3 Things To Loathe About Marks and Spencer Group Plc


There are things to love and loathe about most companies. Today, I'm going to tell you about three things to loathe about Marks and Spencer Group (LSE: MKS).

I'll also be asking whether these negative factors make this FTSE 100 high-street icon a poor investment today.

Dividend double dip

M&S has been obliged to slash its dividend twice since the turn of the millennium: by 37.5% on the first occasion and by 33% on the second. The company has also failed to increase its dividend for the last three years.

Much of a shareholder's return comes from the compounding effect of reinvesting dividends. M&S's shareholders could have seen a much superior return from dozens of other top British companies.

Clothing and homeware

M&S's revenue is split broadly 50:50 between food and clothing/homeware. As the table below shows declining sales in UK clothing and homeware have been a thorn in the company's side for a considerable time.

Q1 2012Q2 2012Q3 2012Q4 2012Q1 2013Q2 2013Q3 2013Q4 2013
UK clothes sales (%)+0.9-1.1+1.1-0.3-5.0+0.2-2.1-2.6
UK home sales (%)-5.4-9.2-13.3-7.5-6.1-1.4-2.5+1.4

The 2013 numbers are poor -- but they look even poorer against the weak comparatives of 2012. M&S has its work cut out to inject growth back into the clothing/homeware half of its business.

Wallets closed

There have been no major purchases of M&S shares by directors for two years. Indeed, according to the Financial Times, directors have sold an average of 7,600 shares during each of the last 36 months.

If the directors are unwilling to buy shares in their own company, how much faith can investors have in M&S delivering compelling shareholder value?

A poor investment?

Despite the negatives, the market has begun to warm to M&S. The shares have risen 28% over the past three months, including a 6% leap last week on the day the company announced its annual results.

I think the market liked the outlook statement in the results, particularly the bit that went: "We expect a material improvement in free cash flow from 2014/15, and will at this point evaluate future uses of cash, with a view to delivering improved shareholder returns".

At a current share price of 470p, M&S is trading on about 14 times forecast earnings for the year to March 2014, and offers a possible forward dividend yield of 3.7%. Those metrics are a bit more attractive from a 'value' perspective than the market as a whole, but I think I would like to see them a lot more attractive, given the company's chequered history of delivering shareholder value.

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