Any skilled poker player will tell you, when the odds are heavily stacked in your favor, get your money in.
The same rule applies to stocks. Given how cheap stocks are, the probabilities favor investors on the long side. And that leaves but one thing to do, for the new stock picks named below, as well as for the six names already added to my Top Ten list (General Electric, Terex, Manitowoc, Bank of America, Citigroup, Whirlpool). Get your money in.
Buy: Hartford Financial (HIG)
This is a stock (and a book value) that almost nobody believes in. With a book value of $46.72 and a stock quote around $16, this is a story that begins and ends with one word: Confidence.
Most investors are already familiar with Hartford, the company. Hartford sells individual annuities, mutual funds, and multiple insurance lines, including life, disability, property and casualty. Confidence in the insurance industry – and in Hartford, in particular - cratered during the credit crisis. In 2009, the company borrowed $3.4 billion in TARP monies, paying it back in full in 2010. Just because TARP was quickly repaid, though, doesn’t mean investors have faith in Hartford financials.
It’ll happen in due course. The stock will trade at around one times book someday soon, after investors get comfortable with the quality of book equity and with management’s new taste for risk aversion. The company needs a few quarters of consistent operating performance to turn skeptics into believers.
Funny thing is, much of the worry and angst over the books of financial companies like Hartford is unnecessary. As I’ve said in columns on Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC), financial companies have been thoroughly vetted by regulators, and subjected to all sorts of stress tests (e.g., what happens if unemployment goes to 13%). This is a time when investors should be confident in the accuracy of financials – the time to be nervous was pre-credit crisis, when risk-taking was the norm, when oversight by regulators was sloppy.
If anything, this is the sort of company nervous investors should seek out in the current market environment. Like Citigroup, many of Hartford’s low-return, high-volatility businesses (comprising 30% of operations) have been separated from the core company and are in run-off mode. What is left are high-quality businesses that are healthy and growing.
For 2012, earnings from Hartford’s core businesses (ex-run-off businesses) should be about $3.40 per share, for a PE multiple of less than five. Capital is already being returned to shareholders, a sign that the company is on solid financial ground. Add the dividend yield of 2.7% to the current stock buyback (the company is retiring over 7% of outstanding shares), and the implied yield to shareholders is nearly 10%. It’s just the beginning of good things to come for buyers of Hartford stock.
Buy: MFC Industrial (MIL)
Here is a $390 million (market capitalization) company you’ve probably never heard of. Known formerly as Terra Nova Royalty, it changed its name to MFC Industrial at the end of September. Its primary business is in commodities – both sourcing and delivery of commodities to clients all over the world.
Trading at about $6.32 per share, this company offers investors both substantial upside (think 50% or so over the next year) as well as downside protection. Check out this balance sheet: The market cap of $390 million is backed up by a boatload of cash, with net cash (after adjusting for $50 million in debt) of $328 million.
MFC Industrial has other businesses (in addition to the commodity business) and other noncash assets that serve as protection for investors. For example, the company recently identified $100 million in noncore, nonessential assets. It intends to distribute these assets to shareholders in a way that maximizes value (cash and/or spinoff of assets). The transaction could occur as early as the first half of 2012. Investors should pay attention, as the contemplated special dividend of $100 million is about 25% of the company’s current market value.
One reason to consider this stock is the track record of CEO Michael Smith. Smith buys undervalued companies, fixes them up and/or figures out ways to unlock value. He has a solid performance track record stretching back over twenty-five years, including 20% annual returns during the decade that ended last year. That Smith recently bought 180,000 shares of MFC Industrial on the open market (over $10 million) is just another reason to take a close look at this stock.
The strategy with this stock is simple: You’re giving a smart allocator of capital an overcapitalized and liquid balance sheet, and it’s reasonable to expect good things will result.
Final additions to The Top Ten List
Look for my last column in this ongoing series, out later this week, when I’ll name the final two picks for the Top Ten list.