By David Sterman
Earnings growth is slowing across many industries. Companies are struggling since there aren't many costs left to cut, and the clear headwinds of a still-weak economy persist. Yet for a select group of companies, business is booming. These companies are on track to double, triple or quadruple earnings from this year to next.
Many banks including SunTrust Banks (NYSE: STI), Zions Bancorp. (Nasdaq: ZION), MB Financial (Nasdaq: MBFI) and PrivateBancorp (Nasdaq: PVTB) are all expected to see their per share profits rise at least 100% in 2012, largely due to the simple fact that loan losses in 2011 are expected to come off of the books. For the other stocks in the table below, earnings are expected to rise simply because business is quite good. Equally impressive: you can buy these stocks for less than 13 times consensus 2012 profit forecasts.
A few of these stocks stand out as solid earnings plays -- if they can deliver on the lofty expectations analysts have placed on them.
1. U.S. Steel (NYSE: X)
Shares of this steel maker have fallen steadily throughout the first half of 2011 as the price of steel dropped from $900 a ton in early April to a recent $750. Even with the drop, U.S. Steel should continue to see a robust expansion in profits in 2012 as the company switches to lower cost natural gas at some of its energy-intensive plants.
After losing nearly $3 a share in 2010 (partially attributable to legacy pension liabilities that are slowly dropping off), per share profits should rebound to around $2.50 this year and exceed $5 in 2012, according to analysts. As a point of reference, the company earned a whopping $17 a share in 2008.
Besides the drop in steel prices, shares have also been drifting lower on concerns the global economy may be slipping back into recession. Yet a growing chorus of investors suggests the recent economic weakness is just a speed bump related to the sudden blow the Japanese tsunami and nuclear power crisis dealt to the global supply chain. These investors think the economy will start to look healthier later this year, perhaps setting the stage for solid growth in 2012. If that happens, then demand for steel would likely push prices up toward the $1,000 per ton mark, especially if auto makers sell more vehicles in 2012. In that scenario, U.S. Steel could earn a good bit more than the current forecast, with earnings per share (EPS) approaching $7 or $8. At a recent $46, shares look quite inexpensive in that context.
2. Manitowoc (NYSE: MTW)
This company, which is the world's leading provider of construction cranes, would also get a material boost from an improving economy. Earnings have been rebounding after a sharp drop in 2009, and the trend could continue for several years. This is because even as Manitowoc is expected to more than triple EPS in 2012 to around $1.50, that figure still stands well below the $2.47 earned in 2007. As is the case with U.S. Steel, shares have pulled back this spring, creating a fresh entry point.
3. Take Two Interactive (Nasdaq: TTWO)
Video game stocks have been saddled with ever-smaller price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios in recent years. Investors have grown concerned that web browsing and other time-sucking hobbies are leading to diminished interest in these games. Don't tell that to Take Two, which continues to produce a steady stream of reliable titles and is on the cusp of a major upgrade for many of its most popular games.
Of course, it's still a lumpy business. Hot new title releases can sometimes get bunched together. Management would love to smooth out its slate of game releases, but that's the nature of video game development. You have no idea how long it will take to work out all the kinks in a new game, especially as titles become increasingly complex. For example, Tale Two's highly-anticipated LA Noir game, which had an Oscar-like red carpet debut at the Tribeca Film Festival, had a 2,200 page script involving 400 live actors.
The lumpy release schedule explains why Take Two's profits may dip below $0.50 in the current fiscal year ending March 2012, down from around $1 in fiscal 2011. But analysts think the company is shaping up to have a banner year in fiscal 2013 because a range of hot new titles (including a new version of the company's top-selling Grand Theft Auto) should hit the market. As a result, per share profits may exceed $2, which would be a company record. It's quite possible the current forecasts are far too conservative: Take Two has topped estimates by at least 50% for each of the past four quarters.
It's the breadth of titles and Take Two's ability to repeatedly generate fresh demand for new versions of its most popular games that leads analysts to suggest this is the best video game stock to own. Take Two "has one of the strongest libraries of owned (intellectual property) in the video game business," note analysts at Sterne Agee. The firm carries a $21 price target on the stock, representing 35% upside.
As a final kicker, Take Two carries more than $400 million in NOLs (net operating loss carryforwards) on its balance sheet. These can be used to shield an equivalent amount of future profit from taxes. This is why some analysts think Take Two would make a solid buyout candidate for entertainment firms wanting greater exposure to the video game market.
These three companies represent the best of both worlds: high growth and low earnings multiples. For investors, this suggests they could be seen as momentum plays when earnings take off and defensive plays in a struggling market. All are worth further consideration from investors.