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KUALA LUMPUR: The second extension of the movement control order to contain the Covid-19 outbreak — now totalling six weeks until April 28 — means that economic activities will remain subdued for at least another 14 days.
The pandemic, which has infected nearly two million and killed over 100,000 worldwide, presents the worst start possible for the recession expected ahead. As the infection curve has yet to near its peak, it is anyone’s guess on the depth of the economic downturn.
Against this backdrop, survival is the prominent concern now. Investors’ attention is drawn to companies’ balance sheets instead of growth prospects, which is widely expected to be minimal in the best-case scenario, as business volume dwindles and operating cash flow shrink.
Asia Analytica data shows that of some 880 listed companies (after excluding the 40 banks, insurers and investment trusts), 597 companies listed on Bursa Malaysia have cash that is less than their short-term liabilities.
Companies in many different sectors are underlined here, from furniture companies to retailers, automotive-related firms, and a wide range of manufacturers and trading companies.
Meanwhile, 223 listed companies have an interest cover ratio of below one times, meaning their earnings before interests and tax cannot cover interest expenses for a full year. The market capitalisation of most of these companies are below RM2 billion.
Some 321 companies were already in the red last year. Of the 599 profitable ones, around 45.6% of them saw profit decline in the period. Again, most on the list are small-cap firms, according to Asia Analytica data.
It is also worth noting that the economic downturn would be a tough test on companies’ sales quality. Companies with a high portion of credit sale with mounting receivables could be at risk amid the potential cash trap.
A random check shows that 75 listed companies or 8.2% have net gearing of over 100%. Sectors with the most companies in this category are logistics, construction, oil and gas, building materials and property development.
Others with net gearing of above 80% include power companies, telecommunications companies and building materials companies. Power producers’ liabilities are usually backed up by the steady cash flow from power purchase agreements.
On the flip side, notable sectors with low net gearing average include Internet and gas utility companies, and technology solution providers.
Of 79 generic companies with market capitalisation of above RM2 billion (ex-banks, real-estate investment trusts and insurers) only 22 have a cash ratio of above one times and net gearing of below 50%, led by Petronas Chemicals Group Bhd, Petronas Gas Bhd and IOI Corp Bhd.
As reflected by the price-to-book valuations, preference is given for companies with high cash, low debt, steady recurring income and high-quality clients, such as tech companies, and broadband providers.
There are also lesser-known small-cap companies that are cash-rich with sturdy past operations.
As a fund manager pointed out that a downturn is a brewing pot for merger and acquisition activities, as smaller, cash-rich companies with good assets or business prospects usually become undervalued after the market selldown.
The first quarter’s (1Q20) financial result will show how much cash was exhausted amid the two-week shutdown in the second half of March, while prospects of the entire half of 2Q20 being under movement restriction are still visible.