How to make money from ASX Stocks this reporting season

Richard Hemming

Making money from the stock market over the long-term is being able to take advantage of short-term share price gyrations; we often see opportunities to Buy and Sell Small Caps during reporting season. Expect a few big reports in the coming weeks.

Increasing Stock Market volatility provides opportunities to profit

Profit making stock market opportunities occur more often in results season for Small Caps because these companies don’t give much away outside of their interim and final results and there is little media or broker coverage. It is one of the few occasions when small cap management has to give you an indication of current market conditions; and you get to see under the hood of the company’s financials.

More to the point, selling to realise gains and taking risk off the table is something you should be thinking about all the time.

An image of figurine men in suits around a report

This is why Under the Radar Report always emphasises taking profits in small caps when opportunities occur, especially in the current market, which overall has been on a tear. In the past few stock research reports we have advocated taking profits on some big share price runs in Under the Radar Report Small Cap stocks including shipbuilder Austal (ASB), beauty products wholesaler McPherson’s (MCP), IT consultant Data#3 (DTL) and aerial imaging specialist Nearmap (NEA).

This ASX reporting season is interesting because volatility is rising.

The evidence in recent months is that “growth” or cyclical companies are vulnerable to anything that doesn’t indicate strong future earnings. In recent weeks, at the big end of town the ASX Stock market has seen double digit falls in CIMIC and Janus Henderson, for example. This reporting season it is essential for stock market investors to know what to look for in order to protect your portfolio and take advantage of any over-reactions.

Not only will we be looking to continue to profit from the ASX share market euphoria, but potentially more profit opportunities can arise when investors take the sword unnecessarily to a Small Cap that still has good long-term prospects.

Why focusing on value protects your Share portfolio

Outside of taking profits, Under the Radar’s value focus means that we aren’t heavily exposed to the expensive end of the market.

At the big cap end, the ASX 100 industrial stocks are forecast to grow EPS an average of 5% in FY19 and trade on a forecast PE of close to 25 times. Excluding the ASX 100 stocks, expectations are for an average of 3% growth in EPS in FY19, while these stocks trade on an average forecast PE of 21 times.

The vast majority of Under the Radar’s stocks are small caps and are not in the ASX Emerging Companies Index and we have a value focus. This means we haven’t been chasing companies. It also means that our average PE is close to 10 times, which is less than half the multiples above, indicating that you aren’t paying nearly as much for these companies’ earnings.

The benefit of our value focus was on full display last week when one of our small cap favourites, the shade cloth manufacturer Gale Pacific (GAP) delivered a profit warning, yet the impact on its share price was not significant and at just over 30 cents remains above our featured Buy recommendation at 28 cents in late May.

A quick overview of the financial statements

A company’s accounts consist of the holy trinity of the profit & loss (P&L); balance sheet; and cash flow statements.

The P&L is a summary of the revenues and expenses over the period, which culminates in the bottom line profit or loss after tax. The balance sheet is a snapshot (at the balance date) of the assets the company owns and the liabilities and equity used to fund them. Finally, the cash flow statement is the actual money received and paid by the company and is sort of like truth serum.

We look for mis-matches, which can highlight fundamental differences between the story a company is selling to investors, versus what is actually happening. We will also look for internal anomalies like increasing inventories or debtors.

HOW IS “SELL” DIFFERENT FROM “TAKE PROFITS”?

Interpreting our “Take Profits” rating will depend on how much stock you own of the Small Cap in question. If you don’t own much it might mean selling the whole lot to bank profits; while if you own more, it might be a question of just selling a few because the market isn’t liquid in that stock (not many buyers and sellers reflected in a big bid/offer spread). Sometimes you can be lucky enough to take your costs out and let the rest of your holding run for free.

THE CHECKLIST

What Under the Radar Report looks for in a company’s profit result:

1. Cash is King

  • How much is cash/debt compared to last year?
  • Changes to working capital?
  • Net investment expenditure?
  • What is the company doing with its excess cash?

The first question is whether the company has more, or less, cash or net debt than the previous year and half year. While this is a simple question to answer, the reasons behind changes in the cash position can be extremely complicated. We will not go into all of the factors here, but emphasise that we will be expecting cash from operations to be approximately in line with profit before tax and interest (EBIT). You may need to think about changes in working capital (inventories, debtors and creditors), as well as in net investment in PP&E (Property Plant and Equipment). Where there is debt, what are its terms, when does it need to be renewed? If free cash flow is not going towards debt reduction, something will have to give. Whether a request for more funds from shareholders is done on good terms or bad will largely depend on the reason given for those funds, which in turn relies on underlying fundamentals – the interaction between the profit and loss; the cash flow statement and the balance sheet.

2. Sales Growth

  • Is the company growing sales?
  • Why are those sales growing – volume or price rises?
  • If it isn’t, what is driving earnings growth?

In most cases we are expecting sales growth from our companies. If your company is in transition or restructuring; if it cannot grow sales; then bottom line progress will be much harder to achieve, and your patience as an investor will be tested. If you don’t like the prospect of hanging in there, reduce your position. If your company does report revenue growth, the key is whether you can identify and approximately quantify the factors behind the sales growth. In a service business, this may be achieved through more efficient operation, or by an increase in staff or infrastructure. In a manufacturing business revenue increases should be achieved from either increased volumes or higher selling prices. Management’s commentary on the sources of growth should be clear and unambiguous.

3. Margins Matter

  • How have costs changed over the period?
  • What are the company’s input costs?
  • What is the proportion of fixed costs to overall costs?

The factors behind sales growth, and the cost structures associated with achieving sales outcomes should be reflected in both gross profit margins and net profit margins. Gross margins should expand when prices are rising faster than the input costs that go into creating the products and services.

Underpinning this is our eternal search for operating leverage, as a company’s sales and margins should be growing, and the fixed operating costs of the infrastructure and corporate assets necessary to deliver the outcomes should reduce as a proportion of sales over time, increasing net margins. So margins matter, and again the goal should be to understand what are the factors behind changes in margins and whether these are likely to be sustained or increased.

4. Be wary of what’s “Underlying”

  • What are the headline profits versus the so-called underlying?
  • What has the company declared to be exceptional or one off in prior periods versus the current period?

Some red flags are hidden in the exceptional items, which the company considers not part of its normal operations, or one-off in nature. Examples include gains and losses on asset sales, restructuring costs, as well as write-offs of intangible items when a board has reviewed the cash flows from those assets and decided that they are insufficient to support the assets’ carrying values in the accounts.

Companies exclude these items to come up with their “underlying earnings”, which is meant to reflect the performance of their ongoing operations. This is an issue when these one offs recur from one result to the next. Outside of us ignoring management’s definition, this becomes an issue of its credibility.

5. Outlook Comments

  • What is the tone of the outlook comments?
  • Is the company looking to make acquisitions?
  • Does the company have a track record of underestimating or overestimating future profit growth?

Management’s outlook is important not only for the specific numbers that the company is expecting to deliver or report, but also the tone and information about investment plans and strategic direction which the outlook should deliver. If a company uses language which suggests that it is thinking of making acquisitions to increase its market strength, do not be surprised if a future equity issue is required to help fulfil that intention.

In most cases, management’s outlook will be as positive as legally possible, but as a private investor you can be as suspicious as you feel is appropriate. It is very easy to fall in love with a company, perhaps because it has performed so well and delivered all of its promise and more, and has made you lots of money already. Or it seems so cheap that you cannot understand why you are the only buyer in the market, but the stock keeps going down. Company reports need to be read with a healthy dose of scepticism. The annual report should also be read. This can be somewhat tedious, but as an audited document, this is an important constraint on management’s ability to delude itself and investors.

6. Share price reactions

  • Has the share price been trending up or down prior to the announcement?
  • Was there a sharp reaction on the day of the announcement?

Subscribers are sometimes surprised by the reaction of share prices to market moving news like results and prospects. This is a variation of the old adage to buy the rumour and sell the news. The stock market is always looking for growth, and accelerating growth at that. Decelerating growth will often cause a big problem for growth stocks, because valuations are based on higher growth for longer. The bottom line is to avoid owning too many stocks that are so expensive that they are vulnerable to any disappointment of other investors’ expectations.

About the Author

Richard Hemming

Richard Hemming (r.hemming@undertheradarreport.com.au) is an independent analyst who edits www.undertheradarreport.com.au, which provides investment opportunities in Small Caps that you won’t get anywhere else.

Under the Radar Report is licensed to give general financial advice only (AFSL: 409518). The author does not own shares in any of the stocks mentioned.

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