Learning from others’ (big) mistakes – notes from Steinhoff

For those who tell you not to worry so much and just invest in anything, no need to do much research, you need only say one word: Steinhoff.

Steinhoff has been called the largest corporate scandal in SA history, but what many people don’t know is it’s fall was also the largest failure ever on the JSE. The collapse promoted months of headlines, in which South Africans read, shaken, about the demise of the brand which had been every investor’s darling. It wasn’t just the death of a retail titan, it was the death of the concept of ‘too big too sink’ corporates.

In a world post-Steinhoff, all previous bets about how investment works are off. If everyone – and it was pretty much everyone, high and low – was wrong about Jooste and his African champion, couldn’t we be wrong about everything else? It’s not comfortable stuff to ponder, but actually there are valuable lessons in the Steinhoff fallout for investors willing to look.

Lesson 1 – Recommendation is no match for your own research

Many of the most knowledgeable and powerful men and women on the SA investment scene were overweight on Steinhoff. Some, like Christo Wiese and insurance champions Johan van Zyl and Len Konar, were even members of Steinhoff’s board and had decades of investor experience on their sides. This shows the importance of checking out financials for yourself, corporate governance frameworks and growth patterns and projections. If something seems too good to be true, with meteoric out-of-the-ordinary growth from nowhere, then it probably is.

Lesson 2 – Look at management, not results

The common thing to do when considering an investment option is to look at results as a predictor of future dividends, but growth can be misleading. This is especially true of a depressed economic period like the one we’ve had for a while, in which good companies can suffer in their results due to the market, while bad ones’ shortcomings can be masked. Instead, look at the corporate governance of the board and how transparent the company is for a feel. Steinhoff, for example had amazing figures on paper, but their complex two-tier management structure was, in hindsight, a sign of deliberately complicating matters to hide the truth.

Lesson 3 – Not everyone will be a Steinhoff

The reason Steinhoff made the news is that it’s the exception rather than the rule. Although there have been a few corporate governance lapses though none as severe as Steinhoff, it doesn’t mean that our corporate governances metrics themselves are broken. On the contrary, South African governance law and the JSE itself have been proven to be quite robust in the crucible that was Steinhoff. The internationally respected Frankfurt Sock Exchange (FSE) took just as hard a hit as the JSE, after all. The chances are very low that you will invest in an unsound company of the Steinhoff ilk – especially after the scandal meant corporates undergoing extra scrutiny.

And if you’re worried about existing investments of yours? Let’s chat, revisit our due diligence, and remember – Steinhoff happened once, but that doesn’t mean it’ll happen again.