MTN and its FY2023 Financial Results abracadabra

MTN Nigeria Communications Plc (MTN Nigeria), the leading telecommunication service provider in the country, on Thursday, 29 February, 2024, submitted its full-year audited report for the year ended 31 December, 2023 to the Nigerian Exchange (NGX). The report showed very impressive highlights like growths in total subscriber base, active data users, active mobile money (MoMo PSB) wallets, service revenue and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA). Despite all these positive highlights in the Statement of Accounts, the media and most analysts, as the MTN Nigeria would wish, ran with the forex loss of N740.4 billion as well as the loss before tax of N177.8 billion.

According to MTN Nigeria, the losses are as result of “rising inflation, currency devaluation and foreign exchange shortages, complicated by geopolitical disruptions and cash shortages in Q1 arising from a redesign of the naira. Karl Toriola, the Chief Executive Officer of the company, noted that “MTN Nigeria’s operations are exposed to foreign currency volatility on its operating and capital expenditure. The most significant of these exposures relates to the tower lease costs, which comprised the bulk of the 45-50 percent foreign currency exposure in our operating expenses in 2023.” Specifically, the company attributed the poor financial performance for the year under review mainly to the foreign exchange loss of N740.4 billion as a result of a 96.7 percent movement in the exchange rate from N461/$1 in December 2022 to N906/$1 in December 2023.

From media reports many of the analysts seem to look at the MTN Nigeria’s 2023 Financial reports from the prism of the company – harsh operational environment, unfavourable government policies and the general macro-economic conditions. They seem to be so convinced by the jaundiced narrative the telecom company has deliberately crafted to hoodwink stakeholders to its side that they barely look at the submitted report critically.

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To start with, MTN Nigeria listed on the floor of the Nigerian Exchange in 2019 as part of its bargain with the government to have its $5.2 billion fine, for failure to disconnect its subscribers who were yet to link their National Identification Numbers to their telephone lines, slashed. Prior to the listing, MTN Nigeria was a private company and had no disclosure requirements unlike now, as a publicly quoted company, it is required to meet the disclosure requirements including the submission of quarterly results.

Let us highlight some of the items as disclosed in the report. The Loss after tax was N137.0 billion due to net forex loss; Profit after tax (PAT), adjusted for the net forex loss, decreased by 14.3 percent to N344.5 billion; Earnings per share (EPS) declined to negative N6.38 kobo (N16.56 kobo adjusted for the net forex loss, down 14.1 percent); the Net loss for the year resulted in a depletion of its retained earnings and shareholders fund to negative N208.0 billion and N40.8 billion, respectively; the Capital expenditure (capex) increased by 13.2 percent to N571.0 billion; and the company’s liabilities and assets were N3.22 trillion and N3.18 trillion respectively.

The report, as indicated, showed that the company’s liabilities are bigger than its assets, an admission that MTN Nigeria is technically insolvent. The reality is that this insolvency would remain for a long time without shareholder funding and may trigger default. This also throws up the going concern questions. How can MTN Nigeria’s auditors sign off the on the going-concern assessment of the company with such reality – a case of financial illiteracy or poor oversight?

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Also, the issue of lease agreements leaves plenty room for suspicion. Is attributing an item that, according to the company, constitutes 45-50 percent of its foreign currency exposure without naming the service provider a deliberate ploy to conceal pertinent facts? It is a known fact that MTN has large ownership stakes in the companies that provide these lease services and the ‘losses’ the company posts as a result of the forex fluctuations, it ‘gains’ in form of returns on investment.

Similarly, the report indicated that MTN Nigeria changed its “measurement” of FX loses from “realized FX differences on dollar indexed leased” to the N/US$ spot exchange rate at the end of each reporting period. This, it claims, is in line with the IAS 21 and FIRS 16 and led to adjustments of 2021 and 2022 results. Why would MTN Nigeria limit the restatement of its lease liabilities to 2021 and 2022 only and not 2020 and 2019 financials when it got listed on the NGX? It is also curious that forex for the H1 2023 was not restated – when objectively there was nothing that could have triggered the IFRS 16 treatment to be altered in H2. In fact, the report showed that MTN Nigeria did a restatement on the H1 FX related transaction that was undertaken in October 2023.

These may be pointers to a possibility of sharp practices and willful concealment on the part of MTN Nigeria in contravention of the extant disclosure rules of the Exchange. This possible concealment, probably aimed at avoiding tax liabilities and/or shareholder obligations, should be of interest to industry stakeholders, in particular and Nigerians in general. MTN Nigeria’s over two-decade operations in Nigeria leaves much to be desired as there have been cases that border around corporate governance such as tax defaults, illegal repatriations of profits and other corporate vices.

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