1. Stagnant or declining revenues: Perhaps the most telling sign of a company in decline is the inability to increase revenues over extended periods, even when times are good. Flat revenues or revenues that grow at less than the inflation rate is an indicator of operating weakness. It is even more telling if these patterns in revenues apply not only to the company being analyzed but to the overall sector, thus eliminating the explanation that the revenue weakness is due to poor management (and can thus be fixed by bringing in a new management team).
2. Shrinking or negative margins: The stagnant revenues at declining firms are often accompanied by shrinking operating margins, partly because firms are losing pricing power and partly because they are dropping prices to keep revenues from falling further. This combination results in deteriorating or negative operating income at these firms, with occasional spurts in profits generated by asset sales or one time profits.
3. Asset divestitures: If one of the features of a declining firm is that existing assets are sometimes worth more to others, who intend to put them to different and better uses, it stands to reason that asset divestitures will be more frequent at declining firms than at firms earlier in the life cycle. If the declining firm has substantial debt obligations, the need to divest will become stronger, driven by the desire to avoid default or to pay down debt.
4. Big payouts – dividends and stock buybacks: Declining firms have few or any growth investments that generate value, existing assets that may be generating positive cashflows and asset divestitures that result in cash inflows. If the firm does not have enough debt for distress to be a concern, it stands to reason that declining firms not only pay out large dividends, sometimes exceeding their earnings, but also buy back stock.
5. Financial leverage – the downside: If debt is a double-edged sword, declining firms often are exposed to the wrong edge. With stagnant and declining earnings from existing assets and little potential for earnings growth, it is not surprising that many declining firms face debt burdens that are overwhelming. Note that much of this debt was probably acquired when the firm was in a healthier phase of the life cycle and at terms that cannot be matched today. In addition to difficulties these firms face in meeting the obligations that they have committed to meet, they will face additional trouble in refinancing the debt, since lenders will demand more stringent terms.
From a valuation perspective, using conventional discounted cash flow models can lead us to over value declining and distressed firms, where the possibility of distress is high. I think that we need to adjust the values that we obtain from DCF valuations for the likelihood that these firms will not make it. While there is no simple way to estimate the probability of failure, there are clues in the market that we can use to make reasonable estimates. I have a paper on the topic that you can download (if you are interested)
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