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MARKET CLOSE: NZ shares gain; a2 jumps to 12-month high

MARKET CLOSE: NZ shares gain; a2 jumps to 12-month high as earnings outperform

By Paul McBeth

Feb. 20 (BusinessDesk) - New Zealand shares rose amid a flurry of company earnings. A2 Milk hit a 12-month high after beating analysts' expectations, while Spark New Zealand, Fletcher Building and Meridian Energy fell.

The S&P/NZX 50 index increased 25.18 points, or 0.3 percent, to 9,249.44. Within the index, 20 stocks rose, 26 fell, and four were unchanged. Turnover was $169.1 million, of which a2 accounted for $51.8 million.

Four of the country's 10 biggest listed companies reported first-half earnings with mixed results today. A2 came in ahead of forecast as it delivered a 55 percent increase in first-half profit with a 41 percent lift in sales. The stock jumped 10 percent to $14.22 on a volume of 3.7 million, compared to the 1.1 million 90-day average.

Matt Goodson, managing director at Salt Funds Management, said the result beat estimates on all lines, even with increased marketing expenditure.

"It looks like a very solid result and for the uber-bulls on it there were signs of progress in the very large American market with liquid milk," Goodson said. "It will obviously be loss-making for some time but they're really starting to grow volumes there."

A2 supplier Synlait Milk rose 4.2 percent to $9.99. Fonterra Shareholders' Fund units were unchanged at $4.62 after Fonterra said it plans to supply a2 in the 2019/20 season. Fonterra's closed farmer-traded shares fell 0.2 percent to $4.63.

In contrast to a2, Fletcher Building dropped 5.7 percent to $4.98, the biggest decline on the index, after posting a smaller decline in first-half earnings than predicted. The 5.1 million shares traded was more than its 1.6 million average.

Goodson said there are growing concerns about the company's business in Australian, where a sharp slowdown in the housing sector is expected to weigh. Some investors were also disappointed that Fletcher didn't signal a capital return from the sale of its Formica unit.

"The stock had a very strong run into it, but we're now seeing signs of an impact from the sharp Australian residential slowdown," he said. "There's always a concern about how to model the cycle and what does New Zealand look like in a year or two."

Spark was the most traded stock with 6 million shares trading hands, compared to its 3.9 million three-monthly average. The stock declined 3.4 percent to $3.895 after posting a 5.6 percent decline in first-half profit on the lack of dividend from Southern Cross Cable. Underlying earnings rose 7.2 percent as it widened margins after stripping out costs in its Quantum restructuring programme.

Goodson said Spark had been exceptionally strong leading into the result, benefiting from international investor demand for utilities, property stocks and telecommunications carriers. Benign central bank rate outlooks have boosted the attraction of stocks offering stable dividends.

That was the same experience for Meridian Energy, which fell 3.8 percent to $3.58 on a volume of 1.1 million shares. The country's biggest electricity generator reported record first-half earnings, but the performance of its Australian unit was below expectations, Goodson said.

Ebos Group decreased 1.4 percent to $21.65 on a busier than usual 76,000 shares. Its first-half profit slipped 4 percent on one-off costs from mergers and acquisitions, rationalising its warehouses, and redundancy payments.

Sky Network Television dropped 4 percent to $1.68, a new low, with a lighter than average 344,000 shares changing hands. The company reported a 20 percent decline in first-half earnings in long-serving chief executive John Fellet's swansong in charge of the once-dominant pay-TV operator.

Precinct Properties New Zealand fell 3.3 percent to $1.485 after completing a bookbuild for a $130 million placement to institutional investors at $1.48. The real estate investor will raise another $20 million in a retail offer and will use the funds to repay bank debt and fund some medium-term developments. Some 2.4 million shares changed hands, compared to its average of 754,000.

Heartland Group rose 2.3 percent on a volume of 2.4 million shares, compared to its 343,000 three-month average. Air New Zealand fell 0.8 percent to $2.65 on a volume of 1.7 million shares and Kiwi Property Group increased 0.7 percent to $1.42 on a volume of 1.2 million.

Investore Property increased 0.6 percent to $1.59 after declaring a third-quarter dividend of 1.935 cents per share, and affirmed annual dividend guidance of 7.6 cents. Manager Stride Property was unchanged at $1.95.

Outside the benchmark index, Maritime Marsden Holdings was unchanged at $5.25 after reporting a 16 percent decline in first-half profit on weaker cargo volumes through Northport, of which it owns half. Port of Tauranga rose 0.4 percent to $5.29, and South Port New Zealand was unchanged at $7.

Colonial Motor Co fell 1.1 percent to $8.10 after reporting a 9 percent decline in first-half profit as rising costs eroded margins. The board declared an unchanged interim dividend of 15 cents per share.

Tilt Renewables shares were halted, having last traded at $2.36. The company plans to raise A$260 million in a one-for-two accelerated entitlement offer at $1.75 a share, with cornerstone shareholders Infratil and Mercury NZ both committed to the transaction. Mercury fell 1.1 percent to $3.71 while Infratil was up 0.6 percent to $4.02.


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