An eventful Q1

Financial Article 532 by Edward Rizzo - Apr 05, 2018

The first quarter of the year is already over and today’s article will review the main developments across the local equity market during the past three months. At the start of the year, the main focus among many local financial market practitioners was the impact of the new requirements and procedures following the introduction of MiFID II across capital markets throughout Europe. While the new requirements and procedures directly impact both the investment services providers as well as investors and getting accustomed to the numerous changes will take time, one of the evident changes across the local equity market was the amendment in the tick sizes which I had explained in one of my articles in January.

The market seems to have now adapted to the tick size regime and investors’ attention quickly moved away from the regulatory changes taking place towards the developments across the various companies. It was a rather eventful first quarter of the year with various important announcements in addition to the start of the annual reporting season. Generally, the financial statements published so far were particularly encouraging with strong financial performances reflecting the robust dynamics of the local economy. This translated into a notable increase in dividend recommendations by four companies in particular, namely HSBC Bank Malta plc, GO plc, Mapfre Middlesea plc and Malita Investments plc.

Lombard Bank Malta plc and GlobalCapital plc dominated the headlines in recent weeks. It was initially reported in the media that Malta’s National Social and Development Fund was seeking to purchase the 49.01% shareholding in Lombard Bank currently held by the Special Administrator of Cyprus Popular Bank. GlobalCapital plc then surprised the market when it announced that it placed a bid for this sizeable shareholding in Lombard. Given GlobalCapital’s 5.54% stake already held in Lombard, should this have materialized, it would have resulted in a takeover bid by GlobalCapital for all of the shares in the bank. However, barely 24 hours after the announcement by GlobalCapital, it was then revealed that the private equity fund that had been intimated to have been backing GlobalCapital’s bid was not involved in the bidding process. Following a very eventful week, on 16 March 2018 an official announcement confirmed that the National Development and Social Fund had signed an agreement with the Special Administrator for the purchase of the 49.01% shareholding. Although this transaction is still subject to regulatory approvals, the pricing terms have not been disclosed to the market leaving shareholders in the dark on the actual price of the eventual transfer of shares should the regulators approve the transfer of shares. On the other hand, however, the National Development and Social Fund indicated that its 49.01% acquisition of Lombard is based on a number of principles, namely: that it does not intend to increase its holding in Lombard any further; that it shall not act in concert with any other shareholders; that it will seek to reduce its shareholding in Lombard in an orderly manner and by agreement with the regulatory authorities; that it has no intention of exerting any influence on the operations of the bank; and that the acquisition will not result in a change in control of Lombard.

GlobalCapital was again in the news shortly afterwards when it announced that it will be seeking regulatory approval in April for a €6 million rights issue. This again surprised the minority shareholders of GlobalCapital since on 28 December 2017, the company had announced that it was postponing its intention of conducting a rights issue of an amount of shares not exceeding €15 million in nominal value amid a redefinition of the company’s business strategy during the first half of 2018 in the context of its plans to strengthen its position in the local insurance market and to passport its insurance products in other EU jurisdictions, while at the same time preparing itself for the implementation of the Insurance Distribution Directive.

Another rights issue taking place is that of FIMBank plc. The USD115 million rights issue was approved on 23 March and shareholders have until 18 April 2018 to exercise their entitlement of 2 new shares for every 3 shares held at a price of USD0.55. In this respect, the two principal shareholders of FIMBank – Burgan Bank S.A.K. and United Gulf Holdings Company B.S.C. – committed themselves to exercise their right to subscribe to the new shares. Moreover, United Gulf Holding Company B.S.C. is also undertaking to underwrite up to USD105 million of the overall rights issue.

The approval by the Planning Authority of the master plan of Malta International Airport plc was another noteworthy development during the first quarter of the year. This approval was announced on 22 February shortly after the airport operator had published its 2017 financial statements showing a record pre-tax profit of €37.6 million.

PG’s acquisition of the United Macaroni Factory in Qormi and the listing of the shares of Trident Estates plc were other notable developments during the first quarter of 2018.

However, the most unexpected announcements were issued by Bank of Valletta plc. On Monday 26 March, BOV announced that it had been informed by UniCredit S.p.A., the second largest shareholder in BOV with a remaining stake of 10.001%, that it intended to dispose of its total shareholding in BOV to an investor that had already been identified. Since UniCredit had not taken up its rights entitlement at the time of the rights issue late last year, its stake in BOV had been diluted to 11.64%. As such, in recent weeks, UniCredit indirectly confirmed that it had already disposed of 1.64% of the overall bank’s share capital in the market. However, the day after the announcement by UniCredit, BOV informed the market that it received notice of a precautionary warrant by an Italian Tribunal for €363 million. Meanwhile, a few days earlier, BOV had issued its 15-month financial statements showing a pre-tax profit of €175 million. Although the Bank reiterated that it has a strong legal case and is appealing the precautionary warrant and that it is firmly rebutting the claims instituted against it before an Italian Tribunal, this news negatively impacted the share price as it slipped by 3.2% from €1.86 prior to the announcement related to the precautionary warrant to €1.80. The share price had previously traded up to the €1.90 level in anticipation of the 2017 financial statements.

Notwithstanding that the equity of BOV ended the quarter flat, the decline in BOV’s share price during the final week of March dampened the Q1 performance of the overall equity market. Since BOV is the largest component of the MSE with a market capitalization approaching €1 billion, movements in BOV’s share price have a larger impact on the equity indices compared to movements in other equities. In fact, on 26 March 2018, the MSE Equity Price Index had reached a 2018 high of 4,539.833 points, representing a gain of 0.68% since the start of the year. However, following the drop in the share price of BOV, coupled with the declines in GO and RS2 during the final week of March, the MSE Equity Price Index ended Q1 at 4,474.087 points (-0.77%). On the other hand, HSBC and MIA performed positively during the first quarter each advancing by 4.3%. On the other hand, following the strong dividend increases by various companies, the MSE Total Return Index had a superior performance with a rise of 0.1%.

The top gainer during the past three months was Trident Estates followed by Mapfre Middlesea. Volumes in both equities were relatively weak compared to most other equities. On the other hand, five equities suffered double-digit losses. The worst performer was Simonds Farsons Cisk plc with a decline of 18.4%. Despite the fact that the cut-off date prior to the spin-off of Trident Estates plc was in early December 2017, the adjustment in the share price continued to take place over recent months even following the listing of Trident Estates. Farsons will shortly be publishing its annual financial statements for the financial year to 31 January 2018. The other equities showing double-digit losses were Tigne’ Mall plc (-12.8%), Medserv plc (-12.6%) as well as FIMBank plc and MaltaPost plc as both each declined by -12.3%. However, the drops in Tigne’ Mall and Medserv must also be seen in the context of the sudden upturn in the company’s share prices during the final trading session of 2017. In fact, on 29 December 2017, the equities had climbed by 8.9% and 10.4% respectively. Tigne Mall’s annual financial statements will be published on 25 April 2018.

Overall market trading activity improved by 19.8% over the first quarter of last year to €23.3 million. BOV was once again the most actively traded equity as it accounted for 42.5% of the value of trades in the past three months. A total of 5.47 million shares in BOV traded. The other most active equities were HSBC (accounting for 9.2% of the overall value of trades), MIA (8.8%), GO (6.6%) and RS2 (6.5%).

In the next few weeks, the annual reporting season will come to an end with the publication of financial statements by a further seven companies. While the announcements by each of these companies will be closely monitored by financial analysts and investors, sentiment may continue to be dominated by recent developments at BOV and any further announcements that may be issued in this respect. Moreover, following the publication of the indicative listing calendar on 1 February 2018, we are likely to experience a new entrant to the equity list of the regulated main market during the second quarter of the year.

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