Thursday, December 10, 2009

Of sausage and budgets

There's an old saying to the effect that there are two things you never want to see being made: UK budgets and Vienna sausage. Yesterday, most eyes in the UK were on the renaming of the City of London as Darlingrad, a brave new world wherein the conventional laws of mathematics don't apply, e.g., a 50% tax on an estimated GBP6bn bonus pool raises only GBP500m.

Meanwhile, another debacle was occurring somewhat further east, as Telekom Austria yesterday issued a tersely-worded recalibration of market expectations for 2010, wherein, despite revenue outlook being in line with consensus, EBITDA was forecast to be 11% below consensus, capex 14% higher, and as a result, operating free cash flow 25% lower. No additional color was offered by way of explanation for the variance, and the market understandably did a 14% tap dance on the share price.

Some friends of mine on the sell-side had a few hours before unfortunately published a buy note on the company. It is common practice for analysts to run their forecasts and note past a company prior to publication, just to ensure there are no factual errors or misrepresentations. Whether that occurred in this case or not, I don't know, but I assume it did, and if so, the fact that the company was on the verge of publishing material information and said nothing is not the sort of thing which endears companies to analysts.

In fact, in this case, the analysts in question, rather than trying to explain things away and goose their numbers to fit their recommendation, have done the right thing, and terminated coverage. They write:
"We spoke with TA after its profit warning yesterday. In sum we understand the following: A few months ago it was quite clear that the four year budget drawn in late 2008 would have to be revised down. But TA goes through the detailed process of drawing up a four year budget only once every 12 months (at the end of each calendar year) - yesterday's announcement follows the conclusion of this process for 2009.

From this we deduce that until this detailed process is completed, TA is largely unable to correct/reset consensus expectations even if trading conditions look set to be very different from the assumptions behind the last communicated business plan (in this case, the one drawn up in late 2008).

We apologise unreservedly for not thinking that this was at all possible. Because clearly it is possible, we believe that we cannot research TA's investment case with any reasonable degree of confidence. We therefore terminate coverage."
This is hard stuff to have to write when you're in their position, and if anything, I think they're being overly polite. I am of the humble opinion that if companies become aware of a material change to outlook over the coming 12 months (I consider EBITDA variation of 11% to be material), there is every incentive (and indeed, in some markets, a regulatory requirement) to issue a formal statement and get the pain over with in a way which preserves some degree of trust and respect from the analyst and investor base. Such a move would also avoid having to surface revelations such as the fact that the four year budget is reviewed once a year, three weeks before Christmas. Investors don't want nasty short-term shocks, but they also don't want persistent nagging suspicions that there is a culture of complacency in such a rapidly changing industry landscape, or more frankly, that visibility is too poor to make credible four-year budgets.

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