COVID-19 and Business Restructuring in Singapore
Recent corporate restructurings by Sembcorp Industries, CapitaLand, SPH, and Keppel Corp could be indicative of an impending slew of restructurings by local conglomerates.
In 2020, Sembcorp Industries made the decision to distribute its entire stake in Sembcorp Marine, its marine arm, to shareholders. This decision came about after two years of losses and a dim outlook for SembMarine, which was also hit by COVID-19 and its ensuing effects like falling oil prices.
The decision was touted as an opportunity for Sembcorp Industries to reposition itself and focus specifically on urban development and utilities, which could make the company easier to value.
It appears this decision has motivated other Singapore conglomerates to critically evaluate their own businesses, as CapitaLand, Keppel Corporation (Keppel Corp), and Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) have all recently announced large restructuring moves.
One of the major influencing factors may have been declining returns on equity (RoE) to shareholders, which investors often use as a gauge for a company’s productivity. COVID-19 has caused many businesses to reevaluate the three ways to boost low RoE according to the DuPont model, which are increasing the profit margin, increasing the amount of borrowings, and reducing the amount of assets used in the business.
Given that businesses cannot always assume that profits can be increased simply by increasing sales or raising prices, especially if they don’t have adequate pricing power, and that borrowing can be risky if inflationary pressures result in higher rates of interest in the future, many businesses have turned to reducing assets to boost RoE.
Like Sembcorp Industries, the aforementioned companies have restructured in response to recent conditions as well as key external drivers. For example, Keppel Corp had to respond to an increasingly unfavourable consumer attitudes towards fossil fuels, unstable oil prices, and the adverse impacts of COVID-19 on its shipbuilding businesses. CapitaLand had to pivot to an asset-light approach to real estate businesses with more predictable earnings as COVID-19 hit its retail, lodging, and residential business segments. Finally, SPH decided to focus on its property business and turn its media arm into a not for profit, as COVID-19 caused a 31.4% decline in advertising revenue on top of already declining sales and revenues.
Given all these changes amongst Singapore’s conglomerates, it seems likely that other sectors and businesses will also consider using restructuring as a means to adjust to shifting competitive landscapes. CNA suggests that the taxi business is an ideal candidate for restructuring thanks to lower passenger volumes and declining efficiency in use of assets.
Only time will tell how many other businesses will follow the route of Sembcorp Industries, Keppel Corp, CapitaLand, and SPH, and if restructuring will truly reverse the fortunes of these businesses.