Sunday, May 09, 2021

Don't rage, don't take umbrage, pls behave on stage!

Rage and umbrage has become unacceptable as society progresses. Today, social media picks up everything. So, when you want to say something inappropriate, well, better think well!

Two days ago (7 May 2021), SPH CEO Ng Yat Chung took umbrage at a reporter asking a difficult question and the whole thing went viral on internet. This was a classic case of shooting the messenger since the reporter was just asking a question sent to her mobile phone. She obviously didn't ask it for herself and would be wondering why she was getting shouted at.

Don't anyhow take umbrage

Actually, the CEO maintained his composure at the start, introducing to us a new word to enhance our English vocabulary. But his response grew more and more belligerent as he spoke. He denounced himself as a gentleman and then shouted almost savagely. This was the bit that caught the social media's attention. Now, we have umbrage T-shirts, advertisements and what not.

But the real people who really had to take umbrage were SPH's shareholders. SPH's share price had simply rolled downhill all these years. The chart below shows how SPH had always hovered at $4+ only to accelerate its decline after the current CEO took over. Then it got hit by the pandemic and collapsed even further. In the last few weeks, share price started to recover, perhaps because Singapore is vaccinating its population so well, but alas, the umbrage saga took it down by 15%! (Or may it was selling a profitable business at a negative price).

Umbrage strikes back!

It is not entirely the CEO's fault. Running a declining business franchise is a tough job. Newspapers are distributed for free Today (pun intended: for non-Singaporean readers, ironically, this free newspaper is called Today) and I am not sure who still subscribes to the Straits Times. Maybe corporates and rich people who just want it to wrap their breakable stuff after those daily papers pile up. In this day and age, the way people consume news had also completely changed since the days newspapers were invented.

Newspapers were a huge thing in the past. Their economics were so good. They had both subscription and ad revenue and both were raking it in while they simply pay reporters peanuts to write stuff that everyone had no choice but to read. But the internet and social media changed everything because now everyone can be his or her own reporter and they wrote things people really wanted to read. 

When the tide changed like this, it is hard for management in that business to adapt. Newspaper was a profitable business that will generate money even if you put a monkey to run it. Now, it has to fight  declining subscription, declining ad revenue and the social media. Warren Buffett puts it best:

When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

To paraphrase, if the business is tough, then even brilliant management cannot win. I am not sure how brilliant our current SPH management team is. I hope they don't take umbrage :) But I am sure shareholders have taken umpteen umbrage seeing how their investment has declined c.70% over just a couple of years, not to the fault of anyone though. It's just business.

I don't think there is any easy way out for SPH. It is now a tough business. For the longest time, it was supported by its property business. Maybe there is an angle here by spinning off the tough media business and become a property company. It will take courage, not umbrage, to bring the share price back to its previous glorious days.

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