International Paper Has Modest Valuation Upside

| About: International Paper (IP)

As part of our process, we perform a rigorous discounted cash-flow methodology that dives into the true intrinsic worth of companies. In International Paper's (NYSE:IP) case, we think the firm is fairly valued at $38 per share, which is slightly higher than where it is currently trading (our reports on International Paper and other companies can be found here).

For some background, we think a comprehensive analysis of a firm's discounted cash-flow valuation, relative valuation versus industry peers, as well as an assessment of technical and momentum indicators, is the best way to identify the most attractive stocks at the best time to buy. This process culminates in what we call our Valuentum Buying Index (click here for more information on our methodology), which ranks stocks on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.

If a company is undervalued both on a DCF and on a relative valuation basis and is showing improvement in technical and momentum indicators, it scores high on our scale. International Paper scores a 7 on our scale (reflecting its fair value and bullish technicals).

Our Report on International Paper

Click to enlarge images.

Investment Considerations

Investment Highlights

International Paper earns a ValueCreation rating of excellent, the highest possible mark on our scale. The firm has been generating economic value for shareholders for the past few years, a track record we

view very positively. Return on invested capital (excluding goodwill) has averaged 18.5% during the past three years.

The firm is trading at attractive valuation mulitples relative to peers, but our DCF process indicates a less compelling opportunity. We'd wait for a clearer signal on valuation before jumping into the firm's shares.

International Paper has a good combination of strong free cash flow generation and manageable financial leverage. We expect the firm's free cash flow margin to average about 4.4% in coming years. Total debt-to-EBITDA was 2.7 last year, while debt-to-book capitalization stood at 55.9%.

Although we think there may be a better time to dabble in the firm's shares based, on our DCF process, the firm's stock has outperformed the market benchmark during the past quarter, indicating increased investor interest in the company.

The firm sports a dvidend yield of 3.5%. We expect the firm to pay out about 34% of next year's earnings to shareholders as dividends. Though the payout looks manageable, based on our predictive, dividend-cut indicator--the Valuentum Dividend Cushion--we think there are much better risk/reward dividend-growth plays out there than International Paper's yield. We'd keep International Paper on our dividend-growth watch list, but we're not compelled to add it to our Dividend Growth Newsletter.

Economic Profit Analysis

The best measure of a firm's ability to create value for shareholders is expressed by comparing its return on invested capital with its weighted average cost of capital. The gap or difference between ROIC and WACC is called the firm's economic profit spread. International Paper 's 3-year historical return on invested capital (without goodwill) is 18.5%, which is above the estimate of its cost of capital of 9.9%. As such, we assign the firm a ValueCreation rating of excellent. In the chart below, we show the probable path of ROIC in the years ahead based on the estimated volatility of key drivers behind the measure. The solid grey line reflects the most likely outcome, in our opinion, and represents the scenario that results in our fair value estimate.

Cash Flow Analysis

Valuation Analysis

Our discounted cash flow model indicates that International Paper 's shares are worth between $26.00 - $50.00 each. The margin of safety around our fair value estimate is driven by the firm's high ValueRisk rating, which is derived from the historical volatility of key valuation drivers. The estimated fair value of $38 per share represents a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of about 25.6 times last year's earnings and an implied EV/EBITDA multiple of about 7.6 times last year's EBITDA. Our model reflects a compound annual revenue growth rate of 3.2% during the next five years, a pace that is lower than the firm's 3-year historical compound annual growth rate of 4.8%. Our model reflects a 5-year projected average operating margin of 9.1%, which is above International Paper's trailing 3-year average. Beyond year 5, we assume free cash flow will grow at an annual rate of 2.4% for the next 15 years and 3% in perpetuity. For International Paper, we use a 9.9% weighted average cost of capital to discount future free cash flows.

Margin of Safety Analysis

Our discounted cash flow process values each firm on the basis of the present value of all future free cash flows. Although we estimate the firm's fair value at about $38 per share, every company has a range of probable fair values that's created by the uncertainty of key valuation drivers (like future revenue or earnings, for example). After all, if the future was known with certainty, we wouldn't see much volatility in the markets as stocks would trade precisely at their known fair values. Our ValueRisk rating sets the margin of safety or the fair value range we assign to each stock. In the graph below, we show this probable range of fair values for International Paper. We think the firm is attractive below $26 per share (the green line), but quite expensive above $50 per share (the red line). The prices that fall along the yellow line, which includes our fair value estimate, represent a reasonable valuation for the firm, in our opinion.

Future Path of Fair Value

We estimate International Paper 's fair value at this point in time to be about $38 per share. As time passes, however, companies generate cash flow and pay out cash to shareholders in the form of dividends. The chart below compares the firm's current share price with the path of International Paper 's expected equity value per share over the next three years, assuming our long-term projections prove accurate. The range between the resulting downside fair value and upside fair value in Year 3 represents our best estimate of the value of the firm's shares three years hence. This range of potential outcomes is also subject to change over time, should our views on the firm's future cash flow potential change. The expected fair value of $48 per share in Year 3 represents our existing fair value per share of $38 increased at an annual rate of the firm's cost of equity less its dividend yield. The upside and downside ranges are derived in the same way, but from the upper and lower bounds of our fair value estimate range.

Pro Forma Financial Statements

Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

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