Sunday, November 4, 2007

Industry Review (continued.....)

Restaurants: AFC Enterprises Inc (AFCE)
The health of the restaurant industry is typically associated with the health of consumer spending since going out to a restaurant requires spending discretionary income. Higher gasoline prices and mortgage payments are causing concern for investors in this industry. Recent news in this industry include IHOP Corporations purchase of Applebee’s and a group of investors just bought Outback Steakhouse. Rising prices of corn, mean, and dairy has hurt operating margins in addition to the increase in minimum wage. Regardless, American’s inclination towards a prepared meal and expansion opportunities in Asia could make some companies in this industry a solid long-term investment.

AFC Enterprises, Inc. develops, operates, and franchises quick-service restaurants under the Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits trade name. It is a profitable company with profit margins over 14% and a return on assets of 18%. However the company is saddled with debt and same store sales are decreasing so the outlook is not rosy for this company. Once trading over $21 earlier this year, the stock now trades under $13. Despite the recent profitability for this company, it will be interesting to see if they created any franchise value that can provide sustainable competitive advantages in the years ahead.

Gold: Royal Gold (RGLD)
The price has gold has risen considerable lately due primarily to the influx of capital by central banks to provide liquidity in the markets. This is seen as potentially inflationary and so demand for gold as a hedge to inflation has increased. Significant demand for gold comes from India, China, and the Middle East, who each purchase gold as both a storage of wealth and for jewelry. Gold supply, which necessitates mining it out of the Earth, is not expanding as fast as paper currency is increasing, so the effect is a rising price in gold.

Royal Gold, Inc. engages in the acquisition and management of precious metals royalties. The company is different from traditional mining companies in that they acquire existing royalties or finance projects that are in production or near production in exchange for royalty interests. This royalty approach helps limit the risks inherent with mining stocks and limits capital spending requirements. Revenue grew 70% to $48.4 million in 2007, while net income rose 73% to $19.7 million, or $0.79 a share.

Shoes: Crocs, Inc. (CROX)

Despite the perception that shoes are always needed and thus the shoe industry is non-cyclical, the shoe industry is actually volatile due to the fashion trends associated with it. Thus, companies tend to be rising and falling at different times and when they turn, it is a sharp turn in the other direction. Shoe companies sporting products in fashion can be extremely profitable but ‘buyer beware’, because the price appreciation that can occur during good times can be wiped out very quickly at the first sign of trouble. Nobody wants to be the last one holding on to a stock whose product just went out of fashion.

This brings us to a company that personifies this industry: Crocs, Inc. Fueled by the popularity of its trendy shoes, the stock price had been on a tear the past year appreciating over 277%. This attracted all types of investors looking to play this stock, including short sellers and momentum investors. Today, November 1, Crocs announced their latest quarterly results and the stock proceeded to drop 36%. What happened? The company beat analyst expectations for earnings and raised earnings and revenue guidance for the year. But growth and projections were not enough to satisfy its investor base, and the stock dropped as a result. The stock is still up for the year, but the volatility of this stock underscores the dangerous game played in investing on the latest trend.

Computer and Peripherals: Intevac Inc (IVAC)
Not unlike most of the industries discussed, this industry is dependent on healthy consumer and business spending for health. OK, that sounded way too obvious. Regardless, many of the products sold by companies in this industry require discretionary spending which can dry up quickly if the money needs to go instead to higher mortgage payments and other rising costs. The good thing is most of these products improve consumer efficiencies which should drive some demand even in weaker times.

Intevac, Inc. (IVAC) is a profitable company in this industry providing disk sputtering equipment to manufacturers of magnetic media used in hard disk drives worldwide. The company operates through two segments, Equipment and Imaging. The Equipment segment designs, manufactures, markets, and services capital equipment used in the sputtering or deposition of engineered thin-films of material onto magnetic disks, which are used in hard disk drives. The Imaging segment develops and manufactures electro-optical sensors, cameras, and systems that permit sensitive detection of photons in the visible and near infrared portions of the spectrum, allowing vision in extreme low-light situations. In July, Intevac launched its new Lean Etch(TM) semiconductor manufacturing system. The company had been experiencing impressive revenue growth but a decrease in equipment spending from hard disk manufacturers may bring that growth to a sudden end. The company has no long-term debt and during the recent growth period, margins were impressive. However, Intevac will always have trouble differentiating themselves from their competition. What’s worse, their customers are hard disk drive manufacturers, such as Seagate Technology and Hitachi, who have much greater bargaining power than their suppliers like Intevac. This all adds up to situation where Intevac seems like an investment to pass on for now.

Telecommunications Equipment: Sonus Networks Inc (SONS)

Telecommunication service providers, the main customer for telecommunication equipment providers, are investing heavily in new infrastructure such as third-generation networks. Telecommunication equipment manufacturers hope to secure large contracts to help companies accomplish any of the following:
1) DSL Internet service upgrades for traditional telecoms
2) 3G networks for mobile phone service providers
3) Broadband expansion for cable companies
4) Voice over IP for large businesses replacing their PBX-based telephone systems.
The industry is dominated by companies like Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent who enjoy large economies of scale. Smaller companies find niches to compete and usually partner with their larger competitors who enter into the relationship to not have to develop it in-house. One risk of these companies, especially the smaller ones, is they usually have to choose between different technologies and if they choose the wrong technology than they are left in the cold. The other ever looming risk is developing a product that is inferior to your competitor and having your customers flock to your other competitor. This industry has lots of possibilities for impressive returns on investments, it is just important to weigh the risks inherent in the investment and a little luck could go a long way.

Sonus Networks is a good example of one of these smaller companies that may be a leader in the emerging next-generation packet-based switching equipment market. Sonus has set the benchmark for call reliability against the industry behemoths such as Alcatel-Lucent, Nortel, and Cisco. Despite its early success, the risks are abundant for this company as it has very little bargaining power with its more concentrated customers (Sonus’ top 5 customers account for about 60% of sales) and is dealing with intense competition from much bigger rivals. It will be interesting to see if Sonus can maintain its technological lead as better financed competition races to catch up in the huge potential market.

Tobacco: Vector Group Ltd. (VGR)

The Tobacco Industry faces many challenges going forward. I guess selling a product that gives your customers cancer will do that eventually. Domestically, demand for tobacco is decreasing which is turning more attention to foreign markets for growth. The government is also actively pursuing increasing its excise tax on cigarettes which would make the price of cigarettes substantially higher. There are also issues with the marketing of cigarettes that these companies deal with. It seems like the government will soon have to start marketing cigarettes themselves if they want to make sure their excise tax revenue keeps coming in. An emerging product offering in this industry is smokeless tobacco; time will tell how successful it will be. There are definitely many obstacles for the companies in this industry, but expect these companies to survive, even if their customers do not. (drum roll)

Vector Group, Ltd., through its subsidiaries, engages primarily in the manufacture and sale of cigarettes in the United States. The company produces cigarettes in approximately 270 combinations of length, style, and packaging. Its principal brand portfolio includes LIGGETT SELECT, GRAND PRIX, EVE, PYRAMID, USA, and various Partner Brands and private-label brands. Vector also develops and markets the low-nicotine and nicotine-free cigarette products, as well as develops reduced-risk cigarette products. The company currently sports a dividend yield of 7.3%. The company also has insider ownership of over 13%. I do not think it is a compelling value at this point, but Carl Icahn is an investor and he seems to know what he is doing.

Water Utilities: York Water (YORW)

This industry has historically been appealing to income-oriented investors for its payout ratio but there has recently been an overall decline in the dividend payout of companies in this industry. Water utilities are highly dependent on weather conditions and earnings can be quite volatile. Also, infrastructure is aging which should require significant capital expenditures in the coming years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also enacting tougher regulations which will increase costs. Since many of the companies in this industry do not have the on-hand cash to pay for these future costs, expect debt and equity financing to further dilute the shares of today’s shareholders. The industry is benefiting recently from faster and more favorable decisions by regulatory agencies but it will probably not be enough to make many of these companies appealing in the long-term.

The York Water Company (YORW) engages in the impounding, purification, and distribution of water in York County and Adams County, Pennsylvania. It owns two reservoirs, Lake Williams and Lake Redman, which together holds approximately 2.2 billion gallons of water. The company also owns a 15-mile pipeline from the Susquehanna River to Lake Redman that provides access to an additional supply of water. As of December 31, 2006, The York Water Company served approximately 57,578 residential, commercial, industrial, and other customers in 34 municipalities in York County and 4 municipalities in Adams County. The dividend yield is currently 2.9%. The company had its best year in 2006 as it posted its highest ever operating revenues, operating income, earnings and earnings per share. This company has net margins over 20% and a return on equity of over 10%. The company has also increased its dividend for ten straight years and more impressively, has an uninterrupted dividend streak of 544 periods. This company has definitely proven its staying power.

Electrical Equipment: KOSS Corporation (KOSS)
There is a high correlation between the overall economic health of the economy and the performance of this industry. The deterioration of the housing market is affecting demand for its products which has forced many companies to focus on cost containment. However, it is critical to continue to refresh your product portfolio with new product offerings so successful Research & Development is crucial in this industry. Growth in foreign markets such as Asia and Latin America are also important opportunities these companies are looking to capture.

Koss Corporation (KOSS) designs, manufactures, and sells stereo headphones and related accessory products. It markets its products under Koss brand through audio specialty stores, the Internet, direct mail catalogs, regional department store chains, discount department stores, military exchanges, prisons, and national retailers. The company also sells its products to distributors for resale to school systems, and directly to other manufactures. Koss Corporation distributes its products internationally through sales representatives and independent distributors. The Koss family still runs the company and owns a substantial part of it. Despite having no debt, the company has a return on shareholder’s equity of over 20%. However, in its most recent quarter, the company reported a 5% decline in net sales and posted a 21% decline in net income which they blamed due to a plunge in the European market. They are confident this is a one-time setback so this recent dip in sales price may be an opportunity.

Retail (Special Lines): Marlin Business Svcs Inc (MRLN)
So far the best retailers who are enjoying the best success in this current economic climate are those targeting the young, affluent shoppers. Tiffany and Coach are two good examples. This industry is obviously dependent on the discretionary spending of consumers but a company that offers a differentiated product, keeps costs contained, and deftly expands into new markets will succeed in just about any economic climate.

Marlin Business Services Corp. (MRLN) provides equipment financing solutions primarily to small and mid-size independent equipment dealers in the United States. The stock currently trades at about $12.35 per share after hitting a high of $24.40 earlier in the year. Despite a return on equity of about 13% and profit margins over 28%, the company is trading close to book value. The stock recently reported a drop in earnings per share in its latest quarter which is misleading due to a one-time gain in 2006. This may deserve a closer look to estimate how much free cash flow the company can generate going forward, something it hasn’t been able to do to date due to its expansion.

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