Group Five collapse signals SA construction demise


South Africa’s construction industry is being demolished.

After 45 years of trading on Johannesburg’s stock exchange, Group Five’s stock was suspended on Tuesday after the company filed for bankruptcy protection, making it the fifth local builder to enter business rescue in less than a year.

From a peak market value of R8.2bn in 2007, it was worth less than R100m when the shares stopped trading.

While the construction industry is notoriously cyclical, the current mix of a depressed South African economy, high levels of national debt and low infrastructure spending is proving toxic as contracts dry up. At risk are thousands of jobs - including 8 000 at Group Five alone - in a country with an unemployment rate of above 27%.

"Those construction companies that are South Africa orientated have gone from bad to worse in the past 12 months," Marc Ter Mors, the head of equity research at Johannesburg-based SBG Securities, said by phone. "In South Africa, volumes are low, pricing is under pressure and companies are taking on more risk to win contracts, so margins are thin and that hits cash flow. There are no real segments to hide in."

Volatile markets

Group Five’s history demonstrates the group’s resilience in "several extremely volatile markets," the company still says on its website. Even so, it has "for some time been experiencing cash flow difficulties," it said on Tuesday.

Murray & Roberts saw the writing on the wall. Having built significant South African landmarks such as Johannesburg’s Carlton Centre, the continent’s tallest building, the company sold its building and infrastructure units in 2016 to focus on international businesses focused on projects such as underground mining and oil and gas.

While M&R’s market valuation is a fraction of what it once was, the stock has gained 44% in the past year amid takeover interest from 40% shareholder Aton GmbH.

The industry’s woes are a far cry from the build up to the FIFA Soccer World Cup in South Africa nine years ago, which required major national infrastructure spend, including on new stadiums.

However, that boom was cast in a dark light even before the tournament took place, when the Competition Commission started investigating collusion in the industry. The regulator settled with 15 firms in 2013, while Group Five was granted immunity for co-operation.

Government spending

While South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last month said government’s infrastructure spending had slowed, he also said the state will contribute R100bn into a fund over 10 years. The plan is to use this to get financing from both private and state-owned companies to reboot the industry.

In the meantime, the FTSE/JSE Africa Construction & Materials Index is down 27% in the past 12 months, compared to a 6% drop in the FTSE/JSE Africa All Shares Index. There is also risk that if South Africa’s local construction industry is wrecked, future building projects will become more expensive, Ter Mors said.

According to Ter Mors, as South Africa depletes its capacity to build its own infrastructure, when the cycle turns again, it will be forced to rely on international companies and their pricing.

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