Is plummeting Countrywide plc a fantastic bargain or falling knife to avoid?

The Countrywide plc (LSE: CWD) share price started the morning trading session down more than 20% to 70.5p before recovering to 86.8p by press time. While the company's 2017 results were truly awful, should investors view this plunging share price as an opportunity or value trap in the making?

Before I take a swing at answering that question, it's worth taking a closer look at what Countrywide's management itself decided to call a "disappointing year" at the very beginning of its results document.

Revenue for the year dropped 8.8% to £671.9m, underlying profits more than halved to £19.5m, and thanks to £225.9m in write downs, the group posted a statutory loss of £208.1m. With this type of performance in mind, its easy to understand why its CEO left in January following a profit warning and a new executive chairman has been brought in, with a sweeping business model overhaul in mind.

His new business model of getting "back to basics" may be a bit boring -- after all, it just means supporting local estate agents to sell and let homes. But it does make a good bit of sense as the previous management team seems to have lost focus on that core part of the business.

However, I can't say I'd recommend investing in Countrywide at this point in time. Although the group is still cash generative, it has plenty of problems ranging from a weak sales pipeline for 2018 (that has already caused a downward guidance revision for H1) to net debt rising to 2.97x EBITDA, well above management's 1.5x-2x target.

And on top of these internal issues there are industry-wide headwinds such as high levels of economic uncertainty and, more worryingly, the rise of upstart, fixed-fee, online estate agents that are making traditional operators look like overpriced dinosaurs in the eyes of many consumers.

With these issues in mind and a weakening financial state, I'll be steering well clear of Countrywide until the new management team is in place and able to point to concrete success in turning the struggling business around.

A possible bargain?

Another struggling company that may appeal to contrarians is Next (LSE: NXT). The FTSE 100 clothing retailer has had a tough time of late as falling footfall on high streets, stagnant wage growth and more rapidly shifting fashion trends have caught the once-pioneering firm flat footed.

There's good news too. Next sports a low valuation, has a still-growing online business, is comfortably levered with net debt of £861m expected at year-end, and its operations are kicking off enough free cash flow to sustain a large share buyback programme, in tandem with a dividend that yields 3.3%.

That said, these positives aren't enough for me to overlook management recently issuing weak forward guidance, a business that is probably encumbered with too many physical outlets and a management team that appears no closer than rivals to figuring out how to compete with both e-commerce giants and fast fashion retailers that are siphoning away its customer base.

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Ian Pierce has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

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