What's Going on With TravelCenters?

A late filing and near-15% drop in stock price over the past month has investors concerned. Is the company in trouble, or is this an opportunity?

Apr 7, 2014 at 4:19PM

TravelCenters of America (NYSE:TA) should be benefiting from industry tailwinds, yet things haven't been going well for the company. For one thing, the stock has sold substantially in the past month -- down roughly 15%. There has been little news from the company in recent weeks other than last week's announcement that the company was unable to file its annual report in a timely manner, and thus fell out of compliance with the New York Stock Exchange. Investors and analysts didn't take well to the news, sending the stock down near its 52-week low. This should be a great business for investors to own, especially at current prices. What's going on with TravelCenters?

Late for a very important date
It's very troubling to see a mature public business falling out of compliance with the NYSE and unable to meet deadlines. By missing the deadline to report its fiscal 2013 results, TravelCenters is broadcasting to investors and analysts that there is some sort of accounting irregularity or internal compliance issue.

In March's Notification of Late Filing (the precursor to last week's inability to timely file), TravelCenters mentioned it was having trouble calculating its fourth-quarter net income mainly because of a reversal of a deferred tax asset valuation allowance.

Management did note that the fourth quarter of 2013 should come in at a steeper loss than 2012's $2.5 million because of the aforementioned allowance as well as a $10 million litigation charge. TravelCenters had to settle an antitrust case recently, accounting for the litigation expense.

What it means for investors
The market clearly isn't thrilled with TravelCenters' compliance issues, but this one may not be too important in the long-term outlook for the company. While short-term profitability looks to be strained and the business has clearly fallen out of the good graces of Mr. Market, the fundamentals remain intact.

TravelCenters focuses its locations near U.S. interstate highway exits. While the company does not own most of its roughly 250 locations around the country and Canada, it nonetheless has a great portfolio because of close affiliation with its former parent company, Hospitality Properties Trust.

Fuel margins are always going to be in flux -- sometimes in favor of the company and other times not. What's more important is the value-added services that TravelCenters' locations offer -- restaurants, trucker services, convenience stores, etc. These are much higher-margin businesses, and truckers are very familiar with the TravelCenter and Petro branded stores.

According to the chief economist at American Trucking Associations, Truck traffic is expected to increase in coming years. This will be of direct benefit to TravelCenters.

At its current price, TravelCenters trades at just 7.2 times forward expected earnings. On an EV/EBITDA basis, the company sells for a bargain-bin 3.5 times. For the price-conscious investor, this is one to keep a close eye on, despite recent troubles.

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