Last week we discussed China’s rising express delivery market and how it has grown together with China’s massive online retailers. As a quick recap, in 2016, online retail sales made up 14.30% of China’s overall retail sales and for the express delivery industry, it delivered 27.9bn parcels and generated overall revenues of US$59.8bn.
With China’s express delivery market expected to double in the next five years, everyone is vying to become the UPS or FedEx of China.
When we reviewed the economics of China’s top express delivery companies and compared their margins and profitability to the top US operators like UPS and FedEx, we came away with mixed feelings (see full discussion here). While we were very positive about the express delivery market’s overall growth, we are concerned that competition from new operators vying for market share would compress margins.
Crunching the balance sheetEmbed from Getty Images
After having some time to digest our initial thoughts, we are still scratching our heads. Something is missing. Why is there such a big divergence in valuation?
One could argue that the high PE ratio of SF Express and Best (net loss) was because of companies sacrificing near-term earnings for long-term market share. But in order to emerge from this fight, you need to either have (1) strong underlying cash flow or (2) a strong balance sheet to sustain you for the long haul.
A look at another conventional valuation metric, price-to-book, shows an even greater divergence. To me, the 3.1x-7.0x price-to-book ratio that ZTO, FedEx, STO and YTO are trading at would be within my range of expectations. But what about UPS at 81.6x and SF Express at 11.3x PB?
Although labour costs is a major component of the express business but there are also a lot of hard assets as well. What about the trucks, the planes, the computer systems, the conveyor belts, not to mention the drones?Embed from Getty Images
PPE make up 50% of US express company assets and only 13-28% for China
This is where we see one of the big differences between the US and China express companies. For UPS and FedEx, property, plant and equipment (PPE) was the largest component of their assets. Even after accumulated deprecation, PPE still made up around 50% of UPS and FedEx’s total assets. For the Chinese express companies, SF, ZTO and YTO have PPE around 26-28%. Best and STO’s PPE are only 13-15% of assets.
Since some companies sometimes classify their software as intangible assets, we further consider intangible assets and goodwill. Again, we see that UPS and FedEx are fairly close with intangible and goodwill making up around 14% of assets. Grouping PPE and intangibles together, we see that these make up around 65% of the US express companies’ asset base.
Need to buy more trucks and build more sorting facilities
For the China express companies, SF, ZTO and YTO are hovering around 39-45% but STO and Best are only around 20-22%. This suggest to me that if these companies want to institutionalize their business and expand their market share, more investments and capex is needed. They must buy more trucks, more planes, build more sorting facilities and build out their logistics network.Embed from Getty Images
On this basis, it is no surprise that SF Express and YTO have higher PPE and intangible assets. Their revenues have already started to scale.
Capital structures reflect the early stages of investment
For the China express sector, one silver lining is that they appear to have anticipated this need and have already tapped the capital markets. As of June 2017, four of the five China express companies are sitting on net cash. Although SF Express had US$73mn net debt, its 2% net-debt-to-equity ratio suggest there is lots of scope for it to borrow.
In comparison, given the relative maturity of FedEx and UPS business, their capital structure is optimised to boost ROEs.
Incumbents best positioned to become China’s UPS/FedEx
If we apply the filter of (1) normalised margins and (2) high PPE-intangibles, this would suggest that the two largest incumbent operators, SF Express and YTO, best resemble FedEx and UPS. That said, one would still have to decide whether the current PE ratios of 52.8x and 37.2x is too high a price to pay for that potential future.Embed from Getty Images