Saturday, August 16, 2014

Are the problems of Malaysia Airlines, symptomatic in other government-linked companies?


THE events of MH370 and MH17 have soured the operations of Malaysia Airlines (MAS), where the extent of the damage from these events on its financials will be more accurately shown when the airline reports its quarterly figures next week.

While these tragedies have led to MAS’ major shareholder, Khazanah Nasional Bhd, offering to not only take the company private but also undertake what appears to be an exhaustive overhaul of the airline’s operations, the problems at MAS have been simmering for a long time now.

The airline has been losing money for some time, and previous turnaround plans, in hindsight, were akin to applying bandages when major surgery was needed. Previous turnaround plans might have just delayed what needs to be done now.

But all gloves are off with the upcoming overhaul when it comes to salvaging MAS. Political will appears to be there, judging from comments made by the Prime Minister and the airline will undergo a big transformation on how it operates.

Lots of public funds will be spent to make things right at MAS, and it will start with the RM1.4bil takeover of the airline. The overhaul of MAS should be more than just cosmetic or quick fixes.

While the airline’s revenue will surely slump, MAS also has to deal with its cost. As it stands, experts have pointed out that the size of its cost structure is one that supports a far larger network than what MAS currently operates.

Tackling costs won’t be easy also, given that it is a government-linked company (GLC) with social obligations. In fact, MAS, like its other GLC brethren, has commitments that most private companies just don’t have.

Will the overhaul of MAS take into account just how far it needs to go to remove a certain portion of such obligations, and if it is happening in MAS, are other GLCs too shouldering the same kind of burden as MAS is?

It has been long suspected that the airline has been losing lots of money due to leakages and some have even alluded to political interests having their fingers in the pie.

Khazanah should undertake a thorough review of the supply chain, and conduct forensic accounting if needed to ensure corruption is weeded out of the company. MAS needs to make sure that the services and supplies bought are at market rates and of a fair value.

For Khazanah, it needs to revisit its GLC transformation programme and see whether it has been as effective as what the market expected it to be. There has been a series of colourful books and manuals issued, and among them, the red book. Just how far have the initiatives of the red book, which deal with procurement, been successful in reducing costs?

But the need to ensure support for its social obligations can be tough on a GLC. For one, if the contracts given or services and goods acquired are inflated beyond an acceptable amount, then it will just balloon cost. Social obligations that relate to the need for support to help companies grow in scale is understandable, but not handouts.

Even Petroliam Nasional Bhd president and chief executive officer Tan Sri Shamsul Azhar Abbas has inferred that there is pressure from Government interference and the need to back vendors that charge quite a bit above market prices.

If such pressure is existent in the national oil company that is different from other GLCs, then one can hypothesise that such pressure is prevalent among GLCs.

There needs to be a balance between social obligations and market value. GLCs cannot go on supporting programmes at inflated costs if the companies they are supporting have not shown improvements or are detrimental to their own well-being. This is because doing so will have a telling effect on the performance of the companies.

Should its costs become inflated as a result of such support, then there could be implications on the performance of the GLCs. For one, investors will make that distinction and attach a lower market multiple for GLC companies compared with its private-sector peers. Some will say that it is already being seen in some GLCs.


By: JAGDEV SINGH SIDHU The Star/Asia News Network

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