Li & Fung rules out big buyouts amid sluggish consumer spending growth

Global sourcing firm to focus on existing assets amid sluggish growth in consumer spending

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 12:27am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 4:44pm

Global sourcing and distribution giant Li & Fung plans to make no major acquisitions in the coming three years, focusing instead on making more money from existing assets in the face of sluggish growth in worldwide consumer spending, chairman William Fung Kwok-lun said.

Early indications from the firm's most recent efforts to consolidate a slew of acquisitions made in the past six years could deliver profits for the second half of last year that beat analysts' expectations, Fung told the South China Morning Post.

"The plan we will be sharing in March with people will basically be saying that it is really without any huge thinking about acquisitions," he said ahead of a blackout period that begins later this month before the release of the company's annual results in March and the publication of its next three-year business plan to 2016.

"There will always be some good pop-up opportunities here and there, but if there is something that is really good coming along, we will tell investors. Say there is something big coming along and we want to raise money, but then you be the judge at that time whether you like it or don't like it. But we are not making it an integral part of the plan."

Investors are clearly cautious on Li & Fung, the world's largest supplier of goods to global retailers including Wal-Mart, after being badly disappointed in 2012.

Operating profits sank 42 per cent year on year after the management stuck to ambitious targets in the face of a deteriorating backdrop for the global economy and negligible growth in the consumer spending on which the firm's business depends.

"A lot of people criticise us for our acquisitions strategy. They say we are just acquiring earnings," Fung said. "But I know that if I buy a company for earnings but I can't make that company grow, it will be a drag on my earnings."

The consensus forecast for Li & Fung's operating profit last year is US$815 million, according to data from Bloomberg.

Li & Fung, meanwhile, has pledged to return to the 2011 level of profitability this year - US$882 million. Delivering on that promise and growing profits beyond that level will hinge on squeezing growth from acquisitions timed to tap into a growth recovery that has yet to fully materialise.

"We don't have the final, final numbers, nor do we have the audited numbers, but we are pretty sure that is strong compared to 2012," Fung said of the second-half performance.

"In absolute terms, it is strong compared to what happened to us in 2012 and maybe strong compared to market expectations. The market has been pretty reserved about what we are able to do."

The company's share price has bounced about 12 per cent from its December 12 close of HK$9.47 - its lowest since April 22, 2009 - mostly on the back of a statement last week in which it described performance at the end of last year as "solid" and that it would create a vendor support services business unit under Fung's leadership to drive competitiveness in the 15,000 factories it works with.

But despite that solid end to the past three-year plan, the outlook at the start of the new plan for a spurt in global goods trade that would fuel Li & Fung's profit growth remains uncertain.

"In 2014 and beyond, when you look at trade, I think we need to see a more robust recovery of the real American economy, which is really consumer spending, So I am keeping my eye on consumer spending," Fung said, adding that he was similarly cautious about Europe, Japan and China - the four big economies that drive consumer spending.

"America at least is on a growth trajectory, although slow. I think for Europe the question mark is still there, although some places have surprised," he said. "We expect that in the next three years, and we are preparing for it, that it will be slow, but OK. At least the direction will be up. We don't see any dramatic downs, at least not on the scale that we saw in the financial crisis."