29 Nov 2010

Tower mulls cash-heavy balance sheet

6:55 am on 29 November 2010

Insurer and fund manager Tower says it hasn't decided how to spend its unused war chest for buying more firms to boost earnings and market share.

On Friday, Tower's shares rose 4% after its annual profit jumped by one sixth to $58.1 million.

Despite paying its first interim dividend in eight years, some investors are questioning why the cash-rich company does not return more to shareholders, since its acquisition plans appear to have dried up.

In September last year, Tower raised $81 million from its shareholders through a rights issue.

At the time, the group specifically said that it wanted to use the money to make acquisitions, but more than a year on, there's little to show for its efforts.

Last month, Tower made a $118 million takeover bid for Fidelity Life Assurance - but that went nowhere, and the bid lapsed.

Tower now has a cash-heavy balance sheet with no obvious acquisitions on the horizon. Managing director Rob Flanagan says this issue is a concern to the board.

"There's been a lot of activity and of course there's some that's been publicly available and there's a lot that hasn't been publicly available because it's behind the scenes.

"As part of our strategy going forward the board is reviewing its complete position on our liquidity and how much capital we're carrying, it's on the agenda of the board, we're discussing it now, it's high on the directors' minds."

The matter is high on shareholders' minds too. One large investor, who wouldn't go on record, told Radio New Zealand that with so much cash to spend, they're not happy with Tower's smaller-than-expected dividend.

And an analyst who also didn't want to be named said that in the absence of a clear acquisition target, Tower's balance sheet is overcapitalised so the company may be forced to release that capital back to its shareholders in the form of a special dividend.

Others though, take a different view. AMP Capital Investors is Tower's fifth largest investor, with a 1.5% stake.

Head of equities Guy Elliffe says the major emphasis should be on organic growth, selling more life insurance product, which he says requires a capital commitment, and would probably allow some sort of return of capital to shareholders

However Mr Elliffe says that is almost secondary, as in terms of the company's underlying underwriting discipline, "things look pretty decent", from the numbers.

Tower says it's looking to make changes to its structure, perhaps moving away from its current model of three separate business units.