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AT&T shares hit three-decade low as lead cables risk weighs

Shares of AT&T Inc fell nearly 7% to hit their lowest level in thirty years on Monday, after analysts downgraded the stock following a news report that the telecommunications giant left toxic lead cables buried across the U.S.

A Wall Street Journal report on July 9 named AT&T and Verizon among several telecom giants that abandoned a sprawling network of underground toxic lead cables, with a huge number of them possibly contaminating neighboring soil and drinking water sources.

Analysts at Citigroup and JPMorgan both lowered their recommendations on AT&T shares in recent days. The stock has lost a quarter of its value so far this year, having dropped more than 12% since the Wall Street Journal report. The shares hit a low of $13.68 in Monday’s session, the lowest since March 1993.

AT&T faces unquantifiable financial risks that would create a “long term overhang” for the stock since the company probably has a significant exposure to the toxic lead cables with its network reaching about 40% of homes in the U.S., Citi analysts, led by Michael Rollins, said in an investor note.

Rollins cut his rating on AT&T’s stock to “neutral” from “buy” and slashed his price target to $16 from $22.

AT&T did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment. U.S. Telecom, a lobby group representing AT&T, Verizon and other telecoms firms, said many considerations are made in deciding whether cables are removed or left buried and there’s no evidence showing “legacy lead-sheathed telecoms cables” are the “leading cause of lead exposure or the cause of a public health issue.”

“We have not seen, nor have regulators identified, evidence that legacy lead-sheathed telecom cables are a leading cause of lead exposure or the cause of a public health issue,” a U.S. Telecoms spokesperson said in a statement.

JPMorgan analysts led by Philip Cusick on Friday downgraded their rating on AT&T to “neutral” from “overweight,” citing worries over the repeated downward revisions for the company’s key wireless and fiber growth businesses, the high interest rate environment, and new uncertainty over lead-sheathed cables.

“We have discussed the copper lead sheathing situation with many industry contacts and have been unable to find a reasonable way to calculate any potential liability, but believe that AT&T will have the largest exposure given its massive LEC [local exchange carrier] business as well as owning the original AT&T long haul network,” JPMorgan wrote.

AT&T’s forward price-to-earnings ratio of 5.95 is less than the industry median of 8.78, according to Eikon data.

Shares of Verizon were also down on Monday, falling 5.5% to $32.14, a nearly 13-year low. Verizon’s stock has lost more than 10% since the Wall Street Journal report.

Morningstar analyst Michael Hodel said Friday that while “this situation warrants watching, we don’t expect the telecom industry will bear substantial legal liability.” Reuters

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