By Sam Stovall While preparing for a series of presentations I'll be making at the Aug. 12-13 Money Show in Washington, D.C., I examined the prices and 2005 estimated operating earnings of the 130 subindustry indexes in the S&P Composite 1500 stock index (which combines the S&P 500, S&P MidCap 400, and S&P SmallCap 600 indexes). I found that 83 were more expensive than the S&P 1500, nine showed negative earnings -- and 38 had below-market p-e ratios.
But which were the cheapest of the cheap? And did any of them present opportunities for investors?
Take a look at the table below. Of the groups with below-market valuations, only five had single-digit p-e ratios. And the steel sub-industry index led the pack with an incredibly low 7.0. I've included the five largest p-e ratios to give you an idea of just how wide the spread is among the S&P subindustries.
2005 Oper. P-E (Est.)
Thrifts & Mortgage Finance
S&P Composite 1500
Broadcasting & Cable TV
Home Entertainment Software
Internet Software & Services
Auto Parts & Equipment
Source: Standard & Poor's
With a p-e so low, one would probably think the group had been pummeled recently. In fact, it has staged a bit of a comeback in the past few months. In the year-to-date period through July 29, this subindustry index has advanced 4.9%, vs. a 2.6% rise in the S&P Composite 1500 Index. More striking, however, is that steel stocks jumped 22.4% in July alone, vs. a sub-4% gain for the broader market.
HIGHER MARGINS. Alas, many others appear to have long since discovered this undervalued area. But that doesn't necessarily mean the upside is exhausted. Leo Larkin, S&P's metals & mining analyst, says S&P's fundamental outlook for the steel subindustry is positive, based on its optimistic secular view of industry conditions.
Larkin notes that results in the 2005 first half for the three leading companies that comprise S&P's proxy for industry performance -- Nucor (NUE
; S&P Ranking 4 STARS, buy; recent price, $58.46), AK Steel (AKS
; 3 STARS, hold; $9.65), and U.S. Steel (X
; 4 STARS; $44.38) -- improved significantly, as increased revenue per ton offset rising raw material costs and lower volume.
Aggregate sales rose 17%, as a 22% increase in revenue per ton offset a 3.5% drop in shipments. Aided by higher margins, per-ton profit was $98, compared to per-ton profit of $62 in 2004. Larkin says data compiled by the American Iron and Steel Institute show that industry shipments declined 6.5% through May, 2005, while consumption (domestic shipments plus imports minus exports) decreased 2.9%.
PRICE PRESSURE. Assuming GDP growth of 3.6% in 2005, S&P believes industry conditions won't be as robust as they were in 2004, and spot steel prices will decline from 2004's unusually high levels.
Larkin expects increased import levels, along with inventory drawdowns by steel distributors and end users, will add to supply and place downward pressure on spot prices.
Steel inventories at distributors and end users at the beginning of 2004 were abnormally low, contributing to the high prices. As a result, the average realized price (revenues divided by shipments) for S&P's proxy companies may lag 2004's levels, despite the high realized price seen in the first half of 2005.
BETTER EARNINGS. The average realized price reported by S&P's proxy companies is a blend of spot and contract prices. To the extent that companies successfully negotiated large increases in contract prices for 2005, Larkin thinks this could offset some, but not all, of the impact of lower spot prices.
However, with raw material costs rising much less rapidly than in 2004, S&P's proxy companies should be able to achieve slightly higher earnings in 2005. Following the steep slide in steel stocks earlier in the year, most of the companies trade at p-e ratios of less than half that of the S&P 500.
Longer term, Larkin thinks the industry will benefit from greater pricing power, stemming from further consolidation, a lower cost structure, and a resumption of the cyclical decline S&P sees in the U.S. dollar.
So there you have it. This attractively priced subindustry has a positive fundamental outlook, which S&P thinks indicates likely future advances in share prices.
Industry Momentum List Update
For regular readers of the Sector Watch column, here is this week's list of the industries in the S&P 1500 with Relative Strength Rankings of "5" (price performances in the past 12 months that were among the top 10% of the industries in the S&P 1500) as of July 29, 2005.
Computer & Electronics Retail
Diversified Metals & Mining
Fertilizers & Agricultural Chemicals
Managed Health Care
Oil & Gas Drilling
Oil & Gas Exploration & Production
Oil & Gas Refining & Marketing
S&P STARS: Since January 1, 1987, Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services has ranked a universe of common stocks based on a given stock's potential for future performance. Under proprietary STARS (STock Appreciation Ranking System), S&P equity analysts rank stocks according to their individual forecast of a stock's future capital appreciation potential versus the expected performance of a relevant benchmark (e.g., a regional index (S&P Asia 50 Index, S&P Europe 350 Index or S&P 500 Index), based on a 12-month time horizon. STARS was designed to meet the needs of investors looking to put their investment decisions in perspective.
S&P Earnings & Dividend Rank (also known as S&P Quality Rank): Growth and stability of earnings and dividends are deemed key elements in establishing S&P's earnings and dividend rankings for common stocks, which are designed to capsulize the nature of this record in a single symbol. It should be noted, however, that the process also takes into consideration certain adjustments and modifications deemed desirable in establishing such rankings. The final score for each stock is measured against a scoring matrix determined by analysis of the scores of a large and representative sample of stocks. The range of scores in the array of this sample has been aligned with the following ladder of rankings:
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S&P Core Earnings: Standard & Poor's Core Earnings is a uniform methodology for calculating operating earnings, and focuses on a company's after-tax earnings generated from its principal businesses. Included in the Standard & Poor's definition are employee stock option grant expenses, pension costs, restructuring charges from ongoing operations, write-downs of depreciable or amortizable operating assets, purchased research and development, M&A related expenses and unrealized gains/losses from hedging activities. Excluded from the definition are pension gains, impairment of goodwill charges, gains or losses from asset sales, reversal of prior-year charges and provision from litigation or insurance settlements.
S&P 12 Month Target Price: The S&P equity analyst's projection of the market price a given security will command 12 months hence, based on a combination of intrinsic, relative, and private market valuation metrics.
Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services: Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services U.S. includes Standard & Poor's Investment Advisory Services LLC; Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services Europe includes Standard & Poor's LLC- London and Standard & Poor's AB (Sweden); Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services Asia includes Standard & Poor's LLC's offices in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.
In the U.S.
As of June 30, 2005, research analysts at Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services U.S. have recommended 30.2% of issuers with buy recommendations, 57.5% with hold recommendations and 12.3% with sell recommendations.
As of June 30, 2005, research analysts at Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services Europe have recommended 34.4% of issuers with buy recommendations, 46.8% with hold recommendations and 18.8% with sell recommendations.
As of June 30, 2005, research analysts at Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services Asia have recommended 33.3% of issuers with buy recommendations, 47.2% with hold recommendations and 19.5% with sell recommendations.
As of June 30, 2005, research analysts at Standard & Poor's Equity Research Services globally have recommended 31.0% of issuers with buy recommendations, 55.4% with hold recommendations and 13.6% with sell recommendations.
5-STARS (Strong Buy): Total return is expected to outperform the total return of a relevant benchmark, by a wide margin over the coming 12 months, with shares rising in price on an absolute basis.
4-STARS (Buy): Total return is expected to outperform the total return of a relevant benchmark over the coming 12 months, with shares rising in price on an absolute basis.
3-STARS (Hold): Total return is expected to closely approximate the total return of a relevant benchmark over the coming 12 months, with shares generally rising in price on an absolute basis.
2-STARS (Sell): Total return is expected to underperform the total return of a relevant benchmark over the coming 12 months, and the share price is not anticipated to show a gain.
1-STARS (Strong Sell): Total return is expected to underperform the total return of a relevant benchmark by a wide margin over the coming 12 months, with shares falling in price on an absolute basis.
Relevant benchmarks: in the U.S. the relevant benchmark is the S&P 500 Index, in Europe the S&P Europe 350 Index and in Asia the S&P Asia 50 Index.
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Readers should note that opinions derived from technical analysis might differ from those of Standard & Poor's fundamental recommendations. Stovall is chief investment strategist for Standard & Poor's