British education group, and the world's largest education company, Pearson PLC lost a quarter of its market cap in an instant this morning after it issued a dire warning about the state of the textbook business, cut profit forecast, and warned of an "unprecedented" decline in its North American business. It also put its stake in the iconic Penguin Random House book business for sale in a bid to raise cash, not long after selling the Financial Times to the Nikkei.
In an unscheduled update ahead of its full-year results in March, the former owner of the Financial Times said it was revising down its prior operating profit goal for 2017 and rebasing its dividend this year after a sharp slump in an arm of its American business. Pearson said its North American courseware market was “much weaker than expected”, with net revenues falling 30 per cent in the fourth quarter, taking the overall yearly decline to 18 per cent. Operating profit in 2017 will be 570 million pounds to 630 million pounds, the London-based company said in a statement, below the average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg of 702.9 million pounds. The world’s largest education company withdrew its profit goal for 2018 after sales of materials for U.S. higher education dropped 30 percent in the fourth quarter.
“Whereas we had previously anticipated a broadly stable North American higher education courseware market in 2017, we now assume that many of these downward pressures will continue”, the company said. Furthermore, while Pearson said it expected 2016 operating profit in line with guidance, it scrapped its 2018 profit goal.
Chief executive John Fallon said Pearson was taking “more radical action to accelerate our shift to digital models, and to keep reshaping our business”.
“The education sector is going through an unprecedented period of change and volatility. We have already taken significant steps on restructuring, reducing our cost base by £375m last year”, said Mr Fallon.
The stunned market reacted quickly, and the company lost about a quarter of its market cap in minutes at the start of Wednesday trading. The shares were then halted on volatility after continuing their decline as analysts peppered executives with questions about their business and the industry on a conference call that extended past an hour. The company’s enrollment projections were too aggressive, Chief Financial Officer Coram Williams said on a conference call. Pearson sank to 585.5 pence in early trading in London, cutting the company’s market value to 4.81 billion pounds ($5.9 billion)
Pearson's sudden capitulation contrasts with months of optimistic statements CEO John Fallon about the challenges Pearson faces in the U.S., where college enrollments and its testing business are down, and textbook sales unexpectedly declined, Bloomberg reports.
“It’s a difficult time for Pearson,” Fallon said on the call. The company is seeking to build a more sustainable and growing digital business, he said. “We’ll manage our balance sheet so we can sustain the company through this challenging transition.”
Despite record amount of student loans in the US, fewer older students are enrolling, community college admissions also are dropping, and more students are renting textbooks.
The company will also issue an exit notice over its 47% stake in publisher Random House to JV Bertelsmann, Europe’s largest media group by sales, “with a view to selling our stake or recapitalising the business and extracting a dividend”. The Penguin stake may raise as much as 1.2 billion pounds, according to Ian Whittaker, an analyst at Liberum Capital. Pearson will use it to strengthen its balance sheet and return excess capital to shareholders, the company said.
The dividend, which amounted to 52 pence a share for 2016, will be cut beginning this year to reflect the lower earnings guidance. The current dividend equals 6.4 percent of Pearson’s share price, the highest yield among companies in the U.K.’s benchmark FTSE-100 Index.
As Bloomberg adds, analysts have been questioning the health of Pearson’s education business since last year. Neil Campling, an analyst at Northern Trust Securities, called the announcement “the warning we’ve been expecting,” in a note on Wednesday. “The higher education business declined further and faster than the company expected in 2016 although in light of the plethora of negative data points we have highlighted throughout the year we are not surprised,” Campling wrote. “The North American higher-education courseware market essentially collapsed in the critical fourth-quarter back-to-school season.”
Pearson combined Penguin with Bertelsmann’s Random House in 2013, leaving the British company owning just under half of the venture, which publishes books from writers including John Grisham, Ken Follett and George R. R. Martin. In 2015, it generated revenue of 3.7 billion euros ($3.95 billion) and operating earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of 557 million euros.
Random House, the world’s largest book publisher. The German company is open to increasing its stake in the venture “provided the terms are fair,” CEO Thomas Rabe said in a statement. “Strategically this would not only strengthen one of our most important content businesses, it would also once further strengthen our presence in the United States, our second largest market,” Rabe said.
Pearson gets almost all its profit from education after already selling the Financial Times and its half of the Economist Group. The company announced a reorganization last year as it seeks to address sluggish demand in its main business.