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Saturday, June 6, 2009

E&O gearing up for next economic upturn

A handout image of Seri Tanjung Pinang project. E&O will be launching two new projects this year.

Eastern & Oriental Bhd (E&O) group is positioning itself to capitalise on opportunities in the next economic upturn including holding back launches to time for the upturn as well as raising capital that could be used to make opportunistic acquisitions.

The group’s RM200mil proposed 1-for-2 rights of irredeemable convertible secured loan stocks (ICSLS) 2009/2019 in late May is part of a two-pronged strategy to raise a total of RM500mil.

Executive director Eric Chan told StarBizWeek in an interview that the RM500mil would strengthen the company’s balance sheet in the next two to three years “by increasing cashflow and lowering gearing.”

The money will be used to fund developments, opportunistic acquisitions such as strategic acquisitions of landbank, and general working capital and repayment of financial obligations, etc.

The suddenness of the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009 had impacted E&O’s business and strategies Chan said.

Under current weaker conditions, the premium niche property developer is focused on “managing the balance sheet rather than being only profit and loss-driven”.

In addition to the RM200mil from the rights issue expected to be completed by August, RM300mil will be raised from the disposal of non-strategic landbanks and cash generated from new launches.

To date, it has also raised just under RM100mil from the disposal of what it considers to be non-strategic landbanks including a property in the Semantan area of Kuala Lumpur from the unwinding of a joint venture with Selangor Properties.

As part of its “value preservation” strategy, E&O has been holding off launches and will only put these developments worth RM4bil in gross development value (GDV) into the market when the economy and demand for high-end property recover.

In fact, the company had not launched aggressively in 2007 and 2008, which had shown in its 2009 financial results, given that there was an average two-year lag for the value of launches to be manifested in earnings, said Chan.

The group has announced an unaudited RM37.7mil net loss for the financial year ended March 31, 2009 (FY09) compared with a net profit of RM128.9mil for FY08.

“But the value of the developments are intact. They are deferred but not cancelled,” Chan said referring to the RM4bil GDV of held-back projects.

The RM4bil appears to be readily realisable when the market recovers.

“These are ready-to-market projects. We have acquired all the approvals,” he said, adding that approvals for property development launches could take about a year.

But the upturn may be sooner than expected.

The company expects to take two to three years to reduce the high gearing it has built up during the downturn. Meanwhile, it is launching two projects this year.

These projects are the 440-unit St Mary service apartments in Kuala Lumpur near the Weld next month and 1,000 units of Seri Tanjung Pinang condos in September. The company expects these projects to bring RM600mil into the company’s coffers.

The estimated RM200mil from the rights issue, by E&O’s calculations, will bring down the company’s gearing from 0.8 times to 0.46 times, while the RM300mil from landbank disposal and new launches will bring gearing down to a negligible 0.16 times.

HwangDBS Vickers which maintains a “hold” call on the counter in its latest report says of the two expected launches, “We expect the takeup to be slow due to high incoming supply of high-end condos especially around KLCC over the next two to three years.

“However, St Mary’s initial launch will likely be priced at an attractive RM800 per sq ft versus the KLCC secondary market price of RM800 to RM950 per sq ft, along with a 10/90 financing scheme.”

But at the same time, the research house has raised its FY10 and FY11 earnings forecasts of the company by 6% to 18% after factoring in stronger takeups with property sales showing signs of bottoming out on anecdotal evidence.

On the rights issue last month, HwangDBS says that E&O will have more working capital to resume launches in the second half of 2009 from the estimated RM2.4bil GDV, which should help to replenish dwindling unbilled sales at RM150mil currently.

The research house also opines that concerns about the company’s high gearing “will abate” and calculates that gearing will improve to 0.53 times from 0.83 times at present.

“The funds raised will also ease pressure to sell assets at distressed prices – E&O still hopes to raise RM300mil from the disposal of non-strategic landbank,” it says.

By The Star (by LOONG TSE MIN)

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