Three stocks we wouldn't buy at any price

Some stocks are so risky that valuing them becomes impossible. Here are three to avoid. 

Value investors tend to fall into one of two camps. The first is the ‘everything has a price' group. The second is where I stand – let's call it the ‘sleep well at night' crowd. Don't get me wrong, I want to achieve the best returns possible, but I don't want to lie awake at night fretting over the next management mishap or corporate bombshell just to earn an extra percentage point. 

Below are three stocks that we recommend you Avoid – stocks with specific risks that mean we wouldn't want to own them at any price. In truth, there probably is a share price at which we would be happy to Hold, or even Buy these stocks, but the market is unlikely to ever offer us that price because we think the downsides are underappreciated. 

Qantas (ASX: QAN)

The trouble with our national airline has nothing to do with customer service and a lot to do with its business model and industry. We're unlikely to recommend any of Australia's listed airlines any time soon. 

Like airlines in general, Qantas must contend with many factors beyond its control: huge fixed costs, volatile fuel prices, unionized labour, a capital-intensive business model, oligopolistic suppliers, competition from government subsidised Middle Eastern and Asian airlines, and a fleet of other risks. The company's $4.9bn of debt provides no extra comfort.  

What Qantas does have is a highly profitable loyalty program, with strong economics. As earnings from this division grow as a proportion of total earnings, the quality of the business improves. However, at Qantas's current market capitalisation of $9.7bn, the Loyalty division accounts for less than a third of the stock's value. It provides a floor to our valuation, but with Qantas's share price trading far above that floor, we're a long way from making an upgrade.  

Aurizon (ASX: AZJ)

Australia's largest rail freight operator, Aurizon, isn't like most businesses. Without boring you with the details, the Queensland Competition Authority (QCA) caps the amount of revenue Aurizon can generate to prevent the company from using its monopoly position to set unfair prices. 

The QCA dictates what return shareholders can earn. And, this year, the QCA drastically reduced Aurizon's revenue allowance for 2018–2021 to $3.9bn – a billion dollars below what the company said it would need to cover its costs. 

As things stand, Aurizon has a book value of $2.41 per share and the QCA only allows for that equity to earn a return of 6.99%. The QCA decision is still only a draft but it's unlikely to be adjusted much higher. If you require an 8% return on your investment, you'll need to buy the stock at a 25% discount to book value, yet the current share price is an 80% premium to book value. 

Add to this the fact that half of earnings are from hauling coal, iron ore and freight, which is exposed to the vagaries of the resource industry. One day to the next, Aurizon looks like a safe infrastructure stock, but its business model and today's share price makes it risky for long-term shareholders.

AMP (ASX: AMP)

To do well, wealth managers need one thing more than any other: trust. Whether you want to focus on AMP's failed legal obligations and the fees that were charged when no work was done, or AMP's lies to regulators and issues of governance, trust is lacking at every turn. The prospect of regulatory fines and – worse – a class action lawsuit doesn't fill us with confidence, either. 

We expect that AMP's tattered reputation will encourage advisers to leave the group. Roughly 600 advisors left the company in 2017, while only 400 joined, and we're guessing 2018 could be even more gruesome. That would ultimately reduce fund flows and assets under management. 

Did we mention that net debt of $17bn means that interest expenses consume more than a quarter of operating profits, exposing AMP to rising interest rates and refinancing risk? With a price-earnings ratio of 12, the stock doesn't look particularly expensive but the risks and downside overwhelm any case to buy. 

When investing, you don't have to do many things right to earn a decent return but you do need to avoid trainwrecks. Other companies on our Avoid list include Primary Health Care (ASX: PRY), Vocus (ASX: VOC) and WorleyParsons (ASX: WOR), as well as all aged-care providers, pharmacy stocks, agricultural companies, most specialty retailers, and everything (absolutely everything) related to medical marijuana. 

As Warren Buffett likes to say, the first rule of investing is to never lose money. The second rule is to never forget the first rule. 

Disclaimer
Intelligent Investor provides general financial advice as an authorised representative under the AFSL held by InvestSMART Publishing Pty Limited (Licensee). InvestSMART Funds Management Limited (RE) is the responsible entity of various managed investment schemes and funds and is a related party of the Licensee. The RE may own, buy or sell the shares suggested in this article simultaneous with, or following the release of this article. Any such transaction could affect the price of the share.

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