How Can You Avoid Hyflux-Like Disasters?

News broke last week that the embattled water treatment firm Hyflux has finally signed a S$400 million rescue deal with Utico, a utilities company based in the Middle East.

Although Hyflux has now been given a lifeline with Utico injecting capital, shareholders and creditors of the water treatment company don’t have much to smile over.

There are important lessons we can learn from Hyflux’s experience.

Painful lifeline

Hyflux and Utico’s agreement came after months of talks between the two.

It had also been over a year since Hyflux filed for bankruptcy protection in May 2018 and suspended the trading of its ordinary shares, preference shares, and perpetual securities.

The rescue deal will see Utico take a 95% stake in Hyflux at a value of S$300 million. This means that all of Hyflux’s existing owners of ordinary shares will emerge holding 5% of the company, with a value of merely S$15.8 million.

Just prior to the May 2018 trading suspension, Hyflux had a total market value (or market capitalisation) of S$165 million. In other words, Hyflux’s ordinary shareholders are now facing a haircut of around 90%.

Meanwhile, there are 34,000 individuals who hold Hyflux’s preference shares and/or perpetual securities that collectively have a face value of S$900 million.

Utico’s rescue deal will see these 34,000 individuals receive total payment ranging from only S$50 million to S$100 million. Even at a S$100 million payout, the owners of Hyflux’s preference shares and perpetual securities are still staring at a loss of 89%.

Avoiding disasters

It’s great timing that a user of the community forums of personal finance portal Seedly asked a question yesterday along the lines of “How can we avoid Hyflux-like disasters?” I answered, and I thought my response is worth sharing with a wider audience, hence me writing this article.

Parts of my answer are reproduced below (with slight tweaks made for readability):

“I’m not a pro, nor will I wish anyone to follow my investing thoughts blindly. But I used to write for The Motley Fool Singapore, and I wrote a piece on Hyflux in May 2016 when the company issued its S$300 million, 6% perpetual securities [the offering was eventually upsized to S$500 million].

The Fool SG website is no longer available, but there’s an article from The Online Citizen published in June 2018 that referenced my piece.

Back then, I concluded that Hyflux’s perpetual securities were risky after looking through the company’s financials. That was because the company had a chronic inability to generate cash flow and its balance sheet was really weak.

Those risks sadly flared up in 2018 and caused pain for so many of the company’s investors.

What I wrote was this: “According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, Hyflux has been generating negative cash flow from operations in each year from 2010 to 2015.

Meanwhile, the company currently has a net-gearing ratio (net debt to equity ratio) of 0.98, which isn’t low.””

What I shared was the financial traits I found in Hyflux that made me wary about the company. The great thing about those traits are that they can be applied to most situations in investing.

Get Smart: Simple rules

In my response to the Hyflux question in Seedly, I also mentioned (emphasis is added now):

There are many things about a company to look at when investing. 

But I believe there are some simple rules that can help us avoid trouble. The rules are not fool-proof and nothing is fool-proof in investing, but they do work in general. The rules are: (1) Be careful when a company is unable to produce cash flow from its business consistently; and (2) be careful when the company’s balance sheet is burdened heavily by debt.”

The parts in italics above are rules that I believe are simple, yet incredibly effective. They also form part of my investment framework.

Those rules are sometimes meant to be broken, as is the case with my decision to stay invested in Netflix, which has trouble generating cash flow and a heavy debt load for a good reason.

But if we stick to the two rules with discipline, I believe we can keep ourselves out of trouble in the stock market most of the time.

If you’d like to learn more investing concepts, and how to apply them to your investing needs, sign up for our free investing education newsletter, Get Smart! Click HERE to sign up now.

None of the information in this article can be constituted as financial, investment, or other professional advice. It is only intended to provide education. Speak with a professional before making important decisions about your money, your professional life, or even your personal life. Disclosure: Chong Ser Jing owns shares in Hyflux. 

Note: An earlier version of this article was published at The Good Investorsa personal blog run by our friends.