Since the end of March, shares in the four listed UK bus operators – FirstGroup,
Growth rates in towns and cities across Scotland and the north of England, where the Aberdeen-based company generates 60 per cent of its bus passenger revenue, are "considerably lower" than elsewhere, and any revenue growth or cost savings will be nowhere near enough to offset fuel-price rises and lower government subsidies. The result is a forecast margin of just 8 per cent for 2013, substantially below City forecasts and at least 50 per cent lower than that of its peers.
Ahead of the recent round of trading updates from the sector, there was a real fear that FirstGroup's problems were symptomatic of a wider industry decline. Yet trading statements from rival companies suggest FirstGroup's issues are actually rooted in its own business and existed before current chief executive Tim O'Toole took over from 21-year veteran Sir Moir Lockhead 18 months ago. Indeed, the American inherited a large and disparate group, which is very different from his former stomping ground at London Underground.
Questions are now being asked, and unfavourable comparisons made, with strong management teams at rivals Stagecoach and Go-Ahead. One thing Mr O'Toole is accused of is failing to manage expectations as company guidance has too often proved wide of the mark. He should have "nailed expectations to the floor", one analyst said. He didn't, and confidence is at rock-bottom.
The same certainly can't be said for Stagecoach. Britain's most profitable bus company has just said every one of its divisions is "well placed" to at least maintain operating profit in 2013. Over the 48 weeks to 1 April, like-for-like UK bus revenue grew 2.7 per cent, which implies 3.2 per cent growth in the fourth quarter compared with 3 per cent in quarter three. After that reassurance, the shares have found their feet again and we think they should do well from here.
Go-Ahead's bus business is also performing well with regional bus revenue up 4 per cent in the three months to March. Yes, that was down from 5 per cent in the first half, although growth in fare-paying passenger numbers is easily offsetting lower income from concessionary travellers trapped indoors by bad weather this winter. That growth was matched by the regulated London routes where Go-Ahead is the largest operator. And, crucially, most of its 2,600 regional buses service "more vibrant" urban areas of the south-east. Only a quarter of regional buses operate in the north and, including its London operations, 90 per cent of the company's bus work is south of Oxford.
Success at what price?
But FirstGroup's problems aren't just about geography, they're about pricing too, and the company has always been an expensive operator. Karl Burns, an analyst at Shore Capital, estimates it was charging up to 25 per cent more than local rivals, including Stagecoach, following its disastrous fare increases in January. The backlash from passengers forced O’Toole to admit "the old-time religion (raising prices) definitely doesn't work". The new management team at UK Bus have much to do.
Of course, their eagerness to push through higher fares "to get us through" is understandable. It worked in the past and conditions are such that it had no choice but to try to repeat the trick. Indeed, a 20 per cent cut in the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG), announced in the government's 2010 Spending Review, has just kicked in, leaving bus operators millions of pounds short (see table) as a result. The rising cost of fuel, wage inflation and local authority funding cuts for concessionary fares will also strip them of valuable cash when they need it most.
Thankfully, other operators such as Stagecoach, Go-Ahead and National Express can make up at least part of the shortfall elsewhere. All plan fare increases of their own - Stagecoach has already put through a 5 per cent rise, so has National Express, and Go-Ahead will start charging an extra 4-8 per cent "over the next few weeks". Given that their fares were much lower than FirstGroup's to begin with, any increase is less likely to scare customers away.
Things might have been different had the exorbitant cost of motoring not forced growing numbers of drivers on to public transport. Rising petrol prices, insurance, road tax and repairs increased the expense of driving to work by 21 per cent last year, according to Green Flag, and fuel costs have risen to a record high. They go up by another 3p a litre in August, which puts dearer bus fares into some kind of perspective.
Yet operators in the London market face different challenges. Fixed contracts mean they lack the flexibility to increase ticket prices, which will affect margins. The flipside to this is that these deals carry less risk because Transport for London (TfL) pays up whether buses are full or not, but average return on capital is already about half that of the regional operations.
What's more, up until last year, bus operators received generous Quality Incentive Contracts payments (QICs), a bonus for better reliability and punctuality. They've been affected by TfL penny pinching, tougher targets and Olympics roadworks. Still, Go-Ahead, which makes about half its bus profits here, is winning more contracts than it's losing and can build price increases into tenders. It's also buying growth, recently snapping up FirstGroup's Tottenham depot. This, according to optimistic finance director Keith Down, could even cancel out the impact of funding cuts.
Mr Down may be right, but operators are becoming more inventive too in order to mitigate the headwinds. Smartcards are the big thing now and are being pushed out across deregulated fleets up and down the country. True, discounts to attract new customers will erode margins to start with, but locking travellers in with weekly, monthly and annual tickets - "customer stickiness" they call it - should increase usage and drive longer-term growth.
Bus companies will find it difficult to increase profits by much this year and next. If higher fares actually offset fuel cost increases, less government funding and squeezed household budgets, bosses will have every right to crow. Ironically, while concerns about transport companies' bus businesses have been driving prices down, it is the great unknown of rail franchise renewals that could prove the biggest influence on most companies' share prices this year. Stagecoach looks best placed to benefit and, despite its shares suffering least in the fallout from the FirstGroup warning, it looks like the best buying opportunity in the sector. National Express looks to have an outside chance, too, and any success here should generate upside given that the current share price pretty much factors in an exit from the rail industry. Mind the gap.
Bus headwinds for 2012-13
|FirstGroup (£m)||Go-Ahead (£m)||National Express (£m)||Stagecoach (£m)|
|Other cost inflation||18||9||5||11|
|As % of bus operating profit||36||40||42||23|
Source: Company data and Shore Capital Stockbrokers
by Douglas McNeill, transport analyst at Charles Stanley.
Britain’s bus usage hardly grew at all in 2011. This year may be better, but not everywhere. A north/south divide is emerging. True, fares increased last year, but mostly by less than inflation. The trick now is to get them up again to offset rising costs.FirstGroup (HOLD) looks unlikely to accomplish that. New-ish boss Tim O’Toole sees a danger of pricing his company out of the market, and has lost patience with some perennially underperforming regional units. They’ll be sold or closed, but it will be a year or more before the benefits are visible. Lower fares mean Stagecoach (REDUCE) is better placed, and it is seeing rapid growth in America from its Megabus intercity coach service, too. That venture is only a few years old, but is already firmly established in six major city-regions. The share price suggests it can repeat that success in several more.It may have northern roots, but Go-Ahead’s (ADD) bus portfolio is now firmly oriented towards the Home Counties and the south coast. It’s also big in London, a growth market in which regulation exerts a stabilising influence on margins. Indeed, both of the capital’s mayoral candidates, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, see the bus as a big part of the future. National Express (REDUCE) straddles the north-south divide, with most of its buses serving the economically-sluggish West Midlands. Still, margins are on the up thanks to a change of management two years ago, and the rest of the group is more geographically diversified, including big operations in America and Spain.