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Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Codan has been smashed as a falling gold price and civil unrest in parts of Africa cut demand for its metal detectors, and as the fading resources investment boom weighed on its mining technology division.

Codan shares more than tripled between mid-2011 and early 2013 as the market latched on to its fast earnings growth and stellar prospects in emerging markets. But after peaking at $3.95 in March last year, the company has slumped to 68 cents in a brutal fall from grace.

Value investors could give up on Codan. Its earnings can be volatile, sales are heavily skewed towards Africa and other frontier economies, and much depends on the hard-to-predict gold price and rate of gold discoveries. Also, it is hard to define Codan’s sustainable competitive advantage.

Clearly, Codan is not for the risk-averse or those with a short investment horizon. No business that earns half its sales from the African mining industry, and operates in political hotspots such as the Sudan, can provide the consistent, recurring revenue that characterises exceptional companies.

Even so, the market habitually gets too bullish on small-cap companies at the top, and too bearish at the bottom. That could be the case with Codan today, making it a stock for portfolio watchlists of speculators, as its share price forms a base.

To recap, Codan has three core divisions. MineLab is the most important, accounting for 54 per cent of sales in the first half of FY14. It sells metal detectors to small-scale artisanal miners who search for gold as their primary source of income, and to gold hobbyists and prospectors. Governments and non-government organisations also use its detectors to find land mines and other unexploded shells.

The radio communications business contributed 39 per cent of sales for the half. Government and military customers use Codan’s high-frequency radios for long-range communications, and companies and consumers buy land mobile radios for short to medium-range communications.

The Minetec division, which contributed 4 per cent of revenue, provides a range of safety products, asset tracking and communication infrastructure to underground mines. Codan divested its underperforming satellite business in 2012 to focus on these three divisions.

Its strategy, for the most part, had paid off. Codan’s return on equity (ROE) soared from 20 per cent in FY09 to 41 per cent in FY13, thanks to stunning growth in net profit. Net debt had steadily decreased and there was plenty of cash on the balance sheet.

In some ways, Codan was among the more impressive Australian small-cap companies. It had become genuinely global and built a strong on-the-ground presence in difficult frontier markets. Its sales in the developing world have exceeded $100 million in each of the past five years.

Codan still looks well placed to benefit from long-term growth in emerging markets, and as the resource sector eventually recovers. Up to 13 million people worldwide are thought to participate in small-scale gold mining, and many still use traditional methods rather than high-tech metal detectors.

Frontier countries, by their nature, are unpredictable in the short term. Codan’s net profit after tax slumped to $4.8 million for the December 2013 half, from $26.5 million a year earlier. Falling demand for its metal detectors in the latter stages of FY13 spilled over into the first half of FY14.

Civil unrest in the Sudan, extreme weather conditions, counterfeiting of metal detectors, and general political instability in West Africa led to a 64 per cent fall in revenue in the metal-detection division to $32.9 million. Gold-detector sales fell an astonishing 80 per cent on a year earlier.

Lower profit margins compounded the sales woes. A strong second-hand market in metal detectors has emerged in Codan’s key African markets, reducing its ability to sell higher-margin new detectors. And it was caught holding far too much inventory, after not having had enough during its boom years.

Codan’s other divisions also slowed. Revenue in the radio communications business was to $23.6 million in the December half, from $32.3 million a year earlier. Sales of land mobile radio products, predominantly in the United States, were hurt by cuts in US Government spending.

Sales in the MineTec division slumped from $9.4 million to $2.4 million, year on year, as Codan transitioned from supplying traditional mining services to commercialising its own technology. On any measure, Codan’s earnings woes – flagged to the market in December – disappointed.

However investors cut it, the result was a bloodbath.

Codan has responded with $10 million in annual cost cuts, and other volume-related expense reductions. The big question is how much lasting damage has been done, and how quickly it can get its ROE – 7.8 per cent in the first half of FY14 – back to previous levels.

The company’s balance sheet has been weakened: total debt rose from $33.8 million in FY13 to $71 million in the latest half. Excluding cash and short-term investments, the net debt-to-equity ratio is 54 per cent – manageable, although heading towards higher risk.

Codan had $6.4 million in cash at December 31, 2013, from $8.6 million at the end of FY13. Although the $64 million in net borrowings are within its bank facility of $85 million, Codan arguably does not have much scope to withstand continued earnings shocks without additional debt or equity capital raisings. Gearing at 35 per cent in the first half of FY14 is moderate risk.

It is not all bad news. Codan has several new metal detectors due for release in FY14 and FY15, and says its radio communications division entered the second half of FY14 with its strongest order book in several years.

The MineTec business won an important tender to install its mine simulation software, which will provide proof of concept and a platform for further sales. Codan says MineTec is now successfully commercialising its technology in a highly competitive global industry.

Even so, Codan provided muted guidance in the outlook statement in its latest profit report: “Although sales have been softer during the past nine months, our baseline metal-detection business remains strong, and we remain confident of future growth as we continue to develop new market-leading products and extend our global reach, all supplemented by the upside of future gold rushes.”

Prospective investors might have hoped for more specific guidance on how Codan intends to arrest its earnings decline. In fairness, current volatility in the company’s core markets must make it hard to give more precise guidance.

Prospective investors need a high margin of safety to buy Codan, such is the risk of forecasting error (with only three forecasts in the consensus) and the potential for continued earnings volatility. None of its recent problems, notably civil unrest in parts of Africa, look like reversing anytime soon.

Lower expenditure by mining companies and government cutbacks, which affect the radio division, will linger for some time. The surprise could be continued gains in the gold price, which encourages more prospecting and leads to more gold discoveries, which in turn spurs metal-detector demand. But pinning ones hopes to the gold price is risky.

A better strategy is to watch and wait. It is hard to find a re-rating catalyst for Codan between now and the full-year result in August, and the first downgrade is rarely the last for micro-cap companies. A weaker gold price is a threat for its gold-detector sales.

More evidence is needed that Codan is arresting its sales decline, boosting ROE, and restoring market credibility. It said the ‘challenges presented by some of its markets makes it too difficult provide guidance at this time”.

Chartist will keep a close watch on the price action as Codan consolidates between 60-70 cents a share,

–    Tony Featherstone is a former managing editor of BRW and Shares magazines. This column does not imply stock recommendations. Readers should do further research of their own or talk to their adviser before acting on themes in this article. All prices and analysis at May 28, 2014.

 

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