28 February 2021

Twice a year we summarise the half-year and full-year results of the companies in the ALCE portfolio. Most of the companies in the portfolio reported strong earnings recoveries in the December half-year, and dividend payouts were higher than our forecasts. This suggests that company boards – who by definition are in possession of inside information – believe not only that the worst is past us, but also that earnings will continue on a strong upwards trajectory.

Ampol’s result for the year to 31 December 2020 was slightly better than expected. Net profit was down 38% to $212m before inventory losses. The final dividend was cut from 51c to 23c, making 48c fully franked for the year. Australian petrol volumes were down 17% year-on-year, but in the December half sales were recovering along with the economy. Shop sales were up 7% on a like-for-like basis. Nonetheless, strong cash flow enabled Ampol to halve its net debt to $434m, equivalent to 18% of equity. The retail network will be completely re-branded from Caltex to Ampol by end-2022. At present, it is likely that Ampol will close the loss-making Lytton refinery unless the Federal Government improves its proposed support package.

At end-January Bluescope had pre-released its unaudited figures for the half-year, and the official result was in line with the pre-release. Recovering housing demand in Australia and automotive and housing demand in the US lifted demand for BlueScope’s flat steel products, propelling underlying earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) to $531m from $302m in the December 2019 half. The final dividend was unchanged at 6% unfranked. Management indicated that, for the key Australian and US steel businesses, the June half was likely to be better than the December half, putting underlying group EBIT in the range $750m to $830m.

BlueScope is actively improving the sustainability of its operations and reducing carbon emissions, but the commercial viability of “green steel” is probably a decade away. A further complication is that BlueScope’s Port Kembla steel mill faces an uncertain future after 2025. The only blast furnace operating there (No. 5) will reach the end of its economic life between 2026 and 2030. BlueScope may have to spend up to $800m re-lining the No. 6 blast furnace, which has been mothballed since 2011. In addition, the Illawarra coal mines may not be viable in the long run, because falling Chinese, Japanese and Korean demand will lower coal prices, while new mines and expansions are constrained by their impact on Sydney’s water catchment areas. Shutdown of the Illawarra mines would force BlueScope to spend an extra $100m per year to import coal. On the positive side, BlueScope can afford the necessary capex because it has strong cash flow and zero net debt.

BWP Trust, which is the landlord of most Bunnings stores, reported a solid result for the December half year. Like-for-like rents rose 2.0% year-on-year, and 99.0% of rent due was collected. The weighted average cap rate for the portfolio improved from 6.08% to 5.84%, which is still well above the yields on recent transactions for Bunnings stores. The portfolio value rose by $87m and NTA increased from 304c to 320c. Gearing declined slightly to 17.8%. The December half distribution was unchanged at 9.02c, and management re-affirmed that the level of the FY21 distribution was expected to be similar to FY20. Disappointed investors marked the share price down.

Property group Charter Hall reported a 43% fall in operating earnings after tax to $129m (27.8c per share), but raised distributions 6% to 18.6c per share. (For property stocks, operating earnings are a better measure of underlying profitability than statutory profit, which includes changes in property values.) Operating cash flow was only 70% of operating earnings, because of changes in working capital and differences between tax expensed and tax paid. Charter Hall increased its funds under management by $3.6bn net to $46bn. The group has zero net debt and $5.3bn in undrawn facilities, so it is likely to make more acquisitions this year. Management upgraded its guidance for FY21 operating earnings from 53c to 55c per share.

As expected, Coles reported a strong result, with sales up 8% and earnings before interest and tax (EBIT) up 12%. The interim dividend was lifted 10% to 33c, in line with the group’s policy of paying out 80% to 90% of earnings. Operating cash flow was extremely strong at $1.7bn, equivalent to 120% of reported profit, and the group’s cash holdings exceeded its borrowings.

Management indicated that supermarket sales could “moderate significantly or even decline” in the current half and in FY22 as pandemic-driven demand returned to normal levels, i.e., as the pig moved through the python. The end of government support schemes could trigger a decline in consumer demand. They also warned that reduced immigration would create a headwind for longer-term sales growth. These remarks frightened investors, who marked the share price down 10%, even though other retail CEOs made similar comments.

But Coles is not going back to the way business used to be. The group has taken advantage of the pandemic to improve its quality, convenience and fulfilment of its online offer, e.g. the Ocado automation program and the Coles Plus subscription membership. Management noted that omni-channel customers spend twice as much as store-only customers,

Real estate website Domain reported 3.6% higher EBITDA despite a 5.5% fall in revenues. (We have used the company’s “like-for-like” figures.) Management attributed the improvement to the cost reduction program, but noted that costs would rise by 5% to 10% in the current half. Volumes and revenues improved in the key residential segment, especially in NSW. The commercial market remains very weak in all three East Coast capitals. Operating cash flow was unusually low in the December half, but management attributed the weakness to temporary factors and said that cash flow had subsequently returned to normal. Net debt of $112m was equivalent to only 12% of equity.

Industrial supplier GUD Holdings reported a 17.6% increase in net profit after tax to $31m (34.5cps). The dividend was maintained at 25c fully franked. A strong recovery in demand for cars lifted revenue by 10.7% to $251m, although exports were still hampered by COVID-19. Operating cash flow improved from $26m to $40m, even though, as management noted, the company was still bearing substantial costs related to COVID-19. Net debt is a modest $118m. Management suggested, with several provisos, that FY21 earnings before interest and tax would be $95-100m, implying a second half very similar to the first. The GUD share price has now returned to its pre-pandemic level.

Lend Lease beat market expectations with a 26% fall in core operating profit after tax to $205m. Development EBITDA fell 10%, investment EBITDA almost halved, but construction EBITDA rose 3%. The unfranked dividend of 15c was half of the December 2019 half-year, but much better than the 3.3c of the June half-year. Net debt rose from $0.8bn at June 2020 to $1.8bn at December 2020, but this is a positive sign because it reflects greater development activity hence more profits in future. CEO Steve McCann will hand over to Asia regional head Tony Lombardo in June.

Property group Mirvac reported a disappointing result, and the share price is now below NTA of 258c. Operating profit after tax of $276m was better than the June half number of $250m, but well below the $352m achieved in the December 2019 half. Earnings from office and industrial property held up well, but earnings from residential dropped to $76m, compared with $146m in the December 2019 half and $79m in the June 2020 half. The balance sheet remains strong, with gearing of 21.4% and $1.3bn in cash and undrawn lending facilities. The half year distribution was only 4.8c, compared to 6.1c in the December 2019 half. Management indicated that the FY21 distribution was expected to be 9.6c to 9.8c. The market had been hoping for a rapid return to the days of 12c distributions, so the share price has been marked down.

Media group Nine Entertainment saw first-half NPAT rise 79% to $182m, compared to the December 2019 half. Revenue slipped only 2% because large rises in digital revenue almost offset the declines in print and radio revenues. The interim dividend was unchanged at 5c fully franked, indicating the board’s renewed confidence after the FY20 final had been cut to 2c. Strong operating cash flow allowed Nine to slash debt from $291m at June 2020 to $150m by December 2020.

The CEO stated that the pandemic lockdowns had accelerated Nine’s transition to digital and allowed the group to bring forward its strategic plan. For the June 2021 half, free-to-air advertising markets have recovered to their pre-coronavirus levels, while digital audiences and subscriptions have re-based to higher levels and are continuing to grow.

Heath insurer NIB reported a 15.9% rise in net profit after tax to $66m, partly because of a $25m provision release related to COVID-19 claims liability. In the core business of Australian residents’ health insurance, policyholder numbers increased, the lapse rate declined, and the net margin improved. The interim dividend was unchanged at 10c fully franked, and far above the 4c dividend for the June 2020 half-year. Gearing of 26.7% is below the policy target of 30%. Management warned that claims outlook remained uncertain, with no clear pattern in the catch-up of previously deferred treatment and ongoing COVID-19 implications.

Scrap metal dealer Sims (SGM) is enjoying a very good recovery. Even though sales revenue fell 9.5% and volumes fell 3.7% (compared to the Dec 2019 half), the company returned to profitability. Net profit after tax moved from a $91m loss to a $53m profit (26.3cps), and the dividend was doubled from 6c to 12c fully franked. Sims lifted operating cash flow from negative $34m to positive $149m, so that its cash holdings rose by $55m to $165m. Management attributed the improvement to a cost reduction program, better control of margins, and higher prices for ferrous and non-ferrous scrap. No guidance was offered for FY21 profits, but the market has concluded that recent strength in scrap prices justifies a higher share price for Sims.

Insurance broker Steadfast continued its record of steady growth, despite the pandemic. Underlying net profit after tax rose 19.3% to $60.4m. Insurance broking continued to benefit from premium increases by insurers, with no loss of volume, while insurance underwriting continued to benefit from market share gains as well as premium increases. The interim dividend was lifted from 3.6c to 4.4c fully franked. Steadfast completed $121m of earnings-accretive acquisitions in the December half, while keeping debt still within the target range. Management re-affirmed its guidance for FY21: underlying NPAT of $120m to $127m, and underlying diluted EPS growth of 10% to 15%.

Diversified property group Stockland is still a long way from full recovery. Funds from operations (FFO) rose only 0.4% to $350m or 16.2c per unit. Net rental collections from the property portfolio reached 90%, compared with only 61% for the June 2020 half. Higher foot traffic and better sales have improved the expected credit loss from 16% of billings at June 2020 to only 3% at December 2020. Stockland’s residential development business is back to normal, with sales and enquiries picking up strongly in the current half. The interim distribution fell from 13.5c to 11.3c, which was at least better than the 10.6c paid for June 2020. Gearing of 24.2% is in the middle of the target range of 20% to 30%, and weighted average debt maturity is a comfortable 5.6 years. Management indicated that FY21 FFO would be 32.5c to 33.1c, with a payout ratio of 75% or better.

Retail conglomerate Wesfarmers announced a 23% rise in net profit to $1.39bn and a 17% lift in the interim dividend to 88c as its Bunnings, Officeworks and KMart businesses prospered during the pandemic. Bunnings was the strongest performer with a 28% increase in sales, and it provided 62% of group EBIT. Operating cash flow was strong at 102% of net profit before depreciation and amortization. In the wake of the Coles selldown, Wesfarmers has net cash of $817m. The company plans to spend more than $1.0bn on its lithium project, but management said that a capital return was possible once the COVID-19 risks had passed.

Engineering contractor Worley had already signalled at end-January that profits for the December half-year would be down because collapsing end-market demand had forced the deferral of many of its contracted projects, particularly in the Americas. For the December 2020 half-year, revenue dropped 25% from $6.0bn to $4.5bn, and underlying earnings before interest, tax and amortisation plunged from $365m to $207m. Management emphasized that long-term contracts remained in place and that project cancellations had been minimal. In addition, many contracts scheduled to be awarded in the December half had been delayed. Gearing of 22% is well below the target range of 25% to 35%. The interim dividend was unchanged at 25c unfranked, which suggests that the board is confident of a rapid rebound. Management expressed optimism for a better second half, but did not offer any firm numbers.


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