ABC’s few remaining shareholder are holding their breath as the company calculates exactly how much its assets are worth. ABC shares were placed in a trading halt last Thursday, with the company expected to resume trading tomorrow after it announces its full year profit result. Even before the trading halt things weren’t all peachy at ABC. Twice in the last four months the company has announced significant losses — first in April and then again in July. Most recently, ABC said that it would declare a $437 million loss for the 2008 Financial Year.

The full horror of ABC’s July write-down is best displayed when compared to ABC’s profit history. Since listing in 2002, ABC has made total profits of around $300 million (although a chunk of those profits are highly questionable). That means even before the upcoming announcement the company has announced write-off’s this year which exceed all previous profits by more than $100 million.

That’s right — since it listed on the ASX more than six years ago, ABC has never made a cent. In fact, it has been a money losing machine, raising money from shareholders and debt-holders and blowing it on terrible international acquisitions as well as overpaying for local centers.

But there’s more. It is believed that ABC’s new auditors, Ernst & Young, aren’t quite as understanding as the gentle folk down at the Pitcher Partners Brisbane office, with tomorrow’s results expecting to bring yet another loss and possible earnings restatement. Nabila Ahmed and James Chessell wrote in today’s Financial Review that “shareholders have urged ABC to write down as many of its assets as possible — some have speculated on a further $200 million in a bid to clear the decks.”

However, we suspect those shareholders are being kind — $200 million certainly won’t be clearing anything.

ABC currently holds $3.05 billion worth of intangible assets on its balance sheet. Accounting standards specify that an intangible asset shall be recognised if “it is probable that the expected future economic benefits that are attributable to the asset will flow to the entity.” Given that ABC has never made a profit from childcare, it would appear that claiming its childcare licenses are worth $3 billion is a bit of a stretch. One suspects claiming the licenses are worth $1 billion is also a stretch, but don’t expect a $2 billion write-off just yet.

But don’t believe us. In its most recent published financials, ABC claimed to have net assets of $2.2 billion. ABC’s current market capitalisation (which is what the market effectively thinks ABC’s net assets are worth) is $222 million – a difference of two billion.

It should be noted that ABC’s remaining shareholders aren’t the only ones affected, with ABC’s woes reaping havoc on two small trusts which are managed by Austock. As Crikey has pointed out as far back as February, Austock appears to be in a spot of bother, largely reliant on ABC Learning for investment banking, underwriting and fund management revenues (since then, Austock shares have slumped by almost 70%). The Australian Education Trust, which is managed by Austock, and whose assets consist largely of properties leased to ABC, slumped by more than 18% yesterday (to only 49 cents). The Trust was trading at $1.80 less than a year ago.

What’s more, ABC’s webpage, www.childcare.com.au has been down for the last 18 hours — perhaps they couldn’t afford to pay the web host.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

 

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW