Ever have this nightmare? You are knocked unconscious, and when you wake up you have a really ugly tattoo -- with a name inscribed that is not that of your spouse or significant other.
Well, the stock market equivalent to that dream happened to Star Gas Partners
When investors awoke last Monday, the stock had fallen to a low of $2.56 -- an 88% decline in one day. Why? The company "... may be forced to seek interim financing on extremely disadvantageous terms or even to seek to restructure its debts under the protection of the bankruptcy courts."
The announcement said the company was having trouble passing on high heating oil prices. Really? Call the New York Mercantile Exchange. Let it know that demand is so weak for heating oil that consumers are not going to heat their homes this winter.
A better excuse was that Star Gas tried to develop a "competitive advantage" by centralizing its dispatch services and call center. Here is management's submission for quote of the year: "The successful implementation of this initiative took longer than [the petro division] had anticipated, which adversely impacted the customer base." So, you ticked your customers off, and they left. Now, that is a problem.
Was there a clue that this stock was going to bomb -- other than it was a tip from your Uncle Marty, who lives in an all-electric home in Florida?
Using 20-20 hindsight, the planned August/September change of operations, "when consumers are most sensitive to selecting a fuel oil provider for the upcoming heating season," was a great risk. But it was masked by the chairman's comment that Star Gas was beginning to "... see many of the operational and customer satisfaction benefits originally anticipated."
It's no surprise that the company is now flooded with class-action lawsuits. What is surprising is that the stock price has increased two and a half times from the low. Talk about bottom-fishing. When companies buried in debt use the word bankruptcy, the best bet is that debt holders will feed on equity and greatly dilute any shareholder interest.
Remember that ugly tattoo? It reads, "Losing customers, bad debt terms, and, maybe, bankruptcy." Speculate in Star Gas if you wish. But how do you explain such an ugly investment to your loved ones if it tanks?
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Fool contributor W.D. Crotty does not own stock in Star Gar Partners -- or did you guess that already?