Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Near Monopoly Part 2

To illustrate Pt 4 and 5 of the previous post, we look at a Singapore company: SMRT. As with railroads in other countries, SMRT is a kind of natural monopoly bcos the capital outlay is so intensive, no competitor can come in and build a similar infrastructure just for the sake of competition. Even our beloved Government tried that and failed when they gave the North East line to another operator only to realize it doesn’t work.

So SMRT is in a good position to basically do whatever they want to enjoy supernormal profits.

First, they raise prices like nobody’s business. Well it’s subjected to approval from the LTA but heck, LTA always approves anyways. So the Singaporean passengers comprain and comprain like there’s no tomorrow. Actually in my opinion, it helped bcos SMRT became less aggressive somewhat after seeing the social repercussions. The truth is, Singapore train fares are probably still quite low at 70c for 1 station compared to global average of roughly US$1. So prepare for MORE fare hikes to come.

And after raising fares, the quality of service actually drops. That’s probably the unforgivable action. Trains take more than 10 min to arrive at non-peak hours and they frequently break down with minimal repercussions. Talk about 1st World Service!

Nonetheless, the shareholder benefits. SMRT shareholders have seen net profits grown S$100mn to S$160mn over the past 10 years. Dividends more than doubled from 3c to 7c. If you have bought SMRT at 60c (roughly the IPO price), dividends over the past 10 yrs would have reaped 40c. Not to mention the price today is $1.6.

With increasing population and real estate potential from re-developing its stations, SMRT’s future growth may not slow down unlike some other Singapore monopolies like SPH and Singpost. There is also the wildcard of whether the other future lines (Circle, Downtown etc) will be given to SMRT to manage as well. Again since most of the capex is done by the Government, it's a free lunch for SMRT and its shareholders.

However, it is likely that the company will continue to squeeze the commuters by providing ever declining quality of service and at the same time raising fares whenever the opportunity arises. Hence it is prudent for every commuter to become an SMRT shareholder.

As a shareholder, besides the dividends and capital gain, you can go and eat free food at the AGM and screw the management by asking tough questions. Hopefully they wake up their ideas and start to look at BOTH profits and services.
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