Tuesday, October 20, 2009

How to detect some early financial warnings in companies

TRADING volume on the stock market has recently been getting higher again. Some retail investors, who were absent from the recent rally, have started to get excited.

Over the past few months, investors were mainly focusing on good quality stocks, selling at a cheap level. However, attention has started to switch to poor quality stocks lately. Even though sometimes investors may be able to make money by betting on those stocks, we still need to be careful about the fundamentals of the companies. In this article, we will look at how to detect some early financial warnings.

A lot of companies like to make corporate announcements during the bull market. We agree that some of the announcements were genuine, but many corporate proposals were simply too good to be true.

If we analyse further, we will notice that the proposals might be way beyond the capabilities of the companies. Sometimes, the management’s projections of sales and profits were far beyond the past history. The capital expenditure requirements were well above the companies’ borrowing capacities.

Besides, the time required to turn the projects into profits might be too long. Nevertheless, as a result of the announcements, the stock prices would surge and normally, the main sellers behind might be the key owners.

We have also seen some proposals that turned out to be profitable. The companies did make profits in the first few years. However, the high growth in expansion stretched the capabilities of the top management, who might not have the experience and ability to run big businesses. They might have the experience to manage RM100mil turnover businesses. However, when the turnover surged beyond RM1bil per year, they might have problems. In fact, the main concerns to the companies were the top management team which lacked skills and experience to run big businesses.

We need to be careful if there are any changes to the key managers of the companies, auditors or accounting firms. The key managers are referred to the positions like chief executive officers and financial controllers. Besides, frequent changes in auditors provide serious financial warnings, especially the change from a reputable audit firm to an unknown one.

How to smell a rat or how to detect some early financial warnings in companies

Companies will soon start to report their financial results for the period ended Sept 30. In Malaysia, often good companies will try to announce their results before the deadline of Nov 30. However, if they are having difficulties in providing their financial statements, normally, we will expect some bad news to be announced. One of the possible explanations behind the delay is that the companies need more time to rectify certain financial problems.

Another potential sign of financial warning is when the companies venture into unrelated businesses. Previously, we saw many Bursa Malaysia second board companies going into financial distress in 1997/98 when they departed from their core businesses in manufacturing and ventured into property development activities.

We need to understand that when the company owners enter into areas that are not their core competencies, they might not be able to apply the knowledge and experiences accumulated previously. Instead, they would have to go through the entire learning curve again, which would result in the management taking a lot of time in managing those unrelated businesses.

In such situations, investors will need to pay attention and analyse whether those new ventures will be able to add value to the shareholders’ wealth. Some companies like to change their names after venturing into new businesses. Too frequent name changes may also imply that the companies have been shifting their core business focus and directions, which may not be good news to the shareholders.

Litigation is also another warning sign. We need to pay attention to companies that are involved in litigations, which may be either attributed to the companies being sued or they are suing someone else. These litigations may divert the management’s attention from day-to-day business operations. As a result, they may affect the companies’ performance as well.

One of the common questions asked by shareholders during any AGM is the directors’ fees. We need to analyse whether the fees paid are in proportion to the companies’ profitability. Sometimes, certain companies make excessive perks for owners as well as their employees or the lifestyle of the key owners is simply not consistent with the companies’ profitability.

The above are a few of the more common financial warnings that potential or existing shareholders must pay attention to when analysing the companies for investment. More importantly, we need to remain vigilant at all times and pay attention to the latest development of the companies.

Source: StarBiz

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