Tardy debtors put squeeze on Transfield

The slowdown in the economy has prompted corporate Australia to keep its hands in its pockets, with a number of companies not paying their bills on time.

The slowdown in the economy has prompted corporate Australia to keep its hands in its pockets, with a number of companies not paying their bills on time.

Earlier this month, Leighton Holdings said customers were slow to pay, and on Wednesday Transfield Services said some customers were avoiding paying their bills for as long as possible.

With interest rates at historic lows, the reluctance to part with cash indicates just how wary many companies are of the outlook, amid the severe downturn that has hit key parts of the economy.

June quarter construction was weaker than expected, down 0.3 per cent, the ANZ Bank said, mainly due to weakness in non-residential activity, with the positive impact of lower interest rates yet to be felt. While the resource spending boom had peaked in the west, that is yet to occur in Queensland, signalling the pain in some sectors will begin to rise.

"We still had a significant amount of late-paying debtors at the 30th of June," chief financial officer Tiernan O'Rourke told analysts. "Many customers are delaying paying for work contracted as long as possible, particularly around [financial] year end. There is strong evidence that all Australian companies are finding the cash cycle at its worst for decades."

Increasingly, companies are delaying payment beyond June 30 and December 30, he said, and paying outstanding debts in the week following.

Mr O'Rourke was speaking as the group signalled continued tough trading conditions as it seeks to recraft the business, forecasting a net profit in the range of $65 million to $70 million in the year to June 2014, before impairments and amortisation. The forecast assumes no further deterioration in macroeconomic conditions.

In the latest year Transfield posted a net profit of $65.5 million before impairments and amortisation. However, after writeoffs and impairments, the year to June net loss was $254.4 million, a reversal from the net profit of $96.4 million a year ago, forcing the group to pass payment of a final dividend.

The flat outlook is despite a further round of deep cost-cutting, including axing another 180 jobs, as it responds to the continued contraction in key markets.

Transfield is also continuing to pursue asset sales, such as units in the Middle East and elsewhere, as it seeks to revive its fortunes.

The order book totals $9.5 billion, which is down a heavy 13.6 per cent. Additionally, the pipeline of opportunities is down 17 per cent at $25.2 billion, it said.

This reflects both the slowdown in activity and the group's more refined approach. "This is a business which is no longer chasing revenue," managing director Graeme Hunt said. "This is a business that is chasing profits and returns."

Even with the steep decline in the order book, Transfield said a revival was occurring in some sectors, such as outsourcing by the federal and state governments.

"The macro-business environment ... will limit growth in fiscal 2014," Mr Hunt said.

Transfield has adopted a wary stance, given the uncertainty about prospective contract wins and the fact earnings are traditionally weighted to the second half, which contributes 60 per cent of earnings.

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