Thisis the time of year when we tend to have food on our minds. With Thanksgivingkicking off the season of feasting, perhaps investors should think about thecompanies that help make all of this food. I track a universe of 42publicly-traded companies, and, like I did lastyear at this time, I want to see if there are any potential bargains forconservative investors.
Thefood group has experienced a range of performance in 2011, with a few stocksdeclining in excess of 50% and a couple rising by that much or more. More typically, the stocks have increasedabout 6%, slightly better than the market in general.
Onthe one hand, investors are seeking out stable companies that are capable of maintainingor even boosting above-market dividend yields. Most of the 42 stocks pay a dividend, with an overall median of about1.4%, but ten of the companies have yields of 3% or higher.
Onthe other hand, performance has been tough for many of these companies, as theyare contending with very strong input cost inflation. Another challenge has been a shift towardsprivate labels. Just like the group hashad very different price performance, earnings performance has varied aswell. In fact, 15 of the companies haveseen earnings per share decline over the past year,
Ithink it’s worth examining the sector again. First, in a continuing weak economy, the relative growth of thesecompanies could look good compared to the market in general. Second, while some of the companies haveinternational exposure, many are more focused on domestic sales. In an environment of a strengthening U.S.dollar, investors may turn to these companies that don’t have foreign currencyrisks.
Intrying to decide how to narrow down the universe of companies that make food, Iwanted to find names that have strong balance sheets and low valuations. So, I went “shopping”, with the followingparameters in mind:
- Market Cap > $500mm
- Net Debt to Capital < 20%
- EV/EBITDA < 9X
Keep inmind that these are not recommendations. You should do your own research before making any buy decision.
Lastyear, eleven stocks met our criteria. Why did fewer make the cut this year? Quite simply, it’s valuation. Noneof these stocks stands out in terms of dividend yield compared to the overallmarket. I believe that so much recentfocus on dividends has forced up valuations. In fact, of the six names with above-market dividend yields last year,only one made the list this year, Cal Maine Foods (CALM).
I don’tcurrently include any of these stocks in my model portfolios, but I have ownedCALM and Hormel Foods (HRL) and follow them closely. Of the two, egg-producer CALM looks moreinteresting to me at the moment because their input costs have really hurt thembut are now improving. The company paysout 1/3 of net income in dividends, so the dividend varies fromquarter-to-quarter. While HRL’svaluation isn’t particularly cheap, I believe it’s an excellent company. Note that it has increased dividends in eachof the past 30+ years.
I believethat the token dividend, the high dollar price of the stock, the fact that it’snot in a Standard & Poor’s index and the lack of analyst coverage as wellas some earnings variability all have contributed to a very inexpensivestock. Another thing to look for here isconsiderable insider ownership.
Screeningis a tool to identify stocks to study more closely for potentialinvestment. In this case, we have identified6 stocks that meet several criteria important to conservative investors. In a continuing environment of slow economicgrowth and low bond yields, some of these stocks could generate enthusiasmamong investors in 2012.
Disclosure: Alan Brochstein does not hold any positionsmentioned in this blog post.
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