Business Trends, Speedy Hire and the Hospitality Sector

After my negative comments in a previous blog post on Friday about the short term prospects for share prices bearing in mind all the uncertainties that face us, there were several other commentators over the weekend who suggested the market was ignoring the realities. Too much exuberance in expectation of a quick recovery was a common theme. That may be why the market opened in a sluggish manner this morning when Monday morning is often a time when share prices rise after investors read share tips over the weekend.

What is really happening in the real economy is the key question? Just walking around the streets near my home it is clear that builders and home improvers have got back to work. This is also apparent in the trading statement issued by tool/equipment hire company Speedy Hire (SDY) this morning, in which I hold a few shares. Their revenue is only 17% down on the prior year for the last week, whereas it was down 35% in April. With aggressive cost cutting measures already taken, the “Board remains confident that the Group can operate within its existing debt facilities and covenant tests during a prolonged period of reduced trading activity”.

However the bad news is that the accounts have been delayed and they are investigating a claim against a subsidiary named Geason acquired in 2018. They are also writing off the carrying value of goodwill and the contingent consideration payable on that acquisition. It only represents c.2% of group revenues but they say it has not performed in line with management’s expectations. It looks like an acquisition that was unwise. It is probably no coincidence that the finance director is soon departing.

One indicator of investor confidence is of course the state of the housing market. When house prices are rising, investors feel wealthier, and when they are falling, confidence is undermined. Knight Frank reported a 2.1% decline in central London property prices in April and Nationwide reported a national 1.7% fall in May. That is not surprising though bearing in mind that the Covid-19 epidemic may have discouraged house purchases given the economic uncertainty and job losses. Will people really be buying houses when they have just been “furloughed”? In addition, estate agents have been closed and house buyers deterred from visiting properties by isolation restrictions. But in the real world, this may be rapidly changing. A neighbour of mine in our outer London suburb decided to sell her house recently. In just a few days she had a number of inquiries and there were several offers received in no time at all. She did lower the price somewhat as against what I would have asked, to achieve a quick sale no doubt, but it is clear the market is alive and well.

Retailers are getting back in operation – there have even been two new shops opened recently in our local High Street. But the travel and hospitality sector firms are furious about the new quarantine rules for visitors coming into the UK. They claim, perhaps rightly, that it will kill their businesses and they would have to cease trading. A group called “Quash Quarantine” claims the quarantine rules are unjustified and not based on any science, i.e. they are disproportionate. A “letter before action” has apparently already been submitted to the Government. Comment: This looks like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted as checking incoming visitors and enforcing quarantine might have had some effect in the early stages of the epidemic in the UK but it will now have minimal impact. It surely makes sense to have some targeted restrictions (e.g. visitors from known “hot-spots”) and more checks/testing of visitors in general but a blanket set of rules with little chance of 100% enforcement seems very unreasonable. Otherwise the tourism industry will be destroyed at enormous financial cost, and the whole hospitality sector damaged.

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

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Bad News Rises as Market Does Also

Stock markets continue to rise when the economic news is generally bad. Is the market rise based on relief that it does not look like all our shares our going to become worthless, or relief that we have not yet caught the coronavirus personally? Although I know a few people who have – thankfully all recovering.

But companies continue to issue announcements of the kind that say “too early to tell the full impact” while reporting negative sales trends in the short term. Meanwhile the Bank of England is going to simply print money to finance government spending rather than raising debt in the gilt markets. If that is not a negative sign, I do not know what is.

A couple of companies are worth mentioning: 1) Speedy Hire (SDY), a company who rent out tools and equipment and hence are a good bellwether for the construction and maintenance sectors. They report “reduced activity levels” but they have “retained a substantial proportion of its revenues”. They are cutting costs, it is uncertain whether it will pay a final dividend in August and it “suspends all guidance until the position stabilises”. That does not sound very positive does it?

2) Diageo (DGE) also gave a trading update today. They give very little in the way of specifics about actual sales. They are reducing costs and are still paying the interim dividend this month, but have stopped the share buy-back programme. More information would have been helpful.

Those investors who rely on dividend income are being hard hit as many companies are cutting them out so as to protect their balance sheets due to the uncertainty of the economic impacts of the epidemic. Some of the big insurers are the latest to stop paying dividends and this has a very negative impact on their share prices as institutional investors who run income funds dump them for other shares. Private investors are probably doing the same.

But the really bad news yesterday, although not totally unexpected, was from NMC Health (NMC) who announced they expected to go into administration. The likely outcome for ordinary shareholders is zero. In normal times this would have been a headline story but almost all news is now being swamped by coronavirus stories.

NMC was valued at £2 billion when the shares were suspended but were worth four times that in 2018. So this will be one of the biggest stock market wipe outs in history, probably arising from some kind of financial fraud. I hope those responsible do not escape justice.

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

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Speedy Hire and Burford Capital

There are a couple of interesting articles in this week’s Investors Chronicle. One of their share tips for 2020 is Speedy Hire (SDY) which I own some shares in after attending a presentation by the company at a ShareSoc meeting in October. I was somewhat impressed by the apparent turnaround in the business that the management has achieved. You can read a write-up of the presentation here: https://roliscon.blog/2019/10/04/speedy-hire-presentation-burford-analysis-and-treatt-trading-statement/

Another very good article in Investors Chronicle was on the subject of fair-value accounting. It should be essential reading for all Burford Capital (BUR) investors. It explains how Enron used mark-to-market accounting to value long-term contracts. Their reported profits surged as they recognised future profits but the cash did not appear so the management then went from creative accounting to downright fraud by the use of off-balance sheet vehicles.

In reality it was using “mark-to-estimate” accounting as there were no public markets for the assets that could provide a sound valuation. How is this relevant to Burford? That company is in the same position in that the majority of its profits come from fair value gains on the value of the legal cases it is pursuing. As in Enron, the cash flows are very different to the reported profits. In 2018 the reported operating profit was $344 million but the cash outflow was $198 million.

As I said in my blog article mentioned above, I have always been doubtful about the merits of the company and one reason is the answer to the question “Do profits turn into cash?” The answer is “Not in the short term at Burford”. They are effectively recognising what they consider to be the likely chance of success in current profits. But winning legal claims is always in essence uncertain. I have been involved in several big cases and your lawyer always tells you that you have a very good chance of winning as they wish to collect their fees, but even if you win collecting any award can be uncertain”. In essence the accounts of Burford rely to a large extent on management’s estimates of the chance of winning cases and hence the future profits.

Incidentally a few respondents to my mention of my portfolio performance last year in a previous blog post and tweet requested details of my portfolio holdings and investment strategy. My response was that I don’t like disclosing the details mainly because listing all my holdings and providing reasons for them would be tedious but clearly one reason for success is avoiding companies such as Burford where profits do not turn into cash. As regards my investment strategy this is well covered in my book Business Perspective Investing https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html.

As I point out in the book, attending presentations by management or attending Annual General Meetings can give you useful information and the ShareSoc events are very relevant to that objective so I recommend them.

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

Speedy Hire Presentation, Burford Analysis and Treatt Trading Statement

On Tuesday the 1st October I attended a company seminar organised by ShareSoc in Birmingham, mainly to present my new book. But there was an interesting presentation given there by Speedy Hire (SDY). This is not a company I have looked at before because it seemed to be in a sector driven by construction activity which tends to be cyclical and in a fragmented market with few barriers to entry. This is probably why other listed companies in the sector such as HSS and VP are on low valuations (typically P/Es of less than 10). Speedy Hire is on a prospective P/E of 9.5 and a dividend yield of 4.2% according to Stockopedia.

So why was the company interesting? Firstly Speedy Hire seems to be somewhat of a turnaround situation from dire 2016 results. The presenter, Chris Morgan, explained how the company has a new focus on improving the proportion of services in the revenue mix which have better margins and there is a new focus on SME customers which they consider a significant opportunity. They are also undertaking a “digital transformation” to reduce costs and improve service. That includes a new “app” that enables customers to order items whereas most orders are taken over the phone at present. This is currently in essence a very labour intensive business – for example they have over 50 people on credit control alone.

There are clearly opportunities to improve efficiencies in the business by investing in technology which small local hire companies would be unable to match. There is also a focus on improving the return on capital employed (ROCE) which I always like to see – it’s now about 12.8% excluding the recent Lifterz acquisition so is moving in the right direction. On the 3rd October the company issued a positive trading statement with revenue up 6% and higher growth in the sectors focused upon mentioned above.

In summary a company that may be worth a closer look as management seem to be improving the business substantially.

After the Speedy Hire presentation I covered my book “Business Perspective Investing” (see https://www.roliscon.com/business-perspective-investing.html ) which explains the important things that you should look at when choosing companies in which to invest. It suggests ignoring the typical approach of looking for “cheap” shares based on low P/Es and high dividend yields but focusing on the business model and other attributes.

As Burford Capital (BUR) is a company in the news after the shorting attack by Muddy Waters, I chose to run through why I would never have invested in the company based on the check lists given in the book. In essence it fails too many of them, no doubt to the consternation of some in the audience who held the stock. Here are just some of the problems:

  1. High barriers to entry? None I am aware of – I suspect anyone could set up a litigation funding company given enough capital.
  2. Economies of scale? I doubt there are any as legal claims are labour intensive.
  3. Differentiated product/service? I am not clear that they differ much from other litigation funding businesses.
  4. Low capital required? Absolutely the contrary as they have to fund legal cases for years at enormous cost before they get any payback.
  5. Proprietary technology or IP? There is none.
  6. Smaller transactions? The opposite. Burford’s profits depend on a few large legal cases.
  7. Repeat business? I question whether there is any. Legal cases tend to be one-offs.
  8. Short term contracts? The opposite. The cases they take on can run for years.
  9. No major business risks obvious? Significant risks of losing major cases.
  10. Low debt? The contrary as they use debt to finance their legal cases.
  11. Appropriate corporate structure? Odd to say the least until recently with the CFO being the wife of the CEO and no executive directors on the board.
  12. UK or US domicile? No they are registered in Guernsey.
  13. Adhere to UK Corporate Governance Code? No.
  14. AGMs at convenient time and place? No, they are in Guernsey.
  15. No big legal disputes? Apart from participating in the legal actions they fund, they also have received a claim from their founder and former Chairman recently.
  16. Accounts prudent and consistent? Is recognition of the value of current legal claims prudent (upon which the reported profits rely) and the accounts conservative? It’s very difficult to determine from the published information but I have serious doubts about them.
  17. Do profits turn into cash? Not in the short term. They are effectively recognising what they consider to be the likely chance of success in current profits. But winning legal claims is always in essence uncertain. I have been involved in several big cases and your lawyer always tells you that you have a very good chance of winning as they wish to collect their fees, but even if you win collecting any award can be uncertain.

I could go on further but the above negatives are sufficient to rule it out as a “high quality” business so far as I am concerned. That’s ignoring the allegations of Muddy Waters and the counter allegations by Burford of share price manipulation (i.e. market abuse).

Treatt (TET) issued a trading statement today (4th October). This is a company that specialises in natural ingredients for the flavour and fragrance markets, particularly in the beverage sector. I hold a few shares in it.

The statement says that there has been “a significant fall in certain key citrus raw material prices…..”. This is impacting revenue growth although they have been diversifying into other product areas. Profit before tax and exceptional items is still expected to be in line with expectations – which was for a fall in EPS for 2019 based on consensus broker forecasts.

Now when a company says its input prices are coming down by more than 50% as in this case, you would expect the company to be making bumper profits as a result. But clearly this is not so. It would seem that their customers expect to pay less which suggests this is a “commodity price” driven business where competitors track the prices of the raw material downwards.

This might be a well-managed business in a growth sector for natural ingredients but there may well be low barriers to entry and an undifferentiated product in essence. So it may well fail the checklists in my book.

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

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