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Outperform through the downturn
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Global Advisors’ Thoughts: Outperforming through the downturn AND the cost of ignoring full potential
Press drew attention last year to a slew of JSE-listed companies whose share prices had collapsed over the past few years. Some were previous investor darlings. Analysis pointed to a toxic combination of decreasing earnings growth and increased leverage. While this might be a warning to investors of a company in trouble, what fundamentals drive this combination?
In our analysis, company expansion driven by the need to compensate for poor performance in their core business is a typical driver of exactly this outcome.
This article was written in January 2020 but publication was delayed due to the outbreak of Covid-19. Five months after South Africa’s first case, we update our analysis and show that core-based companies outperformed diverse peers by 29% over the period.
Management should always seek to reach full potential in their core business. Attempts to expand should be to a clearly logical set of adjacencies to which they can apply their capabilities using a repeatable business model.
In the article “Steinhoff, Tongaat, Omnia… Here’s the dead giveaway that you should have avoided these companies, says an asset manager,” (Business Insider SA, Jun 11, 2019) Helena Wasserman lists a number of Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE) listed shares that have plummeted in recent years.
In many cases these companies’ corresponding sectors have been declining. However, in most of the sectors there is at least one company that has outperformed the rest. What is it about these outperformers that distinguishes them from the rest?
The outperformers have typically shown strong financial performance – be that Growth, ROE, ROA, RONA or Asset Turnover – and varying degrees of leverage. However, performance against these metrics is by no means consistent – see our analysis.
What is consistent is that the outperformers all show clearly delineated core businesses and ongoing growth towards full potential in these businesses alongside growth into clear adjacencies that protect, enhance and leverage the core. In some cases, the core may have been or is currently being redefined, typically through gradual, step-wise extension along logical adjacencies. Redefinition is particularly important in light of the digital transformation seen in many industries. The outperformers are very seldom diversified across unrelated business segments – although isolated examples such as Bidvest clearly exist in other sectors.
Analysis of the over- and underperformers in the sectors highlighted in the article shows that those following a clear core-based strategy have typically outperformed peers through the initial months of the downturn caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.
So much has been written about transfer pricing. Yet it remains a bone of contention in almost every organisation. Transfer pricing is not merely a rational challenge – it often raises the emotions of internal service users and providers who argue regarding scope, quality, price and value.
We have found that effective transfer pricing relies on some fairly simple best practices and critical success factors.
Many organisations recover costs as a regular ‘below-the-line’ deduction from operating division income statements. In our experience, charge out is almost always preferable. This results in internal value judgements and negotiation regarding delivery happening closer to time of use.
We have typically seen that the realisation that internal pricing plays this role and the consequences of poor implementation are not well understood.
Results of poor transfer pricing implementation
Sub-optimal economic use decisions
Where costs / prices are higher than they should be, buyers pass this on as an inflated cost to their customers, experience margin squeeze, or utilise less of the service than they might have.
Strategically this can lead to incorrect decisions regarding the provision of services to the market and loss of market share.
Where costs / prices are lower than they should be, this can lead to overuse of a product or service and poor cost recovery from external customers.
Strategically this can result in the over promotion and sales of products and services that are achieving lower margins than thought, or that might even be making losses.
Sub-optimal investment and resourcing decisions
Incorrect pricing can lead to over- or under-investment in capacity and product or service quality. Further, the resourcing decisions will be incorrect should the price signal to the supplier be incorrect.
Political and emotional argument
Where buyers are unable to obtain assurance that an internal price is correct, there is typically resentment regarding the cost of the internal product and service and the sheltered position employees of the internal service provider occupy – in the buyer’s eyes free from commercial pressures.
Buyers and suppliers typically also argue regarding the quality of the service or product relative to the price paid.
Suppliers may react to criticism claiming their product or service is strategic in nature and refute its availability in the external markets.
Poor product / service quality
Poor price signals will result in lack of comparable product and service quality benchmarks. This can result in ‘gold-plating’ or poor-quality product and service provision.
It’s not enough to just have great returns – top-line growth is just as critical.
In fact, S&P 500 investors rewarded high-growth companies more than high-ROIC companies over the past decade.
While the distinction was less clear on the JSE, what is clear is that getting a balance of growth and returns is critical.
Strong and consistent ROIC or RONA performers provide investors with a steady flow of discounted cash flows – without growth effectively a fixed-income instrument.
Improvements in ROIC through margin improvements, efficiencies and working-capital optimisation provide point-in-time uplifts to share price.
Top-line growth presents a compounding mechanism – ROIC (and improvements) are compounded each year leading to on-going increases in share price.
However, without acceptable levels of ROIC, the benefits of compounding will be subdued and share price appreciation will be depressed – and when ROIC is below WACC value will be destroyed.
Maintaining high levels of growth is not as sustainable as maintaining high levels of ROIC – while both typically decline as industries mature, growth is usually more affected.
Getting the right balance between ROIC and growth is critical to optimising shareholder value.
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