Tesco on Thursday trumpeted a market-leading performance over the Christmas period. Its success at bagging online sales, up 80 per cent in the 19 weeks to January 9, might have caught the eye. But sluggish growth looks set to return for Tesco once it returns some extra cash to shareholders.
The retailer has some work to do keeping their attention. Among locally listed rivals, Sainsbury’s is winning over investors: its share price has outpaced Tesco’s since September.
Booker, the wholesaler Tesco bought back in 2017, proved a deadweight during Christmas trading. While higher margin sales to convenience stores is a plus, closure of restaurants hit its catering side. Overall, like-for-like trading at Booker — responsible for more than a tenth of group sales — fell more than 8 per cent during the festive period. Including a flat third-quarter performance, like-for-like sales shrank 2.5 per cent over the 19 weeks.
Acquiring Booker refocused Tesco on its domestic business, strengthening its distribution chain. Its Thai and Malaysian units were sold last March for an enterprise value of £8.2bn. Not that this unit was doing badly, or lacked scale, notes Barclays. Asia earned decent profits. Operating margins of 8 per cent doubled that of the UK and Ireland, using S&P data. Already, Thai competition watchdogs moan that local buyer Charoen Pokphand has grown too large.
Tesco felt that its shareholders preferred the cash themselves. It plans to spend £5bn on buying back shares, with another chunk going to reduce the pension deficit. Net debt (excluding Tesco Bank) is currently roughly three times forward ebitda; that ratio may drop down towards 2.5 times.
But once sale proceeds are distributed, Tesco simply returns to fighting old battles with German discounters Aldi and Lidl. Indeed, Tesco proudly touts its Aldi Price Match strategy. One senses that the profitability rebound — operating margins have doubled since 2017 — has played itself out. In that context, a share price which has gone nowhere during that time makes sense.
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