Breaking, pre-open news — MER Telemanagement in near extremis

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Yesterday, after the close of the market, MER Telemanagment Solutions, an Israel based technology company whose equity is traded on Nasdaq, reported its fourth quarter and full year results for the company’s fiscal year 2013, and, frankly, in my opinion it is not looking good.

As the reader of this blog will know I have followed MER Telemanagement Solutions and its equity MTSL, for a while now, noting since the outset that the loss of the Simple Mobile contract constitutes a clear and present danger to the company and its shareholders. If you are new to this issue, you can start reading here and go backwards or you can use the nifty XREFs section to here.

Revenues and operating profit are down significantly year-over-year and net income was down $1 million to $1.4 year-over-year when accounting for a one time $1 million tax charge in the company’s fiscal year 2012.

The $1 million one-time charge in fiscal year 2012, which somewhat masks the enormous drop in net income in fiscal year 2013, was described in the company’s 20-F filing for the 2012 fiscal year:

Taxes on Income.

We recorded taxes on income of $736,000 for the year ended December 31, 2012, compared to taxes on income of $10,000 for the year ended December 31, 2011. Our taxes on income for the year ended December 31, 2012 are primarily attributable to a $1,050,000 charge related to the tax assessment from the Israeli tax authorities relating to an Israeli court’s decision with respect to our 1997 to 1999 tax years, net of a deferred tax asset recognition of $371,000 based on an estimate of future taxable profits and losses in the tax jurisdictions in which we operate, which is expected to be utilize in the foreseeable future. Our low level of taxes on income for the year ended December 31, 2011 is primarily attributable to the utilization of deferred tax assets by our subsidiary in Hong Kong and the state income taxes in the U.S.

Moreover, in the current earnings release the company confirmed that the fourth quarter marked the end of the revenue contribution from the all-important Simple Mobile contract, so, going forward, each fiscal quarter will have $900 thousand, or so, less in revenue and perhaps $450 thousand less in net income, which most probably will result in a loss in each quarter.

Also, with the loss of the contract revenue and its high margin there is now, I believe, a substantial risk that the company will be considered a PFIC by the IRS of the United States with serious tax implications for common shareholders in the United States. As the company wrote in its 20-F filing for its 2012 fiscal year:

We may in the future be classified as a passive foreign investment company, or PFIC, which will subject our U.S. investors to adverse tax rules.

Holders of our ordinary shares who are United States residents face income tax risks. There is a substantial risk that we may become a PFIC. Our treatment as a PFIC could result in a reduction in the after-tax return to the holders of our ordinary shares and would likely cause a reduction in the value of such shares. For U.S. Federal income tax purposes, we will be classified as a PFIC for any taxable year in which either (i) 75% or more of our gross income is passive income, or (ii) at least 50% of the average value of all of our assets for the taxable year produce or are held for the production of passive income. For this purpose, cash is considered to be an asset which produces passive income. As a result of our relatively substantial cash position at the time, we believe that we were a PFIC in certain periods over the last few years under a literal application of the asset test described above, which looks solely to the market value of our assets. We do not believe that we were a PFIC in 2012. If we are classified in the future as a PFIC for U.S. federal income tax purposes, highly complex rules would apply to U.S. Holders owning ordinary shares. Accordingly, you are urged to consult your tax advisors regarding the application of such rules.

The company’s earnings release contained no indications of cost-control measures or new deals, relying rather on the tired we-see-opportunities approach that we have seen from previous quarterly announcements and that I commented on in an earlier posting (here):

In fact, ever since the termination of the Simple Mobile contract was announced it has been clear that the company … is heading directly for exsanguination.

To avoid death, immediate action is needed on two simultaneous fronts: New sales and cost control.

The instinct in a tech company is to overcome a revenue crisis by bringing in new revenues. However, given the sales cycle time for enterprise software sales and the trailing revenue curves for managed services sales, the company’s areas of expertise, the pursuit of additional revenues alone is not going to solve the problem. Rather, the company has to immediately reduce its expenses while, at the same time, building up its sales effort.

Instead of addressing the situation heads-on in its first quarter earnings announcement, the company engaged in some sort of combined danse macabre and tap dance, which I certainly did not find reassuring.

It is hard to give the casual reader a sense of just how catastrophic the loss of the Simple Mobile contract coupled with the company refusal to reduce cost and it hell-bent pursuit of new business at great expense and risk is (read here about how bad it can get when you engage in what I consider to be reckless pursuit of new deals instead of buckling down down and controlling expenses,) but perhaps this table — greatly simplified and making sweeping assumptions where information is not available — can provide some insight:

(c) Per Jacobsen, 2013 and 2014. All rights reserved

(c) Per Jacobsen, 2013 and 2014. All rights reserved

As you can see, the Simple Mobile contract’s revenue and margin contribution was integral to the company’s performance and without it, the company will be hemorrhaging.

Acknowledging this imminent distress, which is now so obvious that no amount of voodoo or fancy leg-work will make it go away, the company closed its earnings announcement by stating that it is considering M&A options at this point, which I interpret to mean that either a fire-sale or a last-ditch clutching on to another company for buoyancy may be imminent. Either way, focusing on M&A — which, as we, know is associated with huge transaction costs and enormous risks — is bad news for the shareholders, I think.

The company did not offer any details about an upcoming earnings call in its earnings release.

Given the excessive — and completely unsubstantiated — speculative run-ups that have taken place over the last year (read more about this by starting here,) there is absolutely no way to predict what will happen to the per share price of MTSL in the very short run, but I am fairly certain that in the near and medium term, once whatever silly movement the market will make today and over the next week has completed its cycle, we will see another substantial drop in the per share price.

I would be remiss if I did not issue an early warning as well. Based on historic developments, I am fully expecting another SeekingAlpha article to arrive soon with unpredictable results (read about the previously published MTSL-centric SeekingAlpha article by Mr. Sujan Lahiri (here) — in my opinion, a prime example of bad research, wrong conclusions, and biased research aimed at generating a short-term run-up in the per share price of an equity.)

It appears that it is time to fire those emergency flares.

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