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PC Jeweller, Vakrangee And The Mystery Of The Missing Buybacks

BloombergQuintOpinion

In a May 10 meeting that lasted one hour ten minutes the board of PC Jeweller Ltd. approved a buyback of shares that would cost the company Rs 424 crore. A postal ballot notice was issued to shareholders which said the voting would close at 5 pm on July 13 with the vote outcome to be announced on July 14, on or before 5 pm.

Instead, on July 13 at 7:28 pm, the jewellery retailer informed stock exchanges in a terse two-line statement that its board had withdrawn the buyback proposal. The reason – non-receipt of a No Objection Certificate from its bankers.

The next day a more elaborate explanation was made available.

The Bankers appreciated the fact that the Company is keeping its commitment of reducing its interest cost as well as bank exposure made at the time of declaration of annual results. However, they recommended that for the current year the Company should continue to focus on growth and give priority to further reduce its interest expense to the maximum extent possible. Accordingly, they did not approve the proposal of Rs.424 crores of cash flowing out of the Company vide their-letter dated July, 2018 and have not given the required NOC to the Company for its buyback offer.”

On July 16, the first trading day since PC Jeweller made this announcement, the stock fell as much as 30 percent and now trades at Rs 78.

From Rs 500 to Rs 78 in 7 months.

With absolutely no change in government policy or business conditions.

The only problem – corporate governance. And it just got bigger.

Early Signs Of Trouble

PCJ’s problems began when the year did—thanks to a stray disclosure by another company, Vakrangee Ltd., that shows no external appearance of being connected to the jewellery company. But had bought Rs 112 crore worth of its stock, some 20 lakh shares amounting to 0.51 percent of PCJ’s equity. Vakrangee told BloombergQuint it was a treasury investment, PCJ was a business partner and hence it had “good visibility on longer term business potential” of the jewellery company.

Curiously, PCJ denied any business relationship with Vakrangee. Both companies’ stock prices took a tumble and haven’t stopped falling since. Vakrangee is down from a year-to-date peak price of Rs 500 to Rs 50.

Interestingly, Vakrangee too had expressed the intention to do a buyback of shares and then changed its mind, but more on that later.

A Question Of Cash And Curious Timing

Firstly, the timeline of PCJ’s buyback announcement is itself riddled with mystery. The company first informed the stock exchanges on Sunday April 29 that its board would meet on May 25 to consider

  • financial results for the quarter and year ended March 31,
  • recommendation of dividend,
  • and proposal for buyback.

Curiously, the next day the stock sank further, from the April 27 closing price of Rs 178 to Rs 145. Turns out, funds run by foreign investor Fidelity sold substantial portions of their stake in PCJ on April 27 and 30.

On May 2, the next trading day, the company’s share price dropped to Rs 110. And oddly started rising thereafter even as the company denied news reports suggesting it was being investigated by the Central Bureau of Investigation and that its managing director had been arrested.

On May 3 it closed at Rs 121. On May 4 it jumped to Rs 174.

On Saturday May 5, the company informed the exchanges that a separate board meeting to consider the buyback proposal will be held on May 10, earlier than the previously announced date of May 25.

The next trading day, May 7, the stock hit Rs 240 but has never recovered to that level since.

PC Jeweller, Vakrangee And The Mystery Of The Missing Buybacks

PCJ’s buyback offer was for upto 1.21 crore shares or 3.07 percent of the total paid-up equity share capital at Rs 350 per share.

As per company law, a buyback of shares can be done only by using free reserves and funds in the securities premium account.

As of March 31, 2018, PCJ has free reserves of Rs 1,556 crore and another Rs 943 crore in the securities premium account.

More than enough to cover the Rs 424 crore cost of the buyback.

And, yet, the company claims its bankers said no, urging it instead to pay down debt and reduce interest cost.

Interestingly, PCJ’s non-current liabilities show a borrowing of Rs 29.5 crore and another Rs 1,025 crore under current liabilities. That’s total outstanding loans of Rs 1,054.5 crore at the end of financial year 2017-18.

To be sure, that’s substantially higher than the amount reported in the previous year of Rs 691.7 crore. And yet, if all loans were to be paid back in full and the buyback funded, it would cost the company Rs 1,478.5 crore. That’s less than the Rs 2,499 crore it has in free reserves and securities premium.

Maybe the bankers, unnamed by the company, were just being cautious at a time of mounting non-performing assets.

Maybe the bankers were worried about the Rs 3,622 crore in trade payables for FY18. That’s a third almost of its Rs 9,706.5 crore revenue for the year.

  • Trade Receivable: Rs 1851.3 crore
  • Trade Payables: Rs 3622.25 crore

Or maybe the 1:1 bonus issued in July last year was enough shareholder reward, they thought.

None of this explains why it took these unidentified bankers two months to disapprove the buyback. It’s also rather strange that they waited till just after the shareholder vote closed to say no.

Or did they reject the buyback earlier on but PCJ didn’t disclose it?

The Vakrangee Story

Running parallely to this PCJ saga is the story of Vakrangee, a retail company of sorts.

On February 12, Vakrangee informed shareholders of a new capital allocation plan approved by its board in a meeting that day. It said it had Rs 1,372 crore in available cash (as of December 31, 2017) of which it intended to invest Rs 122 crore in the business, spend Rs 250 crore on dividend and allocate another Rs 1,000 crore towards a buyback of shares.

Vakrangee also stated, in a detailed presentation filed with the stock exchanges, that its long term policy hereon would be to allocate two-thirds of capital towards dividend payout and share buyback.

The announcement boosted the stock.

Now remember, the Vakrangee stock price had fallen from a high of Rs 505 on January 25, to Rs 200 on February 9, the last trading day before the new capital allocation policy was announced. By February 16 the stock had climbed to Rs 245. But the buyback cheer didn’t last for long and it dipped back to Rs 154 by the beginning of March. Another spurt took it back to Rs 285 after which the share price has only moved southwards.

PC Jeweller, Vakrangee And The Mystery Of The Missing Buybacks

On April 28, Vakrangee informed stock exchanges that its auditor, Price Waterhouse, had resigned. The filings offered no explanation for the decision even though it came just days before the annual results were to be finalised. Later, BloombergQuint reported the auditor resignation was due to the absence of “adequate and relevant information and explanations” regarding the company’s “Election Books, bullion and jewellery businesses”.

To date, Vakrangee has not addressed these issues. But it did find itself a new auditor by May 5, who within a month of being appointed finished reviewing the full year’s accounts and issued an unqualified audit report.

Curiously, when it announced its full year earnings on June 14, Vakrangee disclosed the death of its legacy business segment, e-governance. The same segment PW had raised questions about. It also snuck in a new capital allocation policy.

Also read: Government To Probe Auditor Resignations At Listed Indian Firms

Gone was the promise of dividend payout and buyback. Instead now the company wanted to revamp its 45,000 retail outlets or Vakrangee Kendras and install an ATM in each at a capital investment of Rs 900 crore. The 2020 goal is 75,000 Kendras, each with an ATM.

Just by the way, India has a total 2,10,312 ATMs across all banks, across the country, according to RBI May 2018 data.

The country’s largest bank, State Bank of India, has 59,333 ATMs. Vakrangee is set to beat ’em all.

So, in February, Vakrangee promised to return Rs 1,250 crore to shareholders and in June it changed its mind. Its ‘non-business partner’ PC Jeweller decided to do a Rs 424 crore buyback in May and two months later said bankers didn’t approve.

Shares of both companies are now worth 90 percent less than in January.

Their word... worth 0.

Menaka Doshi is Managing Editor at BloombergQuint.