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Would Warren Buffett Be Interested in Aspen (Group) Holdings Ltd, One of the 30 Best Stocks in Singapore for 2018?

1996, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia --- Malaysia,Kuala Lumpur City, Petronas Towers --- Image by © Jose Fuste Raga/Corbis

My Foolish colleague, Chong Ser Jing, recently ranked all the stocks in the Singapore market according to the Magic Formula, an investing strategy popularised by Joel Greenblatt in his book, The Little Book That Beats The Market. Ser Jing wanted to find the 30 best stocks in Singapore for 2018, based on the Magic Formula, and Aspen (Group) Holdings Ltd (SGX: 1F3) happened to be one of them.

Aspen, listed in July 2017, is a Malaysia-based property group that develops affordable residential and mixed development properties.

Even though Aspen was ranked highly on Greenblatt’s Magic Formula, would one of the greatest investors in the world, Warren Buffett, be interested in the company? We can’t ask him in person, but we can turn to a six-point acquisition criteria formulated by the Oracle of Omaha to give us some clues to answer the question. However, more importantly, Buffett’s checklist, together with the deep dive into Aspen’s financials that I did recently, can help investors develop a better understanding of the company.

With that, let’s turn to Buffett’s acquisition criteria.

1. Pre-tax earnings of at least US$75 million

Buffett has this criterion in place because the conglomerate he controls, Berkshire Hathaway, is a near-US$500 billion behemoth, so his acquisition targets need to be of a certain size to move the needle for Berkshire.

In 2017, Aspen had pre-tax earnings of RM 132.0 million (around US$33.2 million), which is much lower than the first criterion. Retail investors looking into Singapore-listed companies, though, should not be too strict about this rule as this might inadvertently sieve out many small-cap quality companies.

2. Demonstrated consistent earning power

The second criterion helps Buffett determine if a company has a stable and/or growing business. Companies that have a history of steady and growing earnings tend to have competitive advantages that help their businesses grow over time.

The table below shows the net profit for Aspen over the past three years:Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

Aspen had a loss-making year in 2016. However, in 2017, it was back into the black with a much higher net profit than in 2015. Those interested to invest in the company should monitor its financial performance a while longer to see if it can sustain its net profit improvement.

3. Good returns on equity (ROE) while employing little or no debt

This criterion’s purpose is similar to the second: It helps Buffett identify companies with competitive advantages. Generally, a company that has a history of generating good ROE while employing little or no debt has a high chance of possessing durable competitive advantages.

Here’s a table illustrating Aspen’s return on equity, and total-debt-to-equity ratio, from 2015 to 2017:Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence

The company ended 2017 with an ROE of 56.7% and manageable debt. Its balance sheet, as at 31 December 2017, had RM 140.0 million in cash and RM 117.3 million in total debt.

4. Management in place

Buffett included this criterion because he did not want to have to provide a management team when he acquires a company. For stock market investors like you and me, this criterion has no real meaning, since public-listed companies almost always have leaders in place. However, this point is a reminder for us to take a look at the people running a company when researching a stock.

The president and chief executive of Aspen is Dato’ M. Murly. He co-founded the company together with Dato’ Seri Nazir Ariff, who is the executive director of Aspen.

According to the firm’s annual report, Dato’ M. Murly is involved in “managing everything from being the face of Aspen Group to inspiring the company’s vision and implementing long-term business strategies”. Meanwhile, Dato’ Seri Nazir Ariff boasts “over 40 years of business experience and has spent more than a decade on the forefront of the property sector”.

5. A simple business

In my view, Aspen is a simple business to understand.

However, it is worth noting that Buffett had this rule in place to cater to his circle of competence. He is only interested in acquiring businesses that he understands. Going with this train of thought, what I think is a simple business may be complicated for you, and vice versa.

6. An offering price

This is another criterion in Buffett’s checklist that is not applicable for stock market investors, since stocks have quoted prices that are easily seen, unlike the private businesses that Buffett evaluates for acquisitions. This criterion, though, serves as a useful reminder that the price we pay for a stock is critical.

If we overpay for a stock (meaning we invest in a stock at an expensive valuation), the chances of our investment succeeding will be low. A famous quote from Buffett, “Price is what you pay, value is what you get,” rings true here.

Coming to Aspen, the company last traded at a stock price of S$0.215 on Monday, giving a price-to-earnings ratio of around five times.

A Foolish conclusion

The deep dive I did earlier on Aspen, and the application of Buffett’s checklist should help investors make a better-informed investing decision on the company. Stay tuned for more on the rest of the companies from the 2018 best stocks list. For a repository of all the articles in this new series that uses Warren Buffett’s acquisition criteria to analyse the 30 best stocks, you can head here.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Sudhan P doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.