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Fantastic Research On A.O. Smith (AOS) This Morning, Spruce Point Has Had Suspicions About AOS And Is Short The Stock

|About: A. O. Smith Corporation (AOS)
Summary

J Capital, a firm with an extensive record researching China stocks, released a report on A.O. Smith (AOS), claiming among other things, a material undisclosed partner used to inflate margins.

Spruce Point has been researching AOS for a while, which caught our attention for its high margins selling water heaters, and other commodity-like products.

In addition, we struggled to understand AOS's pattern of terrible Capex forecasting. With prior successes Caesarstone and Gentex, we also linked bad Capex planning to margin inflation.

AOS's story looks like it's finally cracking, with the CFO having recently left while now disclosing allowance for bad debts, and the company pivoting towards acquisitions.

We believe investors are mis-valuing AOS, and that its poor China/India business (35% of sales) should be valued differently. It's easy to justify 45%-65% downside potential to $17.70 - $27.30.

Earlier this morning, J Capital Research published a critical report on A.O. Smith (NYSE: AOS), a maker of water heaters, boilers, water treatment, air purification and other products. J Capital's investigative research shows a material undisclosed partner that functionally acts like AOS in close regards, and allows it to stuff distributors and inflate gross margins. We're sharing our opinions and conclusions more thoroughly on Twitter @sprucepointcap

Spruce Point has also been researching and following AOS for some time, and has had success shorting off-the-radar U.S. industrial companies that are misunderstood by analysts and investors. (eg. Ametek, Ceco Environmental, Greif). A common theme is that these companies have an international component that U.S. investors are failing to understand. 

In the case of AOS, it's business rode the tide of strong early success in China, and caught the housing boom demand for 'premium' water heaters with a taste for a luxury American name.

Spruce Point has always had concerns that AOS's gross margins, which dwarf competitors margins by 10% for seemingly commodity-like products, are either being inflated by management with aggressive accounting, or could not be sustained as local competitors caught up to AOS. Based on J Capital's investigative research showing a material undisclosed partner that functionally acts like AOS in close regards, this appears to be the case.

We've also had success linking capital expenditure and gross margin anomalies to successful prior shorts, notably Caesarstone (CSTE) and Gentex (GNTX). In the case of AOS, it is very clear that management has consistently mis-forecasted its China capital expenditures by an average of 50% annually over the past four years! Are we really to believe that AOS has world leading margins when it's clear it has no firm handle on its capital planning?

With the China story unraveling, and AOS's CFO having recently left ahead of disclosing a revenue recognition change and also rising allowance for doubtful accounts, we see the potential for significant downside risk. Coupled with J Capital's findings of stuffed channels, high interest rate loans to distributors, and trapped cash that's been pledged, we think investors will really have to reassess both AOS's business prospects in China (and India where they received an auditor remark for bad fixed asset accounting (think capex) and failed to ever achieve profitability).

We value AOS's Rest of World (China and India) at a substantially lower multiple, closer to Asian peers, and apply a higher multiple to its other businesses, albeit at a slight discount to stronger U.S. industrial peers with better governance, higher quality management, and faster growing end markets. Our price target is $17.70 to $27.30 or approximately 45% to 65% downside. 

Disclaimer

This research blog expresses our research opinions. You should assume that as of the publication date of any presentation, report, blog or letter, Spruce Point Capital Management LLC (possibly along with or through our members, partners, affiliates, employees, and/or consultants) along with our subscribers and clients has a short position in all stocks (and are long/short combinations of puts and calls on the stock) covered herein, including without limitation A.O. Smith Corp. ("AOS"), and therefore stand to realize significant gains in the event that the price of its stock declines. Following publication of any presentation, report or letter, we intend to continue transacting in the securities covered therein, and we may be long, short, or neutral at any time hereafter regardless of our initial recommendation. All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice, and Spruce Point Capital Management does not undertake to update this report or any information contained herein. Spruce Point Capital Management, subscribers and/or consultants shall have no obligation to inform any investor or viewer of this report about their historical, current, and future trading activities.

This research blog expresses our research opinions, which we have based upon interpretation of certain facts and observations, all of which are based upon publicly available information, and all of which are set out in this research presentation. Any investment involves substantial risks, including complete loss of capital. Any forecasts or estimates are for illustrative purpose only and should not be taken as limitations of the maximum possible loss or gain. Any information contained in this report may include forward-looking statements, expectations, pro forma analyses, estimates, and projections. You should assume these types of statements, expectations, pro forma analyses, estimates, and projections may turn out to be incorrect for reasons beyond Spruce Point Capital Management LLC's control. This is not investment or accounting advice nor should it be construed as such. Use of Spruce Point Capital Management LLC's research is at your own risk. You should do your own research and due diligence, with assistance from professional financial, legal and tax experts, before making any investment decision with respect to securities covered herein. All figures assumed to be in US dollars unless specified otherwise.

To the best of our ability and belief, as of the date hereof, all information contained herein is accurate and reliable and does not omit to state material facts necessary to make the statements herein not misleading, and all information has been obtained from public sources we believe to be accurate and reliable, and who are not insiders or connected persons of the stock covered herein or who may otherwise owe any fiduciary duty or duty of confidentiality to the issuer, or to any other person or entity that was breached by the transmission of information to Spruce Point Capital Management LLC. However, Spruce Point Capital Management LLC recognizes that there may be non-public information in the possession of AOS or other insiders of AOS that has not been publicly disclosed by AOS. Therefore, such information contained herein is presented "as is," without warranty of any kind - whether express or implied. Spruce Point Capital Management LLC makes no other representations, express or implied, as to the accuracy, timeliness, or completeness of any such information or with regard to the results to be obtained from its use. You should assume all statements made are our opinions unless sourced as facts where practical.

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Disclosure: I am/we are short AOS.