By David Sterman
Tracking the moves of insiders can often lead you to small, unknown companies that have a great deal of promise.
On the daily list of buys, you only rarely come across major insider buying involving large companies. But in the past few weeks and months, there's been impressive clusters of buying among companies in the S&P 500. Three of them caught my eye.
1. Symantec (NASDAQ: SYMC)
President and CEO James Bennett just plunked down more than $2 million to buy 100,000 shares. This wasn't just the conversion of stock options that you often find on insider buying lists, but an actual purchase with real money. The move came after Bennett needed to rein in profit expectations amid a company-wide restructuring.
Make no mistake, software security vendor Symantec was in need of a shake-up. The company had seen robust growth in the past decade, as sales shot up from $2.6 billion in fiscal 2005 to $6.2 billion by 2009. However, sales in the current fiscal year are expected to be only 10% higher, equating to a compound growth rate of less than 2%. In the current quarter (which ends in December), sales are expected to fall 9% from a year ago.
To re-energize the top line, Bennett decided to re-assign virtually the entire sales force, which is an incredibly disruptive process in terms of key customer relationships.
Bennett, who took the reins in early 2013, has done what you'd expect of a turnaround specialist, which is to persuade investors to forget about near-term results. And he brings a solid pedigree: Merrill Lynch suggests he "has a solid record as prior CEO of Intuit and tenure at GE, and in our view can bring a fresh perspective to position SYMC in an increasingly mobile consumer and enterprise IT environment." Merrill's tempering its enthusiasm with an "underperform" rating that reflects Wall Street's near-term cautious approach, but Bennett's hefty insider purchase suggests cause for optimism among longer-term investors.
2. United Continental (NYSE: UAL)
A pair of directors snapped up a combined $500,000 in this stock, even as it was flirting with multi-year highs. I had been a huge fan of airline stocks, but as I cautioned in a recent column, the sector was due for a breather.
Frankly, it's getting hard to know what fair value is for airline stocks like United Continental. The entire group traded for just 4 to 6 times forward profits between 2010 and 2012, but now trades closer to 8 to 10 times forward profits. The multiple for UAL is 15 times projected 2013 profits and 8.5 times projected 2014 profits. Historically, because airline stocks are deeply cyclical, the forward multiple has never moved much above 10.
The only reason for these UAL insiders to be buying now is a belief that 2014 won't be the peak of the cycle. Indeed, European operations could strengthen in the next few years, and jet fuel prices are starting to come down. But these airlines also carry a high risk of a pullback if the U.S. economy cools and air travel slumps. This is an insider purchase that leaves me unconvinced.
3. Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX)
I took note of an impressively large share purchase at this copper and energy giant earlier this summer by CEO James Moffett, and even though shares are up 29% since then (compared to 5% for the S&P 500), insiders are at it again. Vice Chairman James Flores acquired more than $50 million in stock in a pair of recent purchases. Taken together, these two men have now committed roughly $80 million of their own money to this stock over the past few months.
To my mind, these moves aren't indicative of a bullish outlook for copper prices, which has historically been the major catalyst for this stock. Instead, it is the past to surging free cash flow and resulting debt paydowns that still appears unappreciated by Wall Street.
To be sure, a slump in China's economy would tank copper prices and push this stock back to the $20s. But these insiders also stand to nicely prosper from these purchases if the global economy - and copper prices - are on the mend in 2014.
Other companies with recent notable insider buying include:
• EV Energy Partners (NASDAQ: EVEP): After a recent sharp pullback, the yield on this energy driller has moved above 8%, which may explain why a pair of insiders spent a collective $5.4 million on shares in mid-October.
• Cosi (NASDAQ: COSI): Lloyd Miller, a major shareholder in this beleaguered restaurant chain, has become increasingly aggressive with his purchases. (And with a stake that exceeds 10%, he's classified as insider as he possesses the same inside information as the company's officers and directors.) He now owns 2.4 million shares, which may lead him to acquire the entire company, or push for a sale to other restaurant chains.
• Verastem (NASDAQ: VSTM): This biotech has seen active buying throughout this summer, and shares now trade 15% to 20% below a recent cluster of purchases that took place in the $12 area. Verastem is testing several drugs that target cancer stem cells. Scientists think that the ability to alter the function of these basic proto-cells can inhibit the growth of tumors.
• Capstead Mortgage (NYSE: CMO): This mortgage real estate investment trust (mREIT) has been the beneficiary of more than $500,000 in recent insider buying. This entire asset class has been out of favor for much of 2013 as concerns that higher interest rates will reduce profit spreads. That explains why many of them, including Capstead, sport double-digit dividend yields. The heavy insider buying suggests that these firms can still generate decent profit spreads in the future and are not as imperiled as their super-high dividends may imply.
Risks to Consider: Insiders are notoriously bad timers, and their purchases sometimes precede a tough quarter ahead. Profits accruing from their insider signals instead can take a year or two to play out.
It's rare to see such large insider purchases at such big companies. The Symantec purchase signals an emerging turnaround opportunity, while the buying at Freeport-McMoRan and United Continental can be seen more as an affirmation of business conditions remaining firm.