Pandemic makes UK grocers easier to sell to investors
As Sainsbury’s chief executive this week outlined some clear benefits of the pandemic – booming online orders and pinched sales at closed pubs and restaurants – investors have responded with the usual indifference.
A nearly 3 percent drop in the share price on the UK supermarket group’s annual earnings day continued a trend long seen in the industry.
The shares of the three UK-listed food retailers – Sainsbury’s, Tesco and the smaller Wm Morrison – have underperformed the FTSE 100 for more than a decade. All are paying smaller dividends now than they were 10 years ago.
“Food distribution is viewed as mature, low growth, capital intensive, low margin and competitive,” said Richard Buxton, fund manager at Merian. His fund owns Tesco shares, which are trading at virtually the same price today as they were in 2014, when the group faced the biggest crisis in its history.
Yet many analysts believe the industry is in much better shape now. “For the first time in nearly a decade, the main structural threat to discounters is in the background and must find answers to the questions posed by the Big Four,” said Andrew Porteous, analyst at HSBC.
A number of value and “special situations” investors have noticed this improvement. Sainsbury’s largest shareholder is no longer the Qatar Investment Authority, which took a stake in 2007 and 2008 at prices more than double the current level, but Czech billionaire Daniel Kretinsky.
Vesa, its investment vehicle, doubled its stake to 9.9% this month, describing the company as “an attractive opportunity” and expressing its support for Simon Roberts, chief executive.
Asda, third, was recently acquired by private equity firm TDR and gas station billionaires Zuber and Mohsin Issa. And at Morrisons, value investment specialist Silchester is the biggest holder with 13 percent.
“I think we’ve seen in the market reaction over the last few months that there is growing interest in the industry,” Roberts said, although he declined to comment on his contact with Kretinsky.
Investors are wary of UK supermarkets established since the aftermath of the financial crisis when, rather than lowering prices for customers whose wages had stopped rising, they tried to maintain profit margins. This allowed discount operators Aldi and Lidl to open hundreds of new stores, forcing incumbents to cut prices to win back customers. Profits have fallen sharply and dividends have been reduced.
But new leaders and years of restructuring have put the big supermarkets back on their feet. Prices have become more competitive and market share losses have slowed.
The pandemic, which has shut down pubs and restaurants for long periods of time, has given new impetus, pushing up sales across the industry and particularly in the Big Four.
Buyers have found social distancing easier in a giant Tesco than a compact Aldi. Wider ranges made it easier to build weekly department stores, and established supermarkets quickly expanded their offerings online. Higher volumes and larger baskets have improved the economics of e-commerce.
This has yet to translate into profits as the pandemic has also resulted in substantial additional costs. But as those burdens start to ease, supermarket bosses are offering a new stand for investors based on cash returns.
“The first thing we have to do is stick to the plan we have laid out,” Roberts said this week, referring to his strategy of focusing on food, cutting costs and lowering prices. “Next, focus on the story of cash: free cash flow increases, net debt decreases, and we use cash more efficiently.”
Tesco and Morrison also underscored their commitment to maximizing cash flow and returning any surplus to investors.
“What is most important. . . is to make sure we provide some consistency in our dividends and cash returns to shareholders, ”Ken Murphy, CEO of Tesco, told analysts this month.
Tesco, like Sainsbury’s, has declared an unchanged dividend despite declining profits caused by the pandemic. “I hope this is taken as an indication of my serious intention to maintain some sort of consistency of returns,” Murphy said, adding that share buybacks were “very, very close to our priority” as well.
Low valuations mean speculation on takeover bids for other grocers is rarely far away. Porteous said it was “entirely possible” for private equity firms or other acquirers to step in “if they can see more value from those cash flows than the market”.
But Buxton was skeptical of more mergers and acquisitions, saying private equity groups would be worried about their exit route. The UK regulator’s decision to block Sainsbury’s takeover of Asda in 2019 means that any merger involving two of the big four supermarkets is not on the agenda.
Reselling on public markets is also risky. Last year, Cerberus slashed the IPO of Albertsons, a U.S. supermarket chain, after lukewarm demand from investors.
Buxton said the homecoming strategies were right. “People don’t want diversification into new areas or geographies.”
But not everyone is convinced. Terry Smith, one of the UK’s top-performing fund managers, said that despite recent improvements the sector still had unattractive features, including margins so thin that “every bump in the road is potentially very painful ”.
“They are also achieving very low returns on capital, significantly below their cost of capital, which in the long run is disastrous,” he said, adding that many of the benefits of the restructuring appear to have flowed to clients under the form of lower price.
“Over time, they started to look like shareholder-funded utilities for the benefit of consumers,” Smith said. “To paraphrase the late great Sir Brian Pitman, some markets do not produce a winner.”