Board drama, and crunching the numbers on oil

A few weeks ago I pointed out that Etisalat generated earnings of Dh0.97 per share and paid out Dh0.80 per share, which is a payout ratio of 82 per cent. I further pointed out that paying out such a high percentage of profits was consistent with a status quo strategy and inconsistent with an expansion strategy, which would need to use the earnings to expand. Last week Etisalat bid for Oman’s third mobile operator license.

The question is, is it rational to pay your shareholders nearly all of your profits and then to go on to expand? Etisalat saw its revenue drop in the first quarter although it managed to grow profit by cutting expenses. Still, with revenue falling, earnings being paid out and an expansion strategy, one is walking a tight rope.

I also recently analysed the 2016 financial performance of Gulf Finance House (GFH), a financial services group, in particular with respect to announced discussions with Shuaa Capital for a merger. The analysis showed a large loss from normal operations of about US$230 million masked by a one-time litigation award to show a profit. I was curious to see why Shuaa would be interested in GFH and so reviewed GFH’s Q1 2017 financials that were recently released. Perhaps GFH could engineer a miraculous turn around in normal operations.

The report showed that GFH has indeed achieved a profit of $33.5m for the quarter. An astounding achievement. I dug deeper. Financial services can have notoriously volatile earnings but one thing caught my eye: a profit of $25.6m from the sale of a subsidiary.

Upon closer examination, the profit came from selling a stake in a school.

The shares were received as part of the litigation settlement in 2016 and GFH valued this part of the stake at $29.4m. A year, or less, later they sold the stake for $55m for a profit of $25.6m. That is a return on investment of 87 per cent in at most one year. Did GFH generate a fantastic 87 per cent return in one year by its skill in operating the school?

Perhaps the whole market went up 87 per cent? Possibly the buyer and their advisers are clueless and overpaid by nearly double?

This one-off extraordinary transaction explains 76 per cent of the profit. I considered analysing if the other 24 per cent was one-off or normal recurring business, but why bother?

Union Properties last week announced that three of the directors of the board had resigned right after an AGM that appointed them. The three directors publicly denied resigning. There could be some chance that this is just a big misunderstanding. The more likely scenarios are less than salubrious.

Board drama is a red flag suggesting serious internal issues at a company. The number of such incidents in the market, along with going concern warning, capital injections at loss making companies, and law suits, will be a gauge of how much the oil price drop from 2014 is affecting our economy.

On Thursday, the price of oil dropped to its lowest level in five months. The main benchmark Brent fell below US$50 a barrel, followed by a modest comeback on Friday to about $49; as of Monday afternoon it was still at that level.

One reason for the drop was reported in a Financial Times article that quoted Jamie Webster, a fellow at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University: “Opec extension is baked into market expectations, but roaring shale growth makes the sizeable but too small a cut completely lose its potency.” A separate FT article stated that although the agreed Opec production cuts amount to 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) the actual cut to exports might be as little as 800,000 bpd.

It is a little worrisome that Opec cuts production and oil prices pop up for only a short while. We keep hearing how oil prices will go up because of a lack of investment in oil infrastructure. Oil prices might pop up, but they keep dropping back down. If what you are hearing is different than what you are seeing, which should you believe?

In the investment world we have a phrase, “talking one’s book”. This describes the natural human trait of speaking positively about something beneficial to you, in this case the investments an investor has made. As investors and individuals who must make a myriad decisions based on the economy we should ask ourselves: if doing the same thing but expecting different results is a sign of insanity, then what is listening to the same thing and expecting different results a sign of?

This article was originally published in The National.