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JP Morgan upgrades AT&T and downgrades its better-performing rival Verizon 

Key Points
  • J.P. Morgan managing director and analyst Philip Cusick sees more potential upside in AT&T than for Verizon.
  • Verizon’s stock has outperformed AT&T’s, with an 18 percent gain versus a 14 percent drop year over year.
  • But Cusick downgrades Verizon to neutral from outperform as he upgrades AT&T.
People walk past an AT&T store in New York on October 23, 2016.
Kena Betancur | AFP |Getty Images

J.P. Morgan is taking divergent views on two of the biggest U.S. mobile providers.

The firm upgraded AT&T on Monday to overweight from neutral and downgraded its better-performing rival Verizon.

For AT&T, J.P. Morgan managing director and senior analyst Philip Cusick cited recent management meetings in which he got a better sense of how the company plans to cut debt "using organic free cash flow." Cusick also said weakening video trends are now embedded in expectations.

AT&T Chairman Randall "Stephenson is comfortable that the combination of improved wireless performance, mix shift to media, and better pricing in Entertainment should make 2019 trends markedly better than those in 2018," Cusick said in a note to clients Monday.

While investors "may need to wait a couple of quarters to see this performance come through," Cusick said at $31 per share, the risk/reward is "skewed to the upside." J.P. Morgan kept its 2019 year-end price target of $38, about 19 percent above its price before the opening bell Monday. AT&T's stock has fallen about 14 percent since this time last year.

Shares of Verizon fell 3.6 percent in Monday while AT&T shares were up 1.7 percent.

Although Verizon shares have outperformed AT&T's, with a roughly 18 percent year-over-year increase, Cusick downgraded that telecom stock to neutral from outperform.

"As much as we like Verizon's consistent and improving execution, the combination of a new management team and reporting lines with the run-up in shares make the risk/reward less compelling than peers AT&T and Comcast, " Cusick said.

The firm has a $62 price target on Verizon and sees shares increasing 2.7 percent in the next year. Verizon could see more upside if revenue accelerates, Cusick said.

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.