Waste Management: Significant Upside From Here

| About: Waste Management, (WM)

Executive Summary:

We believe that Waste Management (NYSE:WM) is a medium-quality company with a Business Quality Score of 4 based on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 is best). Also, shares of Waste Management appear to be undervalued based on a discounted cash flow analysis. Waste Management stock would need to rise 24.8% to reach fair value based on the closing price of $36.61/share for Waste Management shares on 02-22-2013.

Business Quality Analysis:

Waste Management has a Business Quality Score of 4 out of 10 based on an analysis of historical data. We assign a Business Quality Score to each company undergoing analysis. The score is based on a scale of 1 to 10 with a value of 10 indicating the best possible Business Quality Score. Our Business Quality Score is a proprietary metric, which takes into account the 10-year historical performance of the company. Performance is measured considering the absolute performance (and trends) in revenues, earnings, profit margins and returns on assets/equity.

Low Business Quality Scores (3 or lower) indicate companies that are in a cyclical or commodity business. These businesses have erratic revenue and earnings with associated low profit margins and poor returns on capital. Low-quality companies operate in highly competitive/cyclical businesses where consistent profits are nearly impossible to achieve.

Medium Business Quality Scores (4 to 6) indicate an average quality business that operates in a business environment that is not overly cyclical in nature. Also, the products or services these businesses provide are not yet commoditized but do operate in a highly competitive business environment. Moreover, these businesses do not have durable competitive advantages that will allow these businesses to earn consistently high returns on capital. Companies with a medium Business Quality Score can sometimes be good investments if bought at deeply discount prices and sold at fair value. This is in contrast to investments in businesses with high Business Quality Scores where paying fair value for shares can yield good returns if held for the long term.

High Business Quality Scores (7 or higher) indicate companies that are in high quality businesses with some type of durable competitive advantages that keep competitors at bay. These businesses typically have steadily rising revenues and earnings with associated high profit margins and high returns on capital.


Waste Management's revenue has had relatively poor performance over the last 10 years growing at an annualized growth rate of 1.7%. Revenue was quite erratic with no discernible trend during the period. Erratic revenue is an indicator of a low-quality company, which is one reason we gave Waste Management a Business Quality Score of 4. We believe that Waste Management will grow revenue at a 4.5% annualized growth rate over the next decade.

Earnings Per Share:

Waste Management's earnings grew at an annualized growth rate of 3.8% over the last decade. However, the trend in earnings was erratic with the earnings only growing in four out of 10 years. The overall trend in earnings is upward over the decade, which is O.K. but we would prefer to see consistent earnings growth every year. Waste Management's less than stellar earnings history is the primary reason that we gave Waste Management a medium Business Quality Score of 4.

A company's earnings per share is a measure of profitability for a company. The earnings per share is calculated by dividing the net income attributable to the common stock by the average number of common shares outstanding. One drawback in using earnings as a profitability measure is that it does not consider the amount of assets needed to generate the earnings. Earning the same profit using fewer assets is more profitable but this is not captured in the earnings per share calculation.

High-quality companies will have steadily rising earnings that do not vary greatly through a full business cycle (expansion-recession-expansion). Investing in high-quality companies is fairly easy assuming an investor has realistic profit expectations and has the patience to wait for a reasonable stock price relative to the company's value.

Lower quality (cyclical) companies will have earnings that vary greatly over a business cycle. Often these cyclical companies will experience a drastic reduction in earnings during economic recessions. Investment profits can be had with investments in cyclical companies but the timing of the buying and selling of the investment must be in sync with the ebb and flow of the stock market. Typically, the stock market will start to recover about six months before the economy comes out of recession. However, this point in time is not obvious in the moment and is only known later with the benefit of hindsight. Furthermore, timing when to sell a cyclical stock is even more difficult. Timing the stock market is a matter of luck so it is best to stick with the higher-quality stocks where market timing is not as critical to investing success.

Net Profit Margin:

Waste Management has had net profit margins in the range of 6.0% to 9.0% over the last 10 years with an average net profit margin of 7.8%. The net profit margin has been trending downward since 2006, which is an area of concern that we will monitor closely. In the future, we expect Waste Management's net profit margin to hover near its long-term average of about 7.8%.

The net profit margin is net income divided by net revenue. For non-retailing companies, a consistent net profit margin of 7% or higher is an indicator of a good company with some type of durable competitive advantage. In the retailing sector a net profit margin in the range of 2.5% to 5% is the norm even for the best companies. Ideally, the net profit margin should be steady or rising over the past 10 years.

Return On Assets:

Waste Management has had a return on assets in the range of 3.5% to 5.7% over the last decade. Waste Management's performance in this regard is not impressive considering that the return on assets was under the critical 7.0% level in every year during the period. We expect the return on assets to hover around Waste Management's long-term average return on assets of about 4.8% in the coming decade.

Return on assets is a measure of how much profit is generated from a company's assets independent of how much debt is used to finance the acquisition of those assets. The return on assets is sometimes a better measure of profitability than return on equity because the return on equity can be significantly increased by adding more debt to a company's balance sheet. Adding more debt to a company can inflate profits but comes at the price of a greater risk of bankruptcy.

Measuring profitability using the return on assets does not have this problem because to calculate the return on assets the net income plus the interest expense net of income tax savings is divided by the average total assets of the company. Thus, by dividing the net income (adjusted for the affects of debt financing) by the total assets (debt + equity) of the company it cancels out the positive effects of debt.

The return on assets is great for comparing the profitability of companies with different levels of debt in their capital structures. Generally speaking, a consistent return on assets of about 7% or more is a good indication of a good business with some type of durable competitive advantage. One exception to this rule of thumb is the banking sector where a return on assets of just 2% is considered exceptional.

Return On Equity

Waste Management has had a return on equity in the range of 13.2% to 19.6% during the last 10 years. Waste Management's performance in this area is good considering that the return on equity was above the critical 15% level in 8 out of 10 years during this period. We believe that Waste Management's return on equity will continue at its long-term average of about 16.7% for the foreseeable future.

Return on equity measures a company's performance in financing and using assets to generate earnings. In contrast to the return on assets, the return on equity considers the affect of financing in generating profits. To calculate the return on equity the net income (minus dividends paid on preferred stock) is divided by the average common shareholder's equity. As a rule of thumb, a consistent return on equity of 15% or more (assuming a reasonable level of debt financing) is an indicator of a good company with some type of durable competitive advantage.


A discounted cash flow analysis revealed a fair value for Waste Management shares of $45.70/share. We use the percent of revenue method in our discounted cash flow analysis. The model assumes a weighted average cost of capital (OTC:WACC) of 9.8%. Our WACC is calculated using a proprietary formula unique to our firm. An average annualized revenue growth rate of 4.5% is projected over the next 10 years. An average annualized revenue growth rate of 3.0% is assumed for every year thereafter.


Waste Management appears to be a medium-quality company with an undervalued stock price. Based on a fair value of $45.70/share and the Waste Management closing stock price of $36.61/share (on 02-22-2013) the stock must rise 24.8% to reach fair value.

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, but may initiate a long position in WM over the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

Disclaimer: Ulfberht Capital is not an investment advisor. This article is not a recommendation to buy or sell securities. Always consult your investment advisor before making any investment decision.