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Discount sportswear chain Sports Direct has scored a spectacular own goal this week after auditor Grant Thornton quit, leaving the chain just one week to find a new firm. It’s the latest incident in a cloud of controversy for the retailer – it’s AGM on Wednesday promised scandal before it had even started when founder, Mike Ashley, banned journalists from the meeting. In the furore that followed the AGM, Sports Direct share prices were down 22 percent from the same period of last year, to 270.40p at the time of writing.
As expected in the wake of the media ban, the AGM was not a happy event – Grant Thornton ended its 12-year tenure as the company’s auditor following concerns about a £600m unpaid VAT bill, and a third of independent shareholders voted against the reappointment of controversial Chief Executive, Mike Ashley. If the sports chain can’t find a new auditor within a week, it will have to ask the Government to find one instead and reports suggest that it’s receiving a lukewarm reception from the main contenders at present.
Plummeting share prices have been an issue for the discount sports brand ever since the Belgian Government claimed it was owed 674m EUR (£605m) in taxes. This, and growing discontent about Ashley and his recent spending spree, acquiring ailing department store House of Fraser and fashion brand Jack Wills, have added to Sports Direct’s woes. Ashley owns 62% of the company’s shares though and so he received 420 million votes to stay – 330 million of those from himself – which means he will remain at the helm of an increasingly unsteady ship.
With share prices at a low though, could Sports Direct be a good recovery stock? Its stock had rallied at the beginning of the year, and until this latest catastrophe shares were up 11% since January. Over the past five years, however, stock has fallen 60%, and it has a price to earning ratio of 14 with no dividends. Most analysts seem to think its best to steer clear until the auditor situation shows some sign of resolution. The sports chain has seen some support from suppliers though – Nike are said to be backing the firm and buying in to Ashley’s vision of making stores ‘more aspirational.’
Speaking of aspirational, competitor JD Sports reported record profits this week, stacking up an impressive £130m profit and a dividend raise of 3.7 per cent. The retailer seems to have cornered the market in fashionable athleisure, becoming a magnet for Generation Z consumers in search of trendy sports brands. Its also executed a successful international growth strategy, with 23 new stores across Europe, seven in Asia-Pacific and six in the US. Share prices for JD Sports are up 700% over the last five years, standing at 711.20p at the time of writing. With a market cap of £6.6bn and a robust multi-channel strategy to mitigate the risks of Brexit, most analysts seem convinced of JD Sports’ growth potential and maintain its buy rating. Some, however, have questioned whether the greatest potential for growth has passed and new investors could be slightly too late to the game.
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