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Is Utilitywise plc a falling knife to catch after crashing 20% today?

I was on the fence in July when a profit warning sent shares in Utilitywise (LSE: UTW) plunging.

The energy consultancy company had employed accounting practices that were perhaps best described as unwise, and a move to IFRS 15 standards was planned. I wanted to see the next set of full-year accounts before I could judge, but what’s been happening since has delayed that revelation.

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Final results were initially expected on 21 November, but just six days before that date the firm informed us that its external auditor had asked that the company seek “additional advice from an independent accounting firm in respect of the group’s estimation methodology for expected consumption levels on live contracts.

That rattled the markets again, and the share price headed further south. And then Wednesday we had another update.

Further confusion

Utilitywise tells us that the accounting change “will have no impact on the cash flows or underlying economic performance of the group.” And initial revenue recognition of new contracts will be reduced, but final revenue adjustments will be boosted.

That much doesn’t sound too bad, but there are some things that have shaken confidence, and the shares shed 20% by mid-morning — as I write, we’re looking at a 15% fall to 39.2p.

The company had overestimated the energy consumption across all of its contracts that matured in the two-year period between 1 August 2015 and 31 July 2017 by 18%. Apparently that’s actually an improvement over the similar period to 31 July 2016, when the figure was 19% — but in Utilitywise’s shoes, that’s not a boast that I’d be especially proud of.

There’s going to be a prior-year adjustment, and probably a “material negative impact” on the group’s equity as of July 2017. Utilitywise doesn’t yet know whether there will be a material impact on 2017 profit, but my instinct tells me not to be surprised if it turns out there is.

And talking of material impacts, there’s also likely to be one hitting revenue and accounting profit for the current year, to July 2018.

Banking problems?

The company does not yet know whether, when the final figures are unveiled, it will have retrospectively broken its banking covenants. The sole banking lender does know what’s happening and is in discussions, as we’d expect, and Utilitywise will seek waivers for any breaches and amendments relating to future covenants if needed. But it’s not something that thrills me.

After the day’s dust has settled, we’re back to the same question — are the shares worth buying now?

Well, I’m looking at what I can only see as a catalogue of incompetence here — though with changes made to the management team and astute auditors on the case, I hope we’re at a turnaround on that issue.

Anybody’s guess

Based on now-outdated forecasts, Utilitywise shares are trading on a July 2017 P/E of just 4.2. That would rise this year to only 4.4 if the predicted 3% EPS fall comes good, but it now seems likely that 2018 earnings will fall short of that.

I honestly don’t know what to expect, and I could see anything from a rapid recovery to a complete company failure — and that degree of uncertainty is enough to keep me away.

I’m still waiting for the final results, which are now due on 31 January — though the audit might still not be complete by then.

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Alan Oscroft has no position in any of the shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has no position in any of the shares mentioned. Views expressed on the companies mentioned in this article are those of the writer and therefore may differ from the official recommendations we make in our subscription services such as Share Advisor, Hidden Winners and Pro. Here at The Motley Fool we believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.

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