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What we have learned from reporting season

During the months of February and August every year, the majority of Australian listed companies reveal their profit results and most provide guidance as to how they expect their businesses to perform in the upcoming year. Whilst we regularly meet with companies between reporting periods to gauge how their businesses are performing, during reporting season companies open up their books to allow investors a detailed look at the company’s financials. As company management have been on “black out” (prevented from speaking with investors) since mid-June, share prices in the six weeks leading up to the result are often influenced by rumours and theories, rather than actual financials.

Yesterday marked the final day of the August 2017 reporting season. Those listed companies that have not reported their results are probably suspended from trading today, inevitably blaming accountant incompetence or coming up with creative excuses for the ASX as to why they were unable to submit their accounts. In this piece, we are going to run through the key themes that have emerged over the last four weeks and how our companies have performed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growth

August 2017 was a pretty solid reporting season with Australian listed companies (ex resources) reporting earnings growth of +6%. This expands to +17% profit growth when you include the miners that have benefited from high commodity prices courtesy of a 2016 Chinese stimulus plan.  Whilst 6% might not sound very impressive, it is a big jump on the paltry +0.2% recorded in August 2016. Having listened to close to eighty management presentations over the past four weeks, the general tone feels more positive towards the future than it has been in recent years. This sentiment can be seen in the aggregate guidance for industrial companies for profit growth of +5% over the next 12 months.

No room for disappointment for high priced market favourites

One of the key themes coming out of this reporting season has been the harsh treatment meted out to high price to earnings (PE) stocks that deliver less than market expectations. Pizza/tech company Dominos Pizza (-18%) was priced on a PE of 60x but fell heavily after delivering only 28% earnings growth. Similarly, the market was unhappy with hospital operator Healthscope (-15%) which was trading on a PE of 22x and was sold off after reporting a 6% decline in profit due softer revenue growth from the company’s private hospitals  and project delays.

Whilst not a high PE stock, Telstra (-8%) is a core part of the portfolio for many retail investors who sold down their holdings after the company announced that they would cut their 2018 dividend to 22 cents per share from 31 cents per share.

Giving money back to shareholders

Capital management was again a prevalent factor in the recent reporting season and was understandably of interest to investors, more so in 2017 than it has been in recent years. We considered this topic in our recent pieces Give me my money back and bad and fake buy backs . In our view, the factors contributing to the 17 large companies that announced buy-backs in August are the perceived lack of investment opportunities, the level of balance sheet repair (paying off debt) that has occurred over the past few years, and the capacity for a buy-back to direct investor attention away from issues a company might face, thereby supporting the share price.

Treasury Wine (+19%), S32 (0%), Qantas (+7%), Rio Tinto (+5%) announced new share buy-back plans that have had a positive influence on their share prices. Alternatively, for BlueScope (-18%), and Dominos (-18%) investors looked past the carrot offered by the buy-back.

Whilst buy-backs boost share prices in the short term, in the longer-term companies do need retain cash to reinvest in their operations in order to grow earnings in the future without adding to debt.

Paying off the mortgage

In an environment of stronger than expected cash flows, companies either have the option to return money to shareholders in the form of higher dividends, or pay down debt. Whilst balance sheet repair has been a feature over the past two years, this reporting season showed several companies making big moves to pay down their debt. BHP (+6%) resisted the urge to follow Rio Tinto’s lead in announcing a buy-back funded by the sharply increased profits from high commodity prices. Instead management reduced the company’s debt burden from US$26.1 billion to US$16.3 billion.  This action did however come at a cost, with BHP paying several hundred million in fees for the early redemption of bonds.  Similarly, high Australian electricity and gas prices and asset sales allowed Origin Energy to reduce net debt by A$1 billion to A$8.1 billion.

Best and worst results

 

Over the month the best results were delivered by Treasury Wine, Alumina, Orora, IOOF and Medibank. The key theme amongst this diverse group of companies all in different industries was a strong profit result and expanding profit margins combined with a positive outlook for 2018.

On the negative side of the ledger Vocus, Dominos, BlueScope, Healthscope and QBE Insurance all reported disappointing results compared with other companies. The common themes amongst this group was either high price-to-earnings rated companies not delivering on high expectations, or companies that had downgraded expectations and then delivered results that were worse than the lowered expectations.

How have we gone

Whilst stock prices were volatile late in the month due to concerns over the launch of North Korean missiles, for the companies owned by the Atlas High Income Property Fund, August revealed a generally benign set of financial results. Using a weighted average, portfolio companies delivered earnings growth of +6% and grew distributions by an average +3.7% over the previous year. Additionally, 4 of the 12 trusts in the portfolio announced buy-backs.

 

Bad and Fake Buy-backs

Earlier this month casino operator Crown Resorts announced a buy-back of up to 4.2% of its outstanding shares, which builds on the $500 million of stock the company had already bought back over the past 12 months. Despite this prima facie positive announcement Crown has fallen 9% in August as the market looked past the buy-back and focused on concerns about returns from the $1.5 billion Sydney Casino.

In last week’s piece give me my money back, we looked at buy-backs that have a positive influence on a company’s share price. However, as you can see with the Crown example, buy-backs are not always positive. This week in the second part of our deeper dive into buy-backs, we are going to look at bad buy-backs and the cheapest ones of all to execute: the fake buy-backs that create the illusion of share price support.

Bad Buy-backs

Theoretically, a company should raise capital when the market is over-valuing their company, and buy back their shares when the market is undervaluing their company. One of the greatest examples in history of a company using their over-valued stock to make an acquisition was dial-up internet company AOL’s US$164 billion purchase of Time Warner in 2000. By issuing shares, AOL shareholders ended up owning the majority of the new media entity, despite Time Warner having significantly more assets and revenue, and ultimately a viable business. In 2009, Time Warner spun off AOL for $3 billion, 2% of the entity’s value in 2000.

Buybacks should only be pursued when management is very confident the shares are undervalued, as companies are no different than regular investors. If a company is buying up shares for $20 each when they are only worth $10, the company is clearly making a poor investment decision

Lack of options

Sometimes buy-backs may be taken as a signal of a lack of attractive growth opportunities in which the company can invest. Particularly in the case of cyclical companies such as miners and airlines, bad buy-backs are conducted after a period of buoyant activity. They are typically done at the top of the cycle, when the costs to develop news assets or buy competitors are at their highest. Whilst this is clearly preferable to a large acquisition such as Rio Tinto’s purchase of Alcan, this approach to capital management often this leaves the company operating in a cyclical industry vulnerable during the inevitable downturns. We view that in some situations it may be best for companies to hoard cash at the top of the stock-market cycle and use it in the next trough to buy back shares at a discount or buy the assets of distressed competitors.

This week BHP resisted the urge to follow Rio Tinto’s lead in announcing a buy-back funded by the sharply increased profits from high commodity prices, ultimately funded by a 2016 Chinese stimulus plan. By paying off debt, BHP may have more options when commodity prices come off.

Offset dilution from executive stock options

Another situation where buybacks are not positive is where they are done to offset the dilution from executive stock options being exercised. This is more common in the US where stock options often form a bigger component of remuneration, but here there is no earnings per share accretion as the number of shares on issue don’t change. This is a poor outcome for shareholders, as the new shares issued to executives via stock options are exercised at a discount to the prevailing share price and those bought via buy-backs are bought on market at the current price! In 2015, IT networking company Cisco Systems bought back 155 million shares, but after the effects of employee stock compensation it only reduced the total shares outstanding by 38 million. Here the buy-back is not capital management, but executive remuneration.

Short term sugar hit to the share price

Many listed companies award senior management bonuses based on the share price of the company they manage. This provides management with an incentive to recommend actions that may deliver a short-term boost to the company’s share price, such as a large buy-back delivering earnings accretion over a long-term investment opportunity. Companies deliver long term growth in their business by investing in future growth.

Buy high sell low

When a company either issues new shares to the market via a placement or buys back their own shares, they are effectively acting as a fund manager in valuing their own shares, making a judgement as to whether their shares are cheap or expensive. However, company management teams have access to a far greater array of information on their company’s finances and future prospects than an external investor could ever hope to have.

Qantas has a long history of capital management, buying back $506M worth of stock in 2008 (average price $5.56), $100M in 2013 (average price $1.45), $500M in 2016 (average price $3.50), and $366M in 2017 (average price $3.32). However in between was a large equity issue of $525 million shares QAN issued at $1.85 in 2009, and in 2014 Qantas’ debt was rated as junk, as the CEO lobbied the federal government for a bail-out of the then embattled national carrier.

 

 

Similarly, steelmaker BlueScope is currently buying back stock over 80% above the level at which it issued over $2 billion in equity not so long ago. Certainly, this has pushed up the share price along with some solid profit growth. However, one may think that retaining capital rather than buying-back shares could prove to be a more prudent cause of action for the steel company. Two years ago, BlueScope were seeking assistance from the government with their struggling Port Kembla steelworks in New South Wales and the company announced a $1 billion loss in 2012!

Fake Buy Backs

In some situations, the company announces the buy-back and enjoys a short-term bounce in the share price without actually buying much in the way of stock. In the listed property trust space, the buy-back often acts to support the price at NTA. For example, in 2014 SCA Property Group announced its intention to undertake an on-market buy-back of up to 5% of its units, as the price jumped above NTA ultimately no units were bought and the buy-back faded into the ether.

Unlike property trusts that have a reference point of net tangible assets per share, it is harder for industrial companies to justify announcing a buy-back and then sitting on their hands. Building materials company CSR last bought back a share in its $150M buy-back in late September. Platinum Asset Management are yet to open their wallet for their $300M share buy-back, also announced last September. Insurer QBE announced a $1 billion buy-back in February, but bought their first share back on 21 August.

Our take

Whilst we are generally in favour of companies returning excess capital to investors rather than retaining it, we concede that not all buy-backs are in the best long-term interest of shareholders. Companies that are returning all their earnings to shareholders may not be investing in research and development or new growth projects. These strategies are necessary to generate returns over the longer term that are ahead of inflation.