Ma Bell regains some of its tone for investors

Nearly one year ago, Ma Bell (a.k.a. AT&T) was pushing her seven regional hatchlings out of the nest. Since then, her progeny have soared. But mother hen has had an unexpected share of downdrafts.

Last week AT&T got a slight lift, though. The Federal Communications Commission authorized local phone companies to charge residential users a $1 access fee, effective next June 1. The fee will double a year later. AT&T may benefit, analysts say, since it will not have to pay as much in access fees to local phone companies. Instead, local firms will collect directly from the users.

Just how much boost AT&T may get is not clear. ''The FCC may turn around and ask AT&T to reduce its long-distance rates,'' says a Standard & Poor's telecommunications analyst, Frank E. Plumley.

It does appear that AT&T fortunes are on the mend. Some analysts say the fourth-quarter earnings outlook promises improvement.

Still, competition between parent and offspring remains heated. In fact, throughout the year as earnings were tallied, it quickly became clear that the seven regional holding companies (RHCs) were doing just fine, thank you.

''Coming out of the breakup, AT&T was overvalued, the regionals were undervalued,'' comments Tim O'Brien, an investment officer at the Provident National Bank in Philadelphia.

As stock prices adjusted, those 3.2 million AT&T stockholders that stayed through the breakup profited handsomely. If you held 100 shares in AT&T on Jan. 1, 1983, you would have received 10 shares in each of the seven new RHCs and 100 shares in the new AT&T.

And if you sat tight and did nothing, rather than buying one of the brokerage-sponsored catchall ''Humpty Dumpty'' funds, your investment has risen (market appreciation plus dividends) about 18 percent this year. Not bad for a ''widows and orphans'' utility stock - the S&P 500 index has gone up a mere 1.4 percent in 1984.

If you just held AT&T alone, your return was none too shabby relative to the market. As of late last week the stock had picked up 6 points this year and provided a dividend yield of 62/3. ''A 13 percent return is fine, but it's substantially less than the regionals,'' comments Mr. Plumley at Standard & Poor's.

To its credit, the company has been doing some belt tightening. On Thursday, AT&T announced that as of May 1, shareholders will no longer get a 5 percent discount when reinvesting dividends to buy company stock. Shareholders must now buy AT&T stock at the market price, but they will continue to get the shares without paying a brokerage fee.

Also starting May 1, shareholders will be allowed to send in up to $5,000 every quarter to buy common stock at the market price, without paying brokerage fees. The previous limit was $3,000 per quarter.

Alongside the regionals, AT&T is considered a bird of a different feather. Most analysts now apply the ''high-tech'' label to the telecommunications conglomerate. It's leading segments include long-distance service, sales, leasing, and manufacturing of telecommunication equipment; Bell Laboratories; and a recent foray into the crowded personal business computer market.

''If you're looking for something more in the way of speculative growth, that would be AT&T,'' says Mark Luftig, a utility analyst at Salomon Brothers. ''AT&T will probably become less risky over time, though,'' he adds.

Some of the risk lies in potential dividend cuts. In the first three quarters this year the company barely earned enough to cover dividend payments. Earlier this month, AT&T chairman Charles L. Brown told a gathering of New York analysts , ''Our business is more risky than it has been in the past, and our dividend policy is going to reflect that.''

Some analysts find it hard to believe AT&T will slice its dividend. ''The company hasn't cut their dividend in something like 103 years. They've got a great deal of optimism about the future and a strong emotional attachment to paying that dividend,'' says Mr. Plumley. On the other hand, he says, ''I wouldn't rush out and buy AT&T. And if I owned it, I would sell it and look for other opportunities.''

If AT&T is speculative, how would one categorize the regional holding companies? Mr. Luftig replies, ''All the regionals are for income-oriented investors. For instance, I would expect all the regionals, but not AT&T, to increase their dividends in 1985.''

Dividend yields on the RHCs now linger in the 8 percent range. And the RHCs still look very much like the old Ma Bell. Despite well-publicized nontelephone ventures into retail computer chains, real estate, manufacturing of voice and data processing equipment, and consulting, more than 95 percent of their revenues are derived from the telephone business.

But will the RHCs soon evolve into different species?

''Not in the next four or five years,'' says Luftig at Salomon Brothers. ''They're all basically telephone companies, and I expect no more than 5 percent of their earnings to come from other areas.''

cho Geography aside, there is as yet little difference between the RHCs. Nonetheless, analysts have their preferences. Standard & Poor's Plumley recommends any or all of the RHCs during the next year, singling out Southwest Bell, Ameritech, and Pacific Telesis. Luftig is partial to US West and Bell South.

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