March 8 was a horribly painful day for NV5 Global (NASDAQ: NVEE) shareholders. After the company reported fourth-quarter 2018 results and announced guidance for 2019, its shares plunged a brutal 32% on the day. Even after a strong rebound -- shares have recovered about 10% since as of this writing -- investors have seen a year's worth of gains essentially wiped out.
As of this writing, NV5 Global's stock price is up about 3% over the past year, slightly ahead of the total returns of the S&P 500, but it's down almost 40% from the all-time high set last year:
The biggest reason for the recent drop? Likely two things. First, a market that was very disappointed in management's forecast for 2019, which called for sales growth between 15% and 24%, and adjusted earnings growth between 8% and 21%. Both figures represent a significant slowing from 25% revenue growth and 36% adjusted earnings-per-share growth in 2018. Second, NV5 Global announced it "expects to report a material weakness" in its forthcoming annual report related to project contracts it had signed in prior years.
The market's sell-off presents investors with a timely opportunity to buy shares of a high-growth company at an excellent valuation.
NV5 Global and the art of sandbagging
Last Friday's 32% haircut was painful, but it was also a touch ironic that investors sold so fast and furiously. With regard to the material weakness, founder and CEO Dickerson Wright made it clear on the earnings call that the cost of remediation of the material weakness was so small it couldn't even be reflected in an impact on earnings per share, and the remediation would likely boost earnings going forward.
Yet even after his comments, the stock price stayed well down, indicating that Mr. Market was far more focused on 2019 guidance for a big slowdown in growth. Here's the catch: The company's guidance for 2019 isn't really all that different than what management guided for a year ago.
In the 2018 fourth-quarter earnings report, management's guidance for the full year 2018 called for revenue growth of 11% to 22%, and adjusted earnings-per-share growth between 23% and 35%. Here's the catch: That big adjusted earnings-per-share growth was partly a product of the one-time impact of the 2017 federal tax legislation.
The big takeaway is that the market often overreacts to earnings news, and sometimes it's "good" and a stock climbs, and sometimes it's "bad" and a stock falls sharply. The challenge for investors is being able to identify when the reaction creates an opportunity to profit.
Let's talk about why NV5's sell-off is a buying opportunity.
The $94 trillion investment opportunity you don't want to miss
The global opportunity remains enormous. The Global Infrastructure Hub, an initiative of the G20, forecasts a global need to invest $94 trillion on infrastructure between 2007 and 2040.
Furthermore, there are dual drivers pushing this spending need. In developed nations like the U.S., transportation and energy infrastructure that's decades overdue for improvements and the demographic shift of populations toward urban environments will require several trillions of dollars in spending over the next few decades.
Around the world, global middle-class populations are burgeoning. The Brookings Institution says more than half the world's population is now middle-class or wealthier, while other studies show that the global middle class is still growing and should add at least another 1 billion members within a decade, and mostly in countries still early in their transition from emerging economy to global player.
NV5 Global sits squarely in the middle of this opportunity both in the U.S. and overseas. The company anticipates it will continue growing organic revenues at a high-single-digit rate, while remaining "actively involved" in pursuing growth through acquisitions. Buying and integrating companies isn't easy, but Wright and his executive team -- the bulk of which he has worked with since even before founding NV5 Global -- have proved to be skilled at identifying small engineering and other related professional services firms that add value to the company, and then integrating them into NV5.
A high-growth stock too cheap to ignore, plus a lot more
If we just start with the price-to-earnings multiple, NV5 Global trades for about 25 times 2018 earnings. For context, the S&P 500 average P/E ratio is about 22 at recent prices, putting NV5 at a very modest premium over the market today. Looking at forward earnings, NV5 trades for 23.8 times the low end of 2019 earnings guidance, and only 20.4 times the high end of guidance.
That's incredibly cheap when you consider NV5's past execution, and the massive opportunity in front of it.
Lastly, its biggest shareholder is its founder, who still runs the company and has a multi-decade track record of success in the industry. Companies like that have a history of market-crushing returns. The buy signals don't get much louder.
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