SPH posts first net loss of $83.7 million amid the Covid-19 pandemic

The group remains operationally profitable at $110.2 million. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) posted its first ever net loss as it took a hit from the coronavirus pandemic.

SPH reported a net loss of $83.7 million for the year that ended on Aug 31, reversing the net profit of $213.2 million a year ago as Covid-19 severely disrupted all business segments, it said on Tuesday (Oct 13).

But the group remains operationally profitable at $110.2 million.

On the other hand, losses in non-cash fair value of $232 million for investment properties, such as the retail and purpose-built student accommodation (PBSA), accounted for the net loss.

The property valuation of the retail malls was reduced by $196.5 million and the PBSA assets by $31.9 million.

The main impact of the coronavirus pandemic was partially cushioned by $68.5 million worth of Government grants, such as the Jobs Support Scheme, SPH noted.

Overall operating revenue declined $93.6 million or 9.8 per cent to $865.7 million, on the back of the 31.4 per cent decline in media advertisement revenue.

The fall in advertising revenue hit the media business hard, as the segment posted a loss before taxation of $11.4 million, compared with the profit of $54.7 million for the previous financial year. This loss takes into account retrenchment costs of $16.6 million.

Revenue for the media business also fell, by 22.8 per cent to $445.1 million. This was largely due to a decline of 32.9 per cent or $99.1 million in newspaper print advertisement revenue, as Covid-19 intensified the structural decline in the advertising sector, SPH said.

But circulation revenue held steady, supported by the 52.5 per cent increase in daily average newspaper digital sales of 130,598 copies, said SPH, which publishes The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao, among others. The growth in news tablet subscriptions also partly compensated for the 12.6 per cent drop in print copies.

SPH said the media continues its digital transformation, with a 91 per cent growth in overall digital audience from June 23 to July 11. Digital circulation also increased by 52.5 per cent in the financial year.

The property segment also saw a rise in revenue, by 10.3 per cent to $327.2 million, boosted by the acquisition of Westfield Marion and the Student Castle portfolio despite the Covid-19 impact.

Revenue from the retail malls was also lifted by Westfield Marion but rental waivers of $33.8 million to tenants in Singapore eroded the gains.

Revenue from the PBSA portfolio grew strongly by 60.6 per cent or $22.1 million due to the Student Castle portfolio and a full year's revenue from the acquisitions made in the 2019 financial year.

SPH now owns 7,723 beds across 18 cities in the United Kingdom and Germany.

The Woodleigh Residences, which is being developed by SPH and its joint venture partner Kajima Development, has also seen 56 per cent of units sold.

However, with the fair valuation loss on investment properties, the property segment turned negative with a loss before taxation of $75.8 million.

Revenue from other channels grew by 8.7 per cent to $93.3 million, due to higher sales of personal protective equipment at the aged care business.

The segment also posted a pre-tax profit of $1.9 million partly due to the divestment gain on Media Centre of $25.7 million.

SPH had earlier announced plans in June to develop and operate data centre facilities at its former Media Centre premises at Genting Lane, in a joint venture with two Keppel Corporation subsidiaries.

SPH chief executive Ng Yat Chung said: "All our major business segments were severely disrupted by Covid-19. Our media business is badly affected by the collapse in advertising.

"However, the 9.4 per cent growth in circulation numbers from the success of our news tablet digital product and higher readership is a bright spot. We are intensifying our digitalisation efforts to transform the news content business in response to evolving demands from our audience."

He added: "We will continue to take a prudent and disciplined approach to liquidity and capital management to weather the Covid-19 crisis with all our stakeholders."

Disciplined cost management saw staff costs easing 1.5 per cent based on a lower headcount and reduced bonus provision. Costs of newsprint and materials were trimmed 11.2 per cent.

But total costs were 6.8 per cent higher, partly due to the increased operational costs of running the expanded real estate investment trust (Reit) and PBSA portfolio, with property tax rebates passed onto tenants and retrenchment costs.

SPH directors proposed a final dividend of 1 cent per share. Subject to shareholders' approval, these dividends are expected to be paid on Dec 18. Together with the interim dividend of 1.5 cents, the total dividend payout for this year will be 2.5 cents.

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