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There has been much speculation & confusion regarding the significant amounts of debt that Starhub now carries on its balance sheets. As of September 2010, Starhub possessed an astounding financial leverage ratio of 33.8. This means that for every dollar in equity, the firm had $33.8 in assets (anything above 4 or 5 is a potential red flag.)

So what’s going on here?

Bank loans made up 0.9 billion dollars in 2009! Let us take a closer look at the footnotes.

Even in a world awash with cheap money, I found the interest rate that Starhub was borrowing at to be extremely low. In 2009, their floating rate loans bore i/r of only 1.24% to 2.13%. This already low interest rate was reduced further in 2009 to only 0.92% to 1.39%. In opinion, it makes perfect sense for Management to leverage on the historically low rates to fund their capital expenditures.

Healthy Cash Flow Levels in Starhub:

Starhub is one of the few companies that use Free Cash Flow figures in their annual reports (a plus point for me) and for good reason. Even in the wake of the financial recession, they have posted impressive results.  I do not foresee a problem with loan repayments at this current point of time.

The Bear Case:

Starhub paid $20 Million in interest from bank loans last year (taken from the Cash Flow Statement of 2009’s Annual Report). Assuming that interest rates suddenly quadruple (highly unlikely in the near future but let’s take the worst case scenario here) to 5.6%, Starhub would have to fork out $80 Million in interest payments. A sizeable increase of $60 Million – but still within tolerable limits. I envision that as long as interest rates remain at their current levels, Starhub will have no qualms about maintaining the status quo.

 

Cash Flow Statement from Starhub Third Quarter 2010.

I want to bring your attention to another point – Refinancing. Judging from their cash flow statements, I suspect that Starhub is refinancing significant portions of their debt as the maturity date loans. This is akin to what REITs do when their debt is about to expire. In other words, they will be able to extend their loan maturity dates as long as they remain credit worthy.

I came across a post in another blog stating that Starhub was not making enough in FCF to cover their monthly 5.0cents dividend payment. The more risk adverse among you (it could be just me though..) might be wondering why Starhub doesn’t reduce its dividend payment in order to give itself a greater buffer or margin of safety. The argument is that once a company has started paying a regular dividend (in this case Starhub has committed itself to 5.0cents a quarter), the market will expect it continue the cycle at regular intervals forever. Any disruption to this cycle will be perceived as a potential sign of financial difficulties and a loss of confidence.

Conclusion:

In my opinion, debt levels while significant, should not pose much problem for Starhub. Close monitoring of their financial performance in their years to come is in order however. I feel that management has delivered solid returns up till this point of time and I see no reason why they wont in the years to come.

Tell-Tale Signs That Investors Should Look Out For in Reconsidering Their Investment in Starhub:

  1. Significant drops in Free Cash Flow over a sustained period (i.e. 1 – 3 years)
  2. Starhub being forced to raise additional amounts of money (i.e. through bond issues) AND refusing to cut its dividend yield
  3. Starhub taking on even more debt despite a significant rise in interest rates.

When faced with special situations such as these, its always good to dig deeper into the financial statements. Always make sure you understand the debt structure of the company. If its too complex, skip it. There are plenty of other companies that are much easier to understand.

Disclaimer: The author is vested in Starhub.

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