It’s a Bleak Mid-Winter

It’s a bleak mid-winter, everybody is hunkering down against the icy winds, Royal Mail have given up delivering post even in the London suburbs, and retailers are suffering. Well no, actually it’s the second day of Spring but the first was the coldest one on record. It’s not surprising that many people have a jaundiced view of the science of global warming.

But the stock market is drifting down and the news from many companies is dire. Let’s review some of those to start with. Note: I hold or have held some of the companies mentioned.

Safestyle (SFE) sell replacement plastic windows. You would have thought households would be rushing to replace their tired and leaking windows in the bad weather but apparently not. On the 28th Feb they announced a profit warning and the share price fell 37% in the next two days. Is that because of difficulties in installing in the bad weather? No, that will come later no doubt. The problem was lack of order intake so far this year. The real problem is “the activities of an aggressive new market entrant” in an “already competitive landscape” – the latter presumably referring to consumers cutting back on big ticket items. Historically the company showed great return on capital and good profits but the old problem of lack of barriers to entry of competition seems to be the issue.

Carpetright (CPR) also issued a profit warning yesterday. They now expect a loss for the year and blame “continued weak consumer confidence”. It seems they need to have a chat with their bankers about their bank covenants, but the latter “remain fully supportive”. I suspect the real issue here is not consumers (most buyers replace carpet in one room at a time so they are not exactly big purchases) but competition, including from Lord Harris’s son (Phil Harris was the founder and Chairman of Carpetright for many years). Other carpet suppliers (such as Headlam which I hold) have not seen such a major impact, but perhaps they are not as operationally geared as Carpetright. Or the bad news will come later.

Many retailers have faced a changing market – the market never stands still, with internet sales impacting many. Both Toys-R-Us and Maplin have gone into administration. The latter have no doubt been particularly hit by the internet and Amazon, but they have also suffered by private equity gearing up their balance sheets with very high levels of debt. Neither seemed particularly adept at keeping up with fashion. Might just be a case of “tired” stores and dull merchandise ranges. But why would anyone buy from a Maplin store when they could order what they needed over the internet (from Maplin, Amazon or thousands of other on-line retailers) and get it delivered straight to their door in 24 hours? In addition, many such on-line suppliers avoid paying VAT so Maplin was going to suffer from price comparisons.

But there has been some better news. IDOX (IDOX) published their final results yesterday – well at least there was no more bad news. They issued previous profit warnings after a dreadful acquisition of a company named 6PM, and the CEO, Andrew Riley, then went AWOL on health grounds. In addition there were problems with inappropriate revenue recognition, a common issue in software companies. Mr Riley has now definitely departed permanently and former CEO Richard Kellett-Clarke continues to serve as interim CEO.

The latest financial figures report revenue up 16% for the year although some of the increase will be from acquisitions. The profit figures reported on the first page of the announcement are best ignored – they talk about EBITDA, indeed “adjusted EBITDA” and “adjusted earnings”. I simply skipped to the cash flow statement which indicated “net cash from operating activities” of £13.4 million. That compares with a market cap at the time of writing of £152 million, so the cash earnings yield might be viewed as 8.8%.

They did spend £24.3 million on “investing activities”, mainly financed by the issue of new shares, last year and much of that might effectively have been wasted. But cash flow going forward should improve. Unadjusted diluted earnings per share were very substantially reduced mainly due to increased overheads, higher amortisation and high restructuring and impairment costs. These certainly need to be tackled, but the dividend was increased which shows some confidence in the future.

The share price perked up after the results announcement but some commentators, such as my well-known correspondent Tom Winnifrith, focused on the balance sheet with comments such as “negative current assets” (i.e. current ratio less than one) and less polite phrases – he does not pull his punches.

Any accountant will tell you that a company with a current ratio (current assets divided by current liabilities) of less than 1.4 is likely to go bust simply because they risk running out of cash and will not be able to “meet their debts as they become due” (i.e. will become insolvent).

Am I concerned? No because examination of the balance sheet tells me that they have £19.8m of deferred income in the current liabilities (see note 18). This represents support charges which have been billed in advance for the year ahead. Such liabilities are never in fact crystalised in software companies. So deducting that from the current liabilities results in a current ratio that is a positive 1.7.

The balance sheet now does have substantial debt on it, offset by large amounts of “intangible” assets due to capitalisation of software development costs which many folks would ignore. The debt certainly needs to be reduced but that should be possible with current cash flow, and comments from the CEO about future prospects are positive. That is why the share price rose rather than fell I suggest on the announcement, plus the fact that no more accounting issues had been revealed.

There are promises of Spring next week, so let us hope that this will improve the market gloom that seems to be pervading investors of late. Even retailers may do better if shoppers can actually get to their shops. We just need the sun to come out for a few days and flower buds to start opening, for the mood to lighten but I fear my spring daffodils have been frozen to death.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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Diploma (DPLM) and Return on Capital

Diploma Plc, a supplier of specialist technical products, issued its preliminary results for the year to the end of September today (20/11/2017). This company may not be a household name and hence can fall under the radar of investors. But it has demonstrated a consistent track record in recent years. Today was no exception. Adjusted earning per share were up 19%, and revenue was up 18%, although a significant proportion of the improvement was down to currency movements (they are a very international business and the falling pound has no doubt helped). The share price has risen 10% on the day at the time of writing.

But why do I like this company? Apart from the track record, the directors have a strong focus on obtaining a good return on capital both from their on-going businesses and from acquisitions. But which measure do they use (Return on Equity – ROE, Return on Assets – ROA, or Return on Capital Employed – ROCE. These are all useful measures, and you can no doubt look up their definitions on the internet. But they use none of the above. They actually report “Return on Adjusted Trading Capital” – ROATCE. This they report as improved to 24% (their target is to exceed 20% which they have beaten in the last five years – that’s certainly the kind of figure I like to see).

How do they calculate this figure? I quote from the announcement: “A key metric that the Group uses to measure the overall profitability of the Group and its success in creating value for shareholders is the return on adjusted trading capital employed (“ROATCE”). At a Group level, this is a pre-tax measure which is applied against the fixed and working capital of the Group, together with all gross intangible assets and goodwill, including goodwill previously written off against retained earnings.”

Personally, I don’t think one measure of return on capital is particularly better than another. Return on Assets is good enough for me although it certainly helps that the company has added back write-offs of goodwill from past acquisitions to save one working it out for oneself. For a company that does repeated acquisitions, these “disappearing” assets are worth bearing in mind. Return on Equity might be considered by some as the most important for equity investors, but using that as a target by management can result in risky behaviour such as gearing up with debt. Bank directors were often keen to talk about that number before the 2008 crash.

Why is return on capital so important? Because when one invests in a company, you are investing in the expectation of a future return. How much they can generate in returns from the assets under their management is a key measure (that’s ignoring the profits from investment from getting a greater fool to buy your shares in a game of “pass the parcel”). I learned this was the best measure of the quality and performance of a company when I went to business school, and I never forgot it when I ran a business. In the modern world, it can be easy to borrow capital and blow it on expansive plans. This can help the management increase their salaries. But for equity investors, it dilutes your returns and you lose the benefit of compounding the retained profits.

The best, and shortest book, that explains this in layman’s terms is Joel Greenblatt’s “The Little Book That Beats The Market”. He uses return on capital (as he defines it) in a calculation of a “Magic Formula” for success. But of course using a simplistic formula has its dangers. If everyone followed it, prices might be driven up to unreasonable levels on the stocks chosen by such a formula. In addition I just looked at the stock list that Stockopedia suggests would be “buys” using the Magic Formula. It results in a mixed bag of shares. For example, it includes Safestyle which I also own when that company’s share price has been falling of late due to concerns about the retail market for large general merchandise items (they sell replacement windows). It might be a “BUY” now but it could also be a share where you could wait a long time for it to return to favour. So the moral is, use return on capital as one measure of the merit of a company, but look at other factors also. In addition, bear in mind that sometimes the market can favour other companies, such as those with little profits in a go-go bull market, or those with massive, if underutilised, assets in a gloomy bear market. So the Magic Formula is best applied to a basket of shares and you might need patience over some years to see the benefits realised.

Lastly, financial numbers do not tell you everything about a company. The historic numbers can be inflated by clever, or false accounting. And they can ignore major strategic or regulatory challenges that a company faces that might not be reflected in historic numbers.

But a company whose return on capital is low is certainly one I like to avoid. It is also helpful when the management talk about return on capital as having importance in their business strategy, and Diploma certainly do that. I consider that a positive sign because if they stick to it, then it should ensure the overall financial profile of the company remains positive and that profits will grow.

Roger Lawson (Twitter: https://twitter.com/RogerWLawson )

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