ZTE will win. The prospects in China, by far ZTE’s biggest market, are less than certain, as the Chinese operators are among the cautious ones when it comes to 5G investment. Africa and Pakistan, where the company has a relatively strong position, are not going to deliver results from 5G very soon. In Europe and North America, where its customer base is already limited, ZTE has been included in the list of “Chinese vendors” which the US government is lobbying to ban, despite the limelight is often on Huawei, ZTE’s arch-rival.

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