Thursday, July 24, 2014

Loblaw: Losses never looked so good. Understanding Adjusted Earnings and Free Cash Flow.

Loblaw (TSE: L) announced earnings recently (Loblaw Press Release), opening with the statement by Galen Weston that "the second quarter of 2014 marked the opening of the next chapter for Loblaw, combining the number one food retailer in Canada with the number one pharmacy and beauty retailer."

The acquisition of Shoppers Drug Mart by Canada's largest grocery chain marks a clear avenue for future expansion by the retailer, and millions of dollars in synergies as it combines the operations of the two companies into a more efficient Canadian corporate behemoth.

Including the results from Shoppers, Loblaw announced revenue of $10,307 million, an increase of 37.1% over the second quarter of 2013. Adjusted basic net earnings per common share were also up 17.2% to $0.75 compared to $0.64 in the second quarter of 2013.

The headline numbers, however, highlight that the company lost $1.13 per share in the second quarter of 2014, due primarily to costs associated with the purchase of Shoppers. This distinction provides us with an important lesson in "adjusted earnings," which can be used regularly by a number of publicly traded companies.

Adjusted earnings figures are used when a company believes that earnings for a particular financial period are distorted either positively or negatively by "one-off" or unusual events. In this case, the distortion is the artificially high loss caused by costs incurred due to buying Shoppers Drug Mart. Since Loblaw will not be incurring those costs regularly in the future, it does not believe that those costs reflect the company's true performance in the last quarter. To help shareholders better understand the company's true operational performance, it reports what the company would have made if you exclude the irregular costs. In this case, the difference is quite large, from an actual loss of $1.13 per share, to a profit of $0.75 per share.

Intelligent Investors should beware of adjusted numbers, and investigate why the adjustments were made, and if they seem reasonable. In this case, it is clearly understood that the costs are associated with the purchase and integration of another major Canadian retailer. This will not be a standard or common occurrence for Loblaw in most quarters, so the adjustment is most likely reasonable.

Many investors, such as Olstein, are calling for an end to adjusted earnings, as they think it misleads investors. However, the Intelligent Investor simply needs to investigate why the earnings are being adjusted, and how often the company utilizes adjustments. If the company regularly adjusts earnings by a large margin, be careful, but otherwise, the practice can be perfectly reasonable.

To help better understand how the company is performing, it is always helpful to look at Free Cash Flow during the quarter. Free Cash Flow represents the cash that a company is able to generate after laying out the money required to maintain or expand its asset base. This can be calculated by taking operating cash flow, and subtracting capital expenditures. In the case of Loblaw, the company had Free Cash Flow of $801 million for the quarter, a very healthy number.

Loblaw now has its fingers in a number of very profitable business pies. It is engaged in the financial business through its thriving credit card division (PC Financial now has over $2.5 billion in credit card receivables), the clothing business through Joe Fresh, the real estate business through Choice Properties, the drug business through Shoppers Drug Mart, and of course, the good old fashioned grocery business through entities such as Loblaws, No Frills, and Real Canadian Superstore.

For those Intelligent Investors looking for portfolio diversity, a decent dividend, and strong Free Cash Flow, take some time to look at Loblaw.

Happy Investing!

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