Monday, July 9, 2012

Trading in some fertilizer for some fun

The lazy days of summer are usually buying season for me. I can withstand the short-term volatility and news-driven moves knowing that there may be little upside to my buys until a possible fall rally.
That trend will continue this year, and already has, since I've added to my Corning (NYSE: GLW) and bought into the burrito at Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) on dips over the past month.
But there will be exceptions.
One came Monday, when I sold out of Mosaic (NYSE: MOS). The move was this simple: I wanted to free up cash for the purchase of a new mountain bike. Mosaic has had a nice run over the past month or so, up about 15 percent.
The trade closes me out with a better than 6 percent profit overall since I picked it up late last year.
Not great. Not bad.
Just a ho-hum trade and a small profit.
The mountain biking will be more exciting.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Future's Unclear for Corning Glass

There’s something appealing about an old company that just keeps on reinventing itself as times change.
It’s what first attracted me to Corning (NYSE: GLW),  the New York-based company long known for its quality glass cookware, but more recently for glass that goes into large-screen TVs, computer screens and mobile devices.
Wednesday’s earnings were not bad for Corning. The company met most analysts’ expectations. But its forecast, at least for the short-term, was far from glittering. There’s a glut of LCD TV screens out there, and as TV prices continue to drop, glass makers like Corning are going to have to sell them on the cheap.
As a result, the company expects declining prices, which means declining profits from that segment of its business. Since display glass is Corning’s single biggest business segment, significant growth for the company will likely have to wait.
Does that make Corning a bad buy, or has the market provided investors with a pretty attractive price? The answer may depend on two things: Your patience, and your faith that the company can turn things around.
Let's get to some numbers
From a value perspective, Corning looks cheap. It sells at just 7 times earnings. What’s more, Thursday’s $12.67 share price was below book value. And Corning pays out a dividend that yields 2.37%.
Investors buying at these prices are essentially getting any growth for free. Of course, if that growth never arrives, you might also be sitting on shares for some time before there's appreciation.
Turning the corner
I like Corning’s chances, mostly because the company has a long history of making transitions. Corning was born some 150 years ago, making glass bulbs for Thomas Edison’s incandescent lamps. It developed the first glass that could hold up well to the high temperatures of baking, then it developed glass for radio and television tubes.
By the 1970s, it was making optical fibers and paving the way for a new way to transport data across long distances that would take us into the Internet age. Then came glass for flat-screen TVs, for which Corning was once able to fetch a premium. You remember when those big LCDs were selling for $2,000?
Long story short: Corning has continued to find new ways to use glass to make our lives better or easier. We have no good reason to believe that won’t continue.
Back to the here and now
Sales of Gorilla Glass for hand-held devices are hurtling upward, nearly tripling over last year. That’s a great sign, and Corning continues to improve on the glass it offers those device makers, keeping it in the position of market leader.
In other areas, sales in its telecommunication segment -- mostly fiber optical wire -- grew 11% over 2010. Sales of specialty materials were up some 21%. So not all looks dreary for Corning.
But the question remains as to whether it can shore up its TV glass business while these other segments grow. The company has been through a similar situation before, in 2006, and it managed to ride out the storm. It can put that experience to use in this round of oversupply. 
In the meantime, Corning should sell at prices that look cheap. This isn’t a situation that the glass maker expects to clear up at least for another quarter, and maybe further into the year.
The bottom line
I’m in no hurry to sell the small position I have in Corning. But I’m also in no great rush to add shares, since I think the opportunity to buy at these prices will remain for some time. In the meantime, I’ll keep it on my watchlist and consider adding shares if prices continue to drop.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

And Now, Turn Your Attention to the Parts Makers

The Detroit auto show had a lot of us buzzing about the carmakers last week.  Let’s face it, new models and new innovations are exciting. But investors might be wise to pay some attention to auto-industry companies that weren’t making headlines at the auto show.
BorgWarner (NYSE: BWA) may have may have slipped under your radar last week, but it shouldn’t have. The Michigan-based parts supplier shot up 14 percent after revving its outlook for 2012. The company now expects earnings to grow at 23% to 27% over last year, with sales growth in the area of 10-12% over 2011. Even after last week’s surge, BWA still sells for 16.7 times earnings. At its projected rate of growth, it’s now selling at a forward P/E of 13.
And despite some serious appreciation in value over the past couple years, BorgWarner has a bright future. The company’s focus is on making components that maximize fuel efficiency and reduce emissions from gasoline and diesel engines. High fuel prices, consumer values and government regulations should only help to heighten the need for those products in years to come.
BWA counts just about every major manufacturer among its customers, as well as John Deere. Electric cars like Nissan’s Leaf and GM’s Volt have generated a lot of attention over the past couple years. But the gasoline engine is not going away anytime soon, especially with American oil discoveries on a furious upward clip. BWA’s products are making the good old gas engine kinder to the environment, not to mention easier on the wallet at the pump.
So while BWA has had an incredible run from the lows of 2009 -- including a near-double in 2010 -- it still has fuel in the tank. Maybe we can chalk that up to the company’s fuel-efficient parts. Any pullback in price could make BorgWarner look cheap. It’s my smallest holding, so I’m willing to add more. I’ll be waiting to see if the stock takes a breather here before adding shares.

And one to watch for ...
Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), another maker of auto parts, reports earnings this Thursday. Johnson Controls has increased sales each quarter for the past seven quarters.
JCI’s sales have grown an average of more than 21% percent per year since 2009, and eclipsed its 2008 sales mark of $38 billion last year. It also bested its 2008 earnings, registering $2.36 per share in 2011. Yet Johnson’s selling at cheaper prices than it was in 2007 and 2008. It currently sells at a P/E of 15.
JCI makes car seats, consoles, instrument panels and electronics for Ford, GM, Daimler and other carmakers. It’s the largest car seat supplier in the world. It also makes batteries for hybrid and electric vehicles, as well as for advanced “start-stop” gasoline engines. And it’s building a manufacturing plant to make lithium-ion batteries for hybrids -- with $300 million in help from Uncle Sam. So, like Borg-Warner, JCI has a foot in the future of automotive sales as well as one in the present.
Johnson is far from a pure play on car and truck sales. About 36 percent of its sales in 2011 were from a host of other products, including all types of controls for buildings, whether it be for lights, security, heating or air conditioning. But don’t let that scare you away. Many of Johnson’s building products are designed to improve efficiency, another trend we can expect to continue. If JCI interests you, tune in for Thursday’s quarterly earnings report.

There's always something to worry about
Slowing economies in Europe and other parts of the world could hurt suppliers, including BWA and JCI, since car sales will lag. Inflationary pressures and rising raw materials costs also pose risks.
But BWA’s forecast for growth accounts for those factors, so investors should take that as a sign of confidence from the parts manufacturer. These two companies look attractive at today’s prices and are positioned to do well in the years ahead. Investors would be wise to give them a test drive.

In addition to appearing on this site, this column was syndicated by the Motley Fool. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

A Case for a Small-cap Biotech Basket

Small biotech stocks are fun for many reasons. The companies often have noble causes. They aim to treat wretched diseases. And their shares sell for small prices. Sure, many run on borrowed money and spend years deep in red ink. But they give us the potential of a five-bagger, 10-bagger, or even better.
In the small-cap biotech world, profits are ephemeral, but dreams loom large. That’s why I’ve always thought it was good to own one, if for no other reason than to keep things interesting.
But maybe owning one isn’t the way to go. Maybe owning a few is far better. Call this a case for a small-cap biotech basket.
I recommend this not because it’s something I’ve done. I do so because it’s something I wish I’d done, but didn’t.

To a 3-bagger ... and back
I’ve owned one small, speculative biotech since I started investing in 2008:  Cytori Therapeutics (NASDAQ: CYTX).
Cytori is one of a handful of stem-cell therapy companies that sell for a low per-share price and have a chance to break out, and break out big. That looked like it might happen with Cytori in early 2010, when the company announced good results from a study for a breast-reconstruction treatment that uses stem cells from a woman’s body fat to regenerate breast tissue lost to cancer surgery.
And the stock appreciated handsomely. I had bought in at $2.70 in 2008. It was suddenly selling for $9.50 a share.
I briefly considered selling half and booking profits. But the company was starting to generate press from financial writers. And what they were predicting had my mouth watering.  I read one pitch that said CYTX is a $30 stock within a few years.
So, I held.
Today, Cytori is a $2.28 stock.

In retrospect, I wish I’d trimmed some CYTX  from my portfolio and added another biotech, or two. Some of the other names I'd had on my radar were appreciating when Cytori was in its long slide. There are many small, interesting biotechs from which to build a basket. Here are a few to consider:

Neurocrine Biosciences (NASDAQ: NBIX) -- Neurocrine looks to be on a breakout. It has grown its revenue from just $1.2 million in 2007 to $33.5 million in 2010. It’s on track to more than double that revenue in 2011. And it’s delivering real earnings -- 55 cents per share last quarter. That leaves it selling at a price-to-earnings ratio of 12.
The company is developing therapies to deal with a number of maladies, from endometriosis and uterine pain to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia. It has deals with Abbott Labs, GlaxoSmithkline and other larger pharmaceutical companies to get those products to market if/when they are approved.
NBIX has a healthy balance sheet, with $133 million in current assets to just $52 million in current liabilities. The company reports no long-term debt.
One worry here is that NBIX has had a nice run up. It was selling for $5.53 a share in early October. It’s now selling for about $8.50.

Repligen -- Here’s another tiny biotech that actually reported positive earnings last quarter. Sure, it’s just 2 cents per share, but earnings from these small biotechs are hard to come by.
It may not be exciting medicine, but RGEN develops proteins that help facilitate the production of antibodies. These are used in treatments of various diseases and also in tests that better determine exactly what ails patients. It has maintained better than a 15 percent average annual growth rate in sales over the past five years.
Repligen is another biotech with a healthy balance sheet, with $72 million in current assets and only $4 million in current liabilities. It reports no long-term debt. At $3.72 a share, it sells for just 1.5 times book value. It also earns a coveted 5-star rating from Motley Fool CAPS members.

PDL Biopharma (NASDAQ: PDLI) -- The bet on PDLI is not so much that its share price will appreciate handsomely, but that it can continue to pay out a massive 10% dividend. PDLI already makes plenty of money. It has earnings of 74 cents a share, on a share price just north of $6. It boasted a net operating margin in 2010 of 27%, and it should surpass that figure for 2011.
PDLI collects royalties from larger drug firms that manufacture and sell the drugs it brought to market. Those include cancer-fighting antibodies used in Herceptin, used mainly to treat breast cancer, and Avastin, which is used to fight a number of cancers.
The company is a cash machine right now, and that dividend looks great in a year when the market ended flat. But in order to keep paying that out, PDLI will need to bring more drugs under its umbrella in coming years as patents on some of its drugs expire.

Plenty more to consider
Those companies should give an investor a start on building a good small-cap biotech basket. There’s still plenty of risk. But they offer a good measure of diversification, and they won’t all move in lock-step. But don’t stop there. There are plenty of other interesting small-cap biotech companies out there, and more research to do before buying.

This column was syndicated through the Motley Fool.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Looking For A Retail Stock? Think 'Sexy'

 There’s a mall outside the Pennsylvania college town of Bloomsburg that doesn’t get many customers, even during the busy holiday season. It’s small, and there are bigger malls with better stores just a stone’s throw from here. But there’s one store inside that nearly always buzzes with customers: Victoria’s Secret.
The company, owned by Limited Brands (NYSE: LTD), has been building a loyal following, especially among young women. Take a walk around a college campus. Take note of how many young ladies are sporting sweats emblazoned with the word “PINK.”

If these woman are buying their sweats at Victoria’s Secret, you can bet that they’re also buying their underwear there. That’s a lot of brand-loyal young women who will be doing a lot of underwear buying over their lives.
And post up outside a Victoria’s Secret store sometime for a little while (but not long enough to draw mall security). You’ll see a lot more than college-age women walking in and out. You’ll see women that span generations. And you’ll see men, too.
Started as a catalog-order company, Internet and sales still make up some 40 percent of Victoria’s Secret total sales. But the stores are essential to driving the brand and the company.
A female friend shed some insight on why so many women swear by the brand: “Do you want to buy your underwear (in a department store) surrounded by granny panties and harsh florescent light? Or do you want to be looking at pictures of gorgeous models and thinking ‘Yeah, I could totally look like her!’"

Victoria’s Secret sells more than underwear. It sells “Sexy.” Women are buying, and you won’t hear many guys complaining.

Same store sales were up 12% over last year, according to the company’s last quarterly report. Margins have been growing since the economic crisis of 2008, and its 14% operating margin year to date runs higher than the industry average.

Cash has been coming in at such a good clip -- Limited decided in November to pay back its shareholders with a special $2-a-share dividend. I like it when companies give money back to their shareholders and I like it better when they do it with dividends rather than share buybacks. I have to think the company will pay that anticipating a strong quarter and year to come.
More on the way 
The company anticipates growth to continue. It predicts a 14% growth rate through 2013. Limited sells at 14 times earnings, not bad for a retailer growing at that rate. The company’s annual financials also show it’s been reducing inventories since 2008, another good sign for the retailer.
And there’s room to grow. Despite Internet and catalog sales worldwide, Victoria’s Secret remains largely an American brand, with very few stores outside the US. But the company has plans for international growth, starting with our neighbors to the north. With a bevy of international models serving as product pitchwomen, the brand would seem to have great potential outside the U.S.
Some concerns 
Victoria’s Secret sales increases have been offset to some degree by more sluggish sales at Limited’s other stores, including Bath & Body Works, but moreso at the lesser-known LaSenza, Henri Bendel, C. O. Bigelow, and the White Barn Candle Company. While Victoria’s Secret sales make up some 55 percent of the company’s revenue, this is far from a pure play on Victoria’s Secret. Investors must be careful not to treat it as such.
Limited also carries a lot of debt -- $6 billion to its $6.5 billion in assets. Its debt-to-equity ratio is a very unflattering 170%. That may be a little too constricting for some investors.
The bottom line
Limited Brands may not be the sexiest of all stocks, but it has plenty of appeal.  It’s already on my watchlist, and despite a number of good signals, LTD is down some 3 percent from when I first added it. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, the stock may finally get the catalyst it needs to drive higher.

(This column was syndicated by the Motley Fool Blog Network)