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Like a visit to the dentist, sometimes it is enough to be merely less terrible than expected. Fourth-quarter results from Sprint Nextel on Thursday showed that conditions were at least getting no worse, prompting the group’s share price to surge by a fifth. The telecom operator has seen its stock price almost double in 2009.

Yet a market sigh of relief does not make Sprint cheap. True, it trades on four times analyst expectations for earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation this year. But ebitda has shrunk every year since the merger with Nextel in 2005 and, thanks to a bungled integration of the two companies, appears likely to continue doing so.

Trailing third in the US wireless phone market, it has a large pile of debt and a shrinking group of customers. Actual earnings have been absent since 2006. The fourth quarter showed margins continuing to decline in spite of furious cost cutting and a duct-tape and string approach to capital investment.

Sprint does at least have $5bn of cash on hand. But the recession is taking hold just as the US wireless market reaches maturity, causing subscriber growth to slow and competition for ears between operators to heat up.

Meanwhile the persistent hope that Deutsche Telekom will want to bid for Sprint any time soon is fading. The move would catapult T-Mobile from fourth to first in US market share, but present a company claiming to be uninterested in acquisitions with the conundrum of combining three technologically distinct networks. The share price has dashed ahead of reality.

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