KISTA, Sweden -- Third quarter highlights:
Comments from Börje Ekholm, President and CEO of Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC)
"We continue to execute on our focused strategy, tracking well towards our 2020 targets. We see improvements across our businesses resulting in a gross margin of 36.9% (28.5%) and an operating margin of 7.0% (-1.7%). Organic  sales growth was 1% for the Group, despite headwind from exited non-strategic contracts.
We continue to invest in our competitive 5G-ready portfolio to enable our customers to efficiently migrate to 5G. Operators around the world plan for launching 5G services, led by North America. The strong customer interest in 5G generates a gradual increase in costs for field trials. We expect the costs to remain on high levels, at least for the coming 12-18 months, and they are included in our 2020 profitability target of at least 10%.
Networks gross margin improved to 41.5% (34.8%) with an organic sales growth of 5%. The strong sales were mainly driven by a continued high activity level primarily in North America. Due to the strong sequential sales increase in the third quarter we expect lower effects from seasonality than normal in the fourth quarter in Networks.
Digital Services gross margin improved to 36.9% (32.0%) YoY, but declined QoQ. We see clear results of our cost-out activities and good progress in large parts of the business. At the same time, provisions related to large digital transformation projects increased in the quarter, explaining the sequential drop in gross margin. We are not satisfied with the development in these digital transformation projects and are thus increasing our efforts to turn them around.
In Managed Services, gross margin improved to 12.9% (-4.0%) supported by efficiency gains and customer contract reviews. We have finalized 40 of the targeted 42 contracts, with an annualized profit improvement of SEK 0.9 b. We are increasing our investments in R&D to reshape the offering based on automation and artificial intelligence. We see strong customer interest in the coming solutions, but sales are so far limited as we are in early stages.
In segment Emerging Business and Other, sales grew by 22% driven by growth in the iconectiv business. We continue to invest in strategic future growth areas such as Internet of Things (IoT) and saw increasing momentum with one important customer win with our connectivity platform solutions in the quarter. As parts of the portfolio in Emerging Business are in an early phase, sales are so far limited. We will remain disciplined in our investments in Emerging Business by tracking each venture against delivery milestones.
Even though the cost reduction program, announced in July 2017, has been completed, we continue our efforts to drive efficiency and cost reductions to further increase competitiveness. Our estimate for restructuring charges of SEK 5-7 b. for the full year remains. Free cash flow excluding M&A improved to SEK 0.7 (-0.8) b. and our cash position remains strong. Our work to further strengthen the balance sheet continues.
As previously disclosed, we have been voluntarily cooperating since 2013 with an investigation by the SEC and, since 2015, with an investigation by the DOJ into Ericsson’s compliance with the U.S. FCPA. While we cannot comment in detail we can provide the following update on the process. We have identified facts that are relevant to the investigations and these facts have been shared with the authorities. We continue to cooperate with the SEC and the DOJ and are engaged in discussions with them to find a resolution. While the length of these discussions cannot be determined, based on the facts that we have shared with the authorities, we believe that the resolution of these matters will likely result in monetary and other measures, the magnitude of which cannot be estimated currently but may be material. We continue our efforts to improve on our compliance program. See further details in “Other information”.
There is strong momentum in the global 5G market with lead markets moving forward. The global radio access market is recovering from several years of negative growth and our investments in R&D have positioned us well to benefit from this development. More work remains, however, to get all parts of the business to a satisfactory performance level. We remain confident in reaching our long-term target of at least 12% operating margin beyond 2020.”
Börje Ekholm, President and CEO
 Excluding restructuring charges
 Organic sales growth: Sales adjusted for comparable units and currency
Planning assumptions going forward
The Radio Access Network (RAN) equipment market is estimated to decline by -2% for full-year 2018 with 2% CAGR for 2017-2022. (Source: Dell’Oro)
Rule of thumb: A weakening by 10% of USD to SEK would have a negative impact of approximately -5% on net sales and approximately -1 percentage point on operating margin (based on 2017 full-year currency exposure).
Ericsson related 2018; Sales
Sales growth in 2017 between Q3 and Q4 was 17%. Due to strong sequential sales increase in the third quarter, lower effects from seasonality than normal are expected in the fourth quarter in Networks.
Ericsson related 2018; Operating expenses
Gradually increased cost for field trials.
Operating expenses typically increase between Q3 and Q4 due to seasonality.
To further strengthen technology leadership, R&D expenses will increase primarily in Networks in Q4.
The divestment of Media Solutions is expected to be closed around year-end 2018 with estimated additional expenses of SEK -0.2 b. in Q4.
Ericsson related 2018; Other
Restructuring charges for full-year 2018 are estimated to be SEK 5-7 b.
Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)