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  • A Bet on How Future Groceries Will Be Bagged
    Bloomberg

    A Bet on How Future Groceries Will Be Bagged

    (Bloomberg Opinion) -- Ocado Group Plc, the British online grocer that’s morphed into a technology company, has always been a jam tomorrow stock. Now it’s asking shareholders to wait not just for the jam but the full afternoon tea.The specialist in automating how supermarket orders are filled on Tuesday announced that its 2019 pre-tax loss jumped to 214.5 million pounds ($277 million), from a loss of 44.4 million pounds a year earlier. Part of this was due to a damaging fire at its Andover warehouse almost exactly a year ago, which was unfortunate but Ocado has coped well with the disruption.What’s more worrying for investors is the impact of investment in its burgeoning international division, which has been striking deals to operate the online grocery businesses of chains from the U.S. to France and Japan. While that’s a credit to Chief Executive Officer Tim Steiner, who has been knocking on retailers’ doors for the the past five years, it means Ocado has an awful lot to do — and pay for. Ocado’s international technology arm could be more lucrative in the future, but for now, it’s a drain on capital. Consequently, Ocado said expenditure would more than double this year to 600 million pounds. Take away the impact of the warehouse fire, and that leaves a balance of just over 500 million pounds for building state-of-the-art warehouses that are fully equipped to pack grocery orders with limited need for humans.The majority of this will be spent on getting its automated warehouses up and running for international customers, including Casino Guichard Perrachon SA in France, Canada’s Sobeys Inc. and the U.S. chain operator Kroger Co. Some of the expenditure will be offset by expected fees from its international clients of more than 100 million pounds, but most of it is a down payment on future income once the systems are fully up and running. That doesn’t leave much scope for any unexpected hiccups in the meantime.Until those warehouses are open, Ocado cannot recognize the international revenue, but it must incur the costs. That showed in its 2019 results. Ocado invoiced fees of 81.4 million pounds to its international partners, an increase of almost 40%. But revenue from this arm was less than 1 million pounds, while it made a loss before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization of 62.1 million pounds. For this year, Ocado forecasts international revenue of less than 10 million pounds. Warehouses for Casino and Sobeys will be open for only part of the period. In the meantime, Ocado must continue its heavy spending. It had 751 million pounds in the bank at the year end, thanks to its deal to sell half of its U.K. retail business to Marks & Spencer Group Plc. It also raised 600 million pounds through a convertible bond issue after the year end. The company says this gives it plenty of headroom. But with such an investment burden over the next few years — it has also signed a deal with Aeon Co. in Japan — further calls on shareholders can’t be ruled out.And let’s not forget challenges closer to home. In September, M&S will replace Waitrose as Ocado’s supplier for its U.K. online supermarket, a massive changeover with huge execution risk.For now, investors appear confident that once the different warehouses are operational the fees will start to flow into profit and cash flow. The shares have risen by a third in the past year. Ocado’s enterprise value is currently just over 4 times forward sales, even ahead of Amazon.com Inc., on just over 3 times.This looks divorced from the reality of both Ocado’s spending needs, and the long haul to generate a return on its investment.To contact the author of this story: Andrea Felsted at afelsted@bloomberg.netTo contact the editor responsible for this story: Melissa Pozsgay at mpozsgay@bloomberg.netThis column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.Andrea Felsted is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She previously worked at the Financial Times.For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com/opinionSubscribe now to stay ahead with the most trusted business news source.©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

  • Reuters - UK Focus

    Investors build war chests to buy bonds of distressed European companies

    Years into a bond market bull-run, investors are banking on a brighter future for funds that buy the debt of financially troubled European companies whose bonds are offering meatier returns because they are more risky. With European economic growth expected to be subdued in 2020, and default rates tipped to rise, investors expect an increase in the number of companies that will struggle to service their debt. Private equity groups and asset managers are creating so-called special situation funds to identify suitable targets for these high-risk - and potentially high-reward - bets.

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