Sprint stock keeps soaring. But why?

@CNNMoneyTech May 27, 2011: 11:41 AM ET
sprint, verizon, at&t

Shares of Sprint have done just fine in 2011 even though rival Verizon joined AT&T this year in offering consumers the iPhone.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Sprint doesn't have the iPhone in its arsenal, like AT&T and Verizon.

Sprint doesn't have the star power of the Miami Heat's Dwayne Wade or the nameless hot chick in commercials, like T-Mobile

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Heck, Sprint (S, Fortune 500) doesn't even have the annoying and borderline offensive (but apparently effective) Tech and Talk characters MetroPCS features in its bizarre TV spots.

No, Sprint's marketing campaign relies on CEO Dan Hesse walking around and touting the company's wireless service. Zzzzz.

But Sprint's stock is up nearly 40% this year and is trading close to a 52-week high. Meanwhile, shares of Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500) and A&T (T, Fortune 500) have both lagged the broader market in 2011.

What gives? It's hard to figure out why Sprint has been doing so well. With AT&T planning to buy T-Mobile, that deal threatens to make Sprint a distant third in the wireless race behind Ma Bell and Verizon.

And unlike smaller rivals MetroPCS (PCS) and Leap Wireless (LEAP), whose stocks have also surged this year thanks to takeover speculation, it doesn't appear as if Sprint is a likely buyout candidate.

Sprint's results have been decent for the past few quarters. The company is adding subscribers again.

But as I've pointed out in two other columns on Sprint in the past year, it's still losing money, and analysts are concerned that much of the subscriber gains are coming from prepaid subscribers.

Those are customers that pay for plans in advance -- usually without having to go through a credit check. That's why some dubbed Sprint the "subprime of smartphones."

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Still, there has been some good news for Sprint lately. Historically cited as one of the least reliable in terms of customer service, the company has made great strides in that regard. Sprint scored fairly high in the most recent ranking of wireless carriers by Consumer Reports late last year.

Sprint's Hesse has also led the charge against the AT&T/T-Mobile deal. He's appeared in front of Congress to urge that the merger be blocked.

And although few believe that will happen, some think that Hesse's vociferous public stance could end up favoring Sprint. At a bare minimum, regulators may force some conditions on the deal that would benefit Sprint.

Sprint is also a partner in the recently announced Google Wallet mobile payment program. It's teaming up with the search engine giant, Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Mastercard (MA, Fortune 500).

The alliance with Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) is interesting on many levels. While other carriers also offer Android phones, Sprint has been particularly buddy-buddy with Google.

Sprint integrated Web-based Google Voice functions into its phones earlier this year. The two companies are also partners on the recently released Nexus S 4G phone.

The fairly tight alliance between the two has led to some speculation over the past few years that Google may even want to acquire Sprint in order to more effectively combat Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) in the mobile world.

That seems unlikely, but the fact that Sprint seems to be putting its eggs in Google's basket could be a smart marketing move.

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As blasphemous as this may sound to Mac cultists, not everyone loves the maker of iEverything. Sprint could carve out a niche for itself as the leading Android company.

A prominent investor recently sang the praises of Sprint. N. Torpey, a follower of mine on Twitter (@torpeydo), pointed out that Sprint got a favorable mention at this week's Ira Sohn investing conference. (Kind of like Woodstock for hedge fund managers.)

Dinakar Singh of TPG-Axon Capital talked about Sprint as a great value at the conference on Wednesday. TPG-Axon Capital owns about 16 million shares of Sprint, according to regulatory filings.

Still, it all comes back to the numbers. Sprint will report its second-quarter results in July. If it can post another quarter of increased revenue, a smaller loss and more subscribers, the stock may very well hit new highs.

If not, then Sprint shareholders may start praying for an iPhone after all.

Reader comment of the week. Yahoo's investor day was on Wednesday, and CEO Carol Bartz was asked many questions about Yahoo's thorny relationship with Alibaba.

I was writing my column on retail stocks that day and wanted to refer to The Gap, which always seems to be in turnaround mode, as the Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500) of khakis. I asked my colleague Julianne Pepitone, who was covering Yahoo's presentation, if I should use that line.

Her response: "Only if the photo is Carol as Barney...in khakis." She was referring to the Photoshop magic that accompanied last week's column about poor Yahoo.

Have a great long weekend, everyone. And if you want to have a burger on Memorial Day, I hope you are not pulling a Mark Zuckerberg!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, and Abbott Laboratories, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks. To top of page

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