Kodak: Horrible Fundamentals But Too Cheap To Short

At first blush shares of Eastman Kodak (EK) appear to be an attractive candidate to short. Digital cameras have essentially eliminated the company’s largest and most profitable revenue generator (traditional film) and sales have been declining for years. Kodak’s answer to a disappearing business has been to focus on digital hardware such as their own camera line as well as a foray into the world of ink jet printers and cartridges. The glaring problem with this strategy is that they are shifting from a very high margin, uncompetitive area (film) to a very low margin, highly competitive one (consumer electronics). The results thus far have been predictably poor. Over the last five years EK stock has plunged from $30 to under $4 as sales have declined and profits have all but disappeared during what they dubbed a “digital transition.”

Since I really do not envision the fundamentals for Kodak improving, it is a prime choice to look into as a potential short candidate. After such a dramatic fall, however, coupled with 24% of the outstanding float already sold short, there does not appear to be much room to the downside, in the near term anyway. This is mainly because Kodak has managed to successfully clean up its balance sheet in recent years (an imperative when a business is in decline) to the point where they now have net cash (cash on hand less gross debt) of about $150 million. And while revenue is certainly declining, they still bring in about $7 billion a year in sales. Such figures make the current stock price ($3.75) and equity valuation ($1 billion) look reasonable enough that shorting now is not all that exciting to me.

Considering Kodak’s current equity value of $1 billion and revenue run rate of about $7 billion annually, the company only needs to earn a net profit equal to 1.4% of sales to earn $100 million annually, which would give the stock a P/E ratio of 10. Therefore, in order for a short position to work well at current prices, the P/E would have to drop far below 10, sales would need to fall off a cliff, or they would have to start to bleed cash. While the business fundamentals are poor, none of these scenarios seem like a high probability event in the near term. More likely, Kodak will continue to slowly lose revenue, run the business at break-even or slightly above, and the stock will trade at a discount based on their weakened market position. While these facts would not make Kodak stock a good investment at current prices, there does not seem to be a huge amount of downside either, barring some unforeseen event.

Full Disclosure: No position in Kodak at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Apple Stock Can Easily Reach $450

I often get a little bit of flak from a handful of fellow value investors when I write about owning tech companies such as Apple (AAPL) or Research in Motion (RIMM). How can you call yourself a value investor and own growth stocks like these, they ask? For me it all comes down to valuation, not growth rates. If RIMM trades at 9 times earnings, why would I not want to own it as a value manager? It trades at a huge discount to the market and its peer group. Isn’t that what value investing is all about, finding stocks trading at a discount? If two stocks I am looking at both trade at 9 times earnings, but one is growing at 5% a year and the other is growing at 25% a year, I am going to favor the one growing at 25% a year (all else equal) because it has even more upside. That should not mean that I am abandoning my core investment strategy. When the stock reaches a market multiple and no longer trades at a discount, I will sell and move on.

Which brings me to Apple. How can I justify continuing to own Apple after the enormous move the stock has made over the last decade? Because for some strange reason it still trades at a discount. The company just reported quarterly earnings of $6.43 per share, more than $1 above estimates, giving them an annual earnings run rate of nearly $26 per share. Even after a solid after-hours rally the stock sits at $344 which is really more like $280 after you net out the $64 of cash and no debt on their balance sheet. Apple stock, therefore, trades at an astounding 11 times its annual earnings run-rate,  a 20% discount to the S&P 500 index, which is why my clients still own it.

When will I sell? Well, if we assign a 15 P/E to nearly $26 of earnings and add back $64 per share of net cash, we get about $450 per share. At that price the stock would no longer trade at a discount to either the market or its peer group, so I will move on. Even at $450 growth investors will likely still argue that Apple is “cheap” based on their growth rate (they often are willing to pay up to a P/E of twice a company’s growth rate), but that is a growth investor’s mentality. And although it is hard for some to belief, it is not the one I use when allocating clients’ investment capital.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of Apple and Research in Motion at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Motorola Doubles Down on Cell Phones with Mobility Unit Spin-Off, But Should Investors Tread Carefully?

 

Motorola’s long-planned corporate break-up became official last week as the stock split into two distinct business units; Motorola Mobility Holdings (MMI) and Motorola Solutions (MSI). The former will encompass Motorola’s consumer unit (cell phones and cable set-top boxes) whereas the latter will serve the enterprise sector.

Analysts have been praising Motorola Mobility as a way for investors to play the rise of Android smartphones and Motorola’s success with the Droid product line. In fact, just this morning Bank of America Merrill Lynch initiated coverage of MMI with a buy rating and $38 price target (the shares currently trade around $32).

Making a bet on a cell phone pure play, without a stronghold on a certain niche of the market a la Apple or RIM, seems risky to me. After all, this industry is extremely competitive and aside from Apple and RIM, companies make very little money selling cell phone hardware. Palm was forced to sell itself to HP and after their success with the RAZR phone many years ago, Motorola struggled mightily before their Droid came along. Other giants in the space like Samsung and LG have diversified electronics product offerings so they do not need to rely on cell phones for strong profits. And new competitors enter the market all the time. We just learned that LCD TV maker Vizio is planning to launch Android phones and tablets and HP is set to launch a line of phones this year based on the Palm webOS operating system they acquired.

Perhaps the biggest reason to be cautious about Motorola Mobility is the fact that Apple is set to give Verizon the iPhone shortly. The Droid has done pretty well on Verizon in large part due to the fact that Verizon is the largest U.S. phone carrier but has not had access to the iPhone before. Loyal Verizon users have been using Blackberry and Droid phones but that could change dramatically when Apple’s products are made available to them.

All in all, it seems that everyone is jumping on the Android bandwagon. This is definitely good for consumers but I have to question how all of these players are going to make good money by selling what is essentially the exact same commoditized product. Is a Motorola smartphone or tablet computer running Android really going to be able to differentiate itself from an Android-based product from Samsung, LG, Dell, or anyone else? Seems unlikely, and without doing so these hardware companies are going to be at each others’ throats, which reduces pricing power and mostly importantly, profit margins. Computers makers like Packard Bell and AST have long been extinct because they could not outsell their competitors with largely identical products (Windows-based computers). Why would the tablet PC market or the phone market be any different?

Digging into Motorola Mobility’s numbers hardly paints an overly bullish picture either. While it is true that the company has stemmed losses in its cell phone division, which was losing hundreds of millions of dollars just a few short quarters ago, the business is still not making money (operating margins were 0% last quarter). With a strong launch of the Droid and reduced competition within Verizon’s customer base, Motorola still isn’t making a dime selling smartphones today. It is hard for me to see how that situation improves materially after the iPhone launches on networks outside of AT&T, but Motorola’s long-term goal is an operating margin of 8-12%. Seems overly optimistic to me.

The overseas markets could potentially be a strong area of focus for Droid, but Motorola Mobility gets 68% of their revenue from North America, so they are not big players in Europe or Asia. MMI is also more than just cell phones, with one-third of their revenue coming from a leading market share position in the cable set-top box market, but that industry seems poised for competition too. Would it surprise anyone if Apple or Google eventually launched their own cable box to compete with digital cable? Growth potential in set-top boxes seems lackluster and Motorola’s leading market share could come under fire. In fact, I just read that companies are already working on ways to build cable box technology directly into television sets, thereby eliminating the need for cable subscribers to have a separate cable box at all.

All in all, color me pessimistic about the outlook for Motorola Mobility, the company’s new pure play cell phone company. At $32 per share, MMI shares trade at 18 28 (corrected 11:50am) times 2011 earnings estimates of $1.16 and given that the company lost money in 2010, I think those projections for future quarters may prove difficult to achieve. MMI does give investors a strong balance sheet ($3.5 billion in cash and no debt), but given high research and development costs, coupled with a cell phone business that is only breaking even right now, and it is entirely possible that their cash hoard may dwindle over time.

Full Disclosure: The portfolio that Peridot Capital manages on Wealthfront was short shares of MMI at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Large Brokerage Firm Recommendations Performing Poorly, Again

Another piece of data supporting the idea of contrarian investing, this time from Bloomberg.

The money quote:

“Companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index that analysts loved the most rose 73 percent on average since the benchmark for U.S. equity started to recover in March 2009, while those with the fewest “buy” recommendations gained 165 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Now, bank favorites include retailers and restaurant chains, the industry that did best in last year’s rally and that are more expensive than the S&P 500 compared with their estimated 2011 profits.”

Sears, Urban Outfitters Smart to Consider Rival Bids for J. Crew

According to reports out of Bloomberg today, J. Crew Group (JCG), the upscale clothing retailer run by former Gap CEO Mickey Drexler, could receive competing buyout offers from the likes of Sears Holdings (SHLD) or Urban Outfitters (URBN). J. Crew has already agreed to a private equity buyout for $43.50 per share in cash, but the deal included a “go-shop” provision,which allows the company to solicit higher bids until January 15th. This Bloomberg report signals that other parties are indeed interested to some degree.

I have been following the situation closely because J. Crew is a current holding in a portfolio I manage for Peridot Capital on Wealthfront. Normally with the stock of an acquisition target trading less than 1% below the agreed upon buyout price I would have long sold the stock, but the price J. Crew accepted made me hold on with hopes of another offer. JCG agreed to sell out for less than 7.5 times trailing cash flow, which may be in line with their peer group, but JCG is not just an average run-of-the-mill retailer. The company’s upscale apparel, coupled with the merchandising abilities of CEO Drexler, make the company a very hot commodity in retail. The original purchase price of $43.50 seemed low to me, given that one would expect a buyout to fetch a premium price for such a wonderful asset within the retailing arena.

As a result, the Bloomberg report that other retailers are poking around and weighing offers should not be overly surprising, but the two parties mentioned are very interesting. Sears, you may recall, was taken over by Eddie Lampert in a move widely expected to result in him diversifying away from their legacy Sears and Kmart stores. Investors (myself included) were excited about the potential for Lampert to siphon off cash flow from Sears’ retail stores and expand into other areas with better growth prospects, but became disgusted and bailed on the stock after he did very little to move away from those two chains. Other than a bid for Restoration Hardware several years ago, Sears has squandered an opportunity so far but perhaps their interest in delving into J. Crew’s books signals a much needed shift in strategy. Not only would J. Crew give Sears a new upscale brand with much more growth potential, but the company’s lower end J. Crew factory outlet line could sell quite well in Sears and Kmart stores, which would boost J. Crew’s reach almost immediately.

Interest from Urban Outfitters is also interesting because it would fit in with the company’s Anthropologie stores as an upscale brand with a middle age target consumer. Rather than building new brands from scratch, which is what Urban has chosen to do in the past, buying an established company like J. Crew (and getting Mickey Drexler) would really mesh well with the company’s image and overall direction in the industry.

While there are no assurances that a rival bid will actually emerge in the next 10 days or so, this story is certainly one to watch. Not only could a company easily justify a purchase price 10-20% above the $43.50 that J. Crew has already accepted, but in the case of the specific companies rumored to be sniffing around, the strategic fits are quite obvious, which cannot always be said in the world of M&A.

Full Disclosure: Long shares of J. Crew and Urban Outfitters with no position in Sears at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.