SingTel – BT

For SingTel, the price is right … well, sorta

A LOT has changed since the dotcom boom of 2001, but not the infernal math of how much a tech firm is worth, it seems.

For all that has been said about Amobee – the Silicon Valley mobile ad firm that SingTel is buying for US$321 million – not much has been said about what it is worth.

Most people on the outside of the deal have dismissed the question, a la 2001. It is enough that the deal’s price-to-sales ratio of 11 is lower than that of Google’s or Apple’s mobile ad firm buyouts, they say.

But not paying as high a multiple as a peer did simply means that you are not the largest patsy in the room. It does not preclude you from being a smaller-sized patsy.

This is not to say that SingTel has overpaid for this firm. To be able to say such a thing would mean having a better handle on what Amobee is worth. So far, beyond an annual revenue of US$30 million and earnings that some analysts understand to be ‘insignificant’, not many other numbers have been forthcoming.

It is understandable that few are particularly exercised about the acquisition, given its ‘smallish’ size relative to SingTel’s cash hoard, as one analyst said. The deal by no means puts the balance sheet anywhere near jeopardy.

Besides, analysts say, look at just how much the mobile ad market is worth. One consultancy’s figures show that global revenue will total US$6.8 billion by year-end and hit US$20.6 billion by 2015.

But the problem with neat figures about the future is that they tend to have a rather messy past. Five years ago, similarly euphoric stories were written about mobile advertising. Then, one consultancy said that the mobile ad market would be worth US$3 billion in 2010. Current figures from another firm show that 2010’s actual numbers fell almost 50 per cent short, at US$1.6 billion. Either someone is wrong or the calculations were inherently done differently, and neither possibility is comforting.

Also in 2007, analysts said that by 2012, revenue from mobile ads could be anywhere from US$5 billion to US$11 billion – a range of predictions unnerving both for its generous room for error and for the wild inaccuracy of the upper limit.

Even if the common refrain of new relationships – ‘This time it’s different’ – is to be believed, SingTel will find itself in the company of behemoths already having a challenging time in mobile advertising.

Apple, which bought mobile ad firm Quattro Wireless in 2010, faced lacklustre demand for its iAd mobile ad service and had to slash rates by as much as 70 per cent just last year.

This is not an indictment of mobile advertising, which could in fact be the ‘next big thing’ (well, something has to be) – but a reflection of how opaque the future and valuation of tech firms remain.

In the online industry, the difference between being on the brink of greatness and hurtling into the chasm beneath is a dizzying result of consumer fickleness and disruptive new technology.

Five years ago, Yahoo said that it would take Google on in the mobile area with a service for Nokia phones. That might sound ridiculous now, but it did not, then.

Closer to home, local telcos have in the past launched rudimentary versions of mobile ad services which seemed revolutionary then. ‘Consumers won’t find it (the advertisement) to be annoying,’ one CEO said in 2007 of an SMS service that had ads tagged to the bottom. Imagine that.

Alongside a fuzzy crystal ball is equally fuzzy muzzy math for tech companies.

For example, LinkedIn is, for the gainfully employed, mostly a glorified alternative to Facebook-stalking. When it went public last year, it was valued at US$4.3 billion with a PE ratio of 264.

As at yesterday, its share price had almost doubled since then, to US$86.37 with a PE ratio of 731. Someone should be feeling stupid soon, but for now, the joke is on the people who stayed out of the IPO, such is the lack of clarity about worth.

And as rumours filter out about Spanish telco Telefonica having been a rival bidder with a lower offer in the Amobee deal – the lack of clarity about tech firms in general is likely to persist. What is clear to most, however, is the pressing need for telcos such as SingTel to become more than just another utility. The reorganisation that sees the group divided along business units instead of along geography in a world where location increasingly counts for less has been resoundingly seen as the right move.

To some, picking Allen Lew to head the digital business unit is a promising gambit, as some analysts see him as the most aggressive executive there. Gartner’s Foong King Yew also pointed out that the telco has of late busied itself with hiring non-telco-type people from the areas of digital media and mobile devices. ‘It’s important to remember that Amobee is just one piece of the puzzle,’ Mr Foong tells BT.

SingTel’s reshuffling is timely, then, because even as it builds a new puzzle around this digital reality, the future for telcos and its tech brethren remains a puzzle, too.

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