Short-sellers bring Venture Corp back down to earth

Venture Corp reported a 72 per cent year-on-year increase in first-quarter net income, but its results fell short of analyst expectations because sales were almost flat.
Venture Corp reported a 72 per cent year-on-year increase in first-quarter net income, but its results fell short of analyst expectations because sales were almost flat.PHOTO: VENTURE CORPORATION

Tech firm's meteoric rise hit by alleged links to tobacco firm and disappointing sales

After a spectacular rise for two years, Singapore's biggest technology company is suddenly returning to earth.

All eyes in the country's financial community have been on Venture Corp, an electronics stock that more than tripled since April 2016 to become - at one point - a US$6.5 billion (S$8.7 billion) firm.

So meteoric was its advance that Venture became the only technology firm listed on Singapore's blue-chip 30-member Straits Times Index.

Venture chief executive officer Wong Ngit Liong boosted his stake in 2016 - for the first time in many years - ahead of the stock rally.

Beyond that, analysts say, he has largely kept quiet about Venture's business.

Here is what we know about the company: It began as a contract manufacturer of electronic components in 1984. These days, it has expanded to provide services such as supply chain management and technical support for goods ranging from medical devices to communications equipment.

There were rumours of a big contract with Philip Morris International (PMI) for its heat-not-burn tobacco device IQOS. (Venture has not confirmed or denied a relationship with the cigarette giant).

All the while, an air of mystery surrounded the company, partly because Mr Wong gave little away about its customers.

Then came the fall.

The first blow was Philip Morris' earnings; the second, a short-seller attack.

Venture is too exposed to the tobacco company, which had reported disappointing sales growth, wrote an anonymous blogger or bloggers who went by the name Valiant Varriors in an April 24 report.

"They claimed that PMI makes up 30 per cent of Venture's revenue, which Venture did not answer or deny," said Mr Jarick Seet, head of small and mid-cap research at RHB Research Institute Singapore.

The company does not give much information on its business mainly due to its non-disclosure agreements, added the analyst, who retains a "buy" rating on the stock.

During Venture's first-quarter results briefing a day after the short report, Mr Wong told analysts to consider the source and intention of the note.

The company reported a 72 per cent year-on-year increase in first-quarter net income, but its results fell short of analyst expectations because sales were almost flat.

That, coupled with the short report and Philip Morris signalling that IQOS adoption in Japan had slowed, was enough to rattle the market.

The shares plunged 33 per cent over eight days.

But Mr Hugh Young of Aberdeen Standard Investments said he is not that worried about Venture's decline. His firm, which tends to be a long-term shareholder, has an almost 5 per cent stake, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Venture was "at the very least ripe for profit-taking", said Mr Young. Even though we don't know exactly how important IQOS is and why Venture is so prone to bear raids, "we still think it's OK", he added via e-mail.

Venture staged a comeback this week with a 12 per cent advance. This time, a group calling itself the "True Valiant Warriors" came out in defence of the company.

The company also stepped up its buybacks: Venture repurchased 109,000 shares from the market on Monday and 20,000 on Tuesday, according to filings to the Singapore Exchange.

Despite all the drama, Mr Nicholas Teo, a trading strategist at KGI Securities (Singapore), sounded a note of caution about being too caught up in the stock's movements. It's important to look beyond the daily swings, he said.

"Venture as a company has done really well, it's steady."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2018, with the headline 'Short-sellers bring Venture Corp back down to earth'. Print Edition | Subscribe