When Do You Buy Pfizer?

A one-year chart of Pfizer (PFE) looks more like a black diamond slope in Vail than a stock price graph. The stock has fallen almost 40 percent over the last 12 months. Now, at$24 per share, you hear a lot of recommendations to buy PFE. The 3.1 percent dividend yield is very attractive, combined with a 2005 p/e ratio of less than 12.

After holding off in the low 30’s and high 20’s, Pfizer shares at today’s prices don’t have too much downside if you want to try and catch a falling knife. A Celebrex withdrawal would prompt significant selling, but aside from that, most of the bad news has been priced in.

The issue really is growth. Money managers on CNBC will exclaim that Pfizer hasn’t traded at 11 or 12 times earnings in years, with historical p/e ratios ranging from 17 to 30 times over the last decade. The problem is, Pfizer was growing nicely back then, at a 15 percent annual rate. Those days appear to be over as mergers have created a company with more than $52 billion in sales. At this point, a new blockbuster drug (defined as $1 billion in annual sales) contributes less than 2 percent to Pfizer’s total sales.

As a result, sales are expected to be essentially flat. The current 2006 revenue estimate for Pfizer is less than 2 percent higher than the company’s actual 2004 sales. While 11 or 12 times eanrings may be too modest a valuation, the days of 17-30 multiples on the major drug companies are over in my opinion.

Tech Bargains Can Be Had… Finally

Peridot Capital has been underweight technology stocks for a while. The highly cyclical sector traded at a premium for years, even after the bubble burst, and investors expecting decades of consistent double-digit earnings growth were, and still are, in dreamland. The Nasdaq as a whole still looks expensive, but for the first time in a long time, tech stock bargains have been popping up lately.

The timing isn’t clear to me, as we haven’t had a dramatic correction. The Nasdaq rose nearly 9 percent in 2004, and even though 2005 has been weak thus far, most stocks haven’t seen eBay-like haircuts. It’s becoming easier to find tech leaders trading at or below market valuations nonetheless.

For example, Cisco (CSCO) looks cheap. After buying the networking giant in 1994, I haven’t wanted to put new money into the stock in years. However, at $18 a share the stock looks like a conservative, fairly low risk tech value. After subtracting $7 billion in cash, Cisco trades at about 18 times calendar 2005 earnings. When was the last time that happened? Juniper (JNPR) might have better business fundamentals right now, but you’ll pay at least twice as much for such growth.

Another attractive candidate for purchase is Symantec (SYMC). The stock was crushed after it announced plans to acquire Veritas (VRTS). Both companies have stunning balance sheets and are leaders in their spaces. Investors should question how two companies that sell completely different product lines will be integrated, but the combination at 20x earnings could prove a good value if the deal meshes better than some people think.

Tech isn’t a place to jump in with both feet. That said, large cap leaders used to trade at a premium but now seem to have lost their luster. P/E’s of 17-20 for the industry’s dominant players now seem fair, fair enough to at least have a market weighting and not feel nervous about significant downside risk.

P&G Purchase of Gillette Continues Merger Mania

The Oracle of Omaha has to be very happy today. His holding company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns a 9 percent stake in Gillette (G), a stock that rose $6 today on word that consumer products giant Procter and Gamble (PG) will buy the company for about $11 billion in stock.

Fortunately for Mr. Buffett, he is on the receiving end of this deal. While he is publicly raving about the prospects for the combined P&G/Gillette, it is fairly obvious that this is not the kind of purchase Buffett himself would ever make. Procter is paying a whopping 28 times forward earnings for Gillette. With P&G shares fetching about 20 times earnings, this merger is extremely dilutive. Analysts estimate earnings per share will drop 15 to 30 cents in the upcoming fiscal year, as much as a 10 percent dilutive effect.

Company executives will clearly try and mask the dilution by praising its plan to buy back billions of dollars in stock, but that doesn’t change the fact that P&G paid 28 times for a mature, slow growth, cash cow business. Sure there will be some synergies, but like with most deals, they will be overstated from the outset. It will be very interesting to see how well P&G stock does for Buffett and Co. over the next 5 or 10 years. I suspect despite all of the rave reviews presented today, actual stock price appreciation long term won’t be all that impressive, given current valuations.

Market Struggles Out Of The Gate In ’05

It looks like the stock market may fall in each of the first four weeks of the new year, a feat not accomplished in many years. January is supposed to be a seasonally strong time for stock prices, as pension fund and retirement account contributions flood the trading floors. Not so this year. It looks like the huge rally we saw in November and December has run out of steam. Take this morning for example. Blowout earnings from Microsoft (MSFT) and the announcement of yet another promising merger; Gillette (G) to be bought by Proctor and Gamble (PG), and yet the market can’t trade up.

Perhaps it’s the Iraqi election that is holding us back. If Sunday goes well, maybe the market will rally strong next week. If not, the many optimists who predicted a 10 percent market gain in 2005 may very well be disappointed. We definitely need some kind of catalyst soon, as the short term action looks bleak.

Despite a poor outlook for the broad indexes, don’t think you can’t make money if you know where to look. This truly is, to use a terrible cliche, a “stock picker’s market.” Oil prices are near $50 a barrel. Energy stocks like Suncor (SU) are still cheap. There are many financial stocks that carry p/e’s under 15 and pay nice dividends. Small caps still fly under the radar most of the time, providing below-market valuations but above-average growth prospects.

And always use overreactions after an earnings report to your advantage. Verisign (VRSN) fell 15% after hitting its Q4 targets and slightly raising its guidance. Wall Street wanted more upside to the numbers and slammed the shares, but that was wrong. Now you can pick up the stock for $25 a share, giving it a p/e of 25 with a 30 percent projected growth rate for 2005.

Google Weakness Unwarranted

After hitting an all-time high of $205 just weeks ago, shares of Internet search giant Google (GOOG) have slid 30 points amid the eBay (EBAY) earnings miss and fears of an impending lockup expiration for pre-IPO holders of the stock. Let’s analyze these two events.

First, eBay’s disappointing fourth quarter report and 2005 outlook. eBay is seeing growth slow down considerably. They are being forced to invest heavily in the business, domestically and even moreso abroad, to keep up the growth Wall Street has come to expect from the company. This has no direct negative effect on Google. In fact, since eBay is a large customer of Google’s, higher capital expenditures at eBay could only help Google, not the other way around.

Second, the expansion of Google’s lockup period that goes into effect on Valentine’s Day. Sure, more supply does little to help a company’s publicly traded shares, but one must look at the demand side of the equation, not just the supply side. There is plenty of demand for GOOG stock, as evidenced by its run to over $200 per share in the midst of the initial lockup expiration late last year.

The good news for Google shareholders is that the company reports its fourth quarter results on February 1st, before the lockup expires and about when investors looking to get out ahead of such an event would sell. Given the results we’ve seen from Yahoo (YHOO) and InfoSpace (INSP), the odds are very good that Google’s results will blow the consensus out of the water. Numbers for 2005 will be ratcheted upward and euphoria over Google’s financials will surely overcome any new supply of shares from the company’s early investors.

With the stock at $177, down from $205 recently, shares of Google look ripe for the picking this week, ahead of the earnings release. The catalysts are there for a strong push back to new highs in the coming weeks.

Capital One Shares Crushed After 4Q Report

After blowing earnings estimates out of the water for the first three quarters of 2004, Capital One (COF) fell short last week when it reported fourth quarter profit below the consensus estimate. Shares of COF were slammed, falling 5% after the announcement. The stock also saw analyst downgrades after the earnings miss, much to the delight of shareholders, I’m sure.

The earnings miss was mostly attributable to higher than expected marketing expenses and more money set aside as loan reserves. While Wall Street seems to see this combo of unexpected news as a warning sign, that conclusion makes little sense. While seen as a financial services firm, Capital One is just as much a consumer marketing company. The better job it does of marketing to the public, the more loans it can make, and the more money it pockets.

Unless the advertising dollars were failing to provide an adequate ROI, Capital One’s $511 million in marketing spend for Q4 (which was more than Citigroup and JPMorganChase) will allow it to continue its rapid growth, hardly a bad sign. Higher loan reserves don’t indicate more difficulty in collecting debts, as some are quick to conclude. Rather, more loans outstanding require higher reserves, even when the default rates on such loans remain the same or even decline.

In the mid seventies, COF shares trade at 11 times 2005 earnings. Not bad for a company that has grown earnings per share 20 percent annually since its IPO.

eBay Earnings Report Rattles Tech Stocks

eBay (EBAY) shareholders are feeling the effects of owning a stock with a 70 forward p/e tonight. With a equity market valuation that high, there leaves little room for error. You won’t be able to find a single person who thought eBay would miss its earnings after the bell today, and as a result the stock fell $15 in early evening trading.

The great thing about Wall Street is that if you managed to avoid having eBay in your portfolio, you can take advantage tomorrow morning when investors throw the baby out with the bath water. It always happens, even when it defies logic. All Net stocks got crushed when eBay’s earnings report came out. Yahoo! (YHOO), Overstock (OSTK), and Google (GOOG) especially. Just decimated.

Why? Because they are Internet companies. Only thing is, just because eBay feels it needs to invest in its business to maintain market dominance (which will lead to lower margins, hence, lower earnings per share), this doesn’t mean anything is wrong at Yahoo!, or Google, or Overstock.

Yahoo! barely even remembers it has an auction site, eBay won that battle long ago. Google doesn’t have auctions. Overstock said this week that it saw a huge rise in its auction listings after eBay announced its annual fee hikes (which were needed even more this year to help prop up falling profit margins). Nonetheless, all of these stocks lost 10 percent of their value just between noon and 5pm, solely due to eBay’s announcement.

The market gives investors these types of opportunities all the time. The only problem is, most investors don’t take advantage of them. They should.

Last Year It Was Interest Rates, This Year It’s Oil

Think back more than a year ago. At the time, market predictions for the coming year centered around one major theme; interest rates. The consensus opinion was drilled into our heads for months, namely that interest rates would have to rise in 2004, and the housing market would cool off. Some even called for the bursting of the housing bubble, even though there wasn’t a bubble at the time that could be burst. Investment strategists warned their clients to avoid stocks of mortgage lenders and home builders.

Believe it or not, the consensus for 2004 was wrong (okay, this is very believable). Despite the fact that the Fed did start raising their lending rate from 1% to 2%, market rates didn’t budge. In fact, in many cases they actually dropped. Mortgage rates were steady, and bond rates fell. What were some of the best performing stock groups in 2004? You guessed it.. mortgage lenders and housing stocks.

Okay, so that is in the past and just serves to prove that the consensus is usually wrong. With 2005 having just begun, what was everyone saying just before year-end, and how can we bet against it this year? Without a doubt the 2005 theme that received the most airtime was oil. After falling from its peak price of $55 per barrel, oil was hovering in the $40-$42 range at year-end 2004, and most were predicting a drop back to a “more normal” $28-$35 per barrel price tag.

So here we are, on January 18th and oil prices hit $49 this morning, knocking on the door of $50 for the second time in recent months. A move down to the high twenties or low thirties would surely ignite the market a bit, and the airline stocks even more dramatically, but don’t count on it. Oil is to 2005 what interest rates were to 2004.

Taser Shareholders Stunned

Let the class action lawsuits begin. It appears the party for stun gun maker Taser (TASR) is ending. Two years ago, TASR stock traded at $0.35 (split-adjusted). After rising to more than $33 in 2004, the stock fell 30% today, to close at $14 per share. Taser is down 55% so far this year, and it’s only January 11th. As a result, lawsuits will be filed, lots of them. And soon, very soon.

Shareholders will scream of being had. Taser didn’t adequately update the public about its business, they’ll say. They will point to the company’s management; a father (Chairman) and two sons (one is CEO, the other is President). The trio sold more than $100 million worth of stock in 2004, all while touting their stun guns’ safety and growth potential to any TV station or reporter that would listen.

They will be accused of insider trading because they were selling stock as they were hyping their company’s prospects. Class action lawyers will conclude they knew business would fall short of their rosy projections, hence they sold, but didn’t tell anyone, leaving shareholders with a 55% loss in 11 days.

Can you blame them? Not the shareholders, they are to blame, but rather Phil, Tom, and Rick Smith. Are they bad people for taking $105 million in profits off the table when their company was being valued at nearly $2 billion, despite only having $68 million in sales? Are they crooks? No. Actually, they are smart. They didn’t know ahead of time when orders would be delayed or exactly when competitors would bring new products to market. What they did know was that companies aren’t worth 30 times revenues very often, and when they are, it’s not for very long.

How about Mark Cuban? Is he a crook? Most people (including myself) think he was a genius when he sold his Internet broadcasting company, Broadcast.com, to Yahoo! for billions of dollars. He got Yahoo! shares in exchange, and even knew to sell those too. Mr. Cuban didn’t sell because he lost interest in his business, or because he doubted whether radio signals would be broadcast over the Internet. He sold because he knew Broadcast.com was not really worth the $7 billion the equity market was pricing it at.

It’s the world we live in today. We do something stupid, lose money because of it, and we sue. We don’t admit we made a mistake and learn from it; vowing never to make the same mistake again. That’s what we should do, but not what most of us will do. Taser shareholders who will choose to join the class action suits are a perfect example.

If you paid 30 times sales for an overhyped pipedream company, you probably will lose money. It happens. We all mess up sometimes. But do yourself a favor. Learn from the mistake. Learn how to value companies properly, so as to avoid losing any more money. But please, don”t sue the people who understood concepts you failed to grasp.

The Smiths may be very guilty of overhyping their company. But not once did they hold a gun (no pun intended) to somebody’s head and force them to buy Taser stock. When they saw an asset they owned become grossly overvalued, they sold. They did what every good investment manager would have done, and is heralded for doing.

We shouldn’t sue people just because they’re smarter than us. I’m not against giving every human being their fair day in court. The problem right now, in 2005, is that we don’t only sue when somebody breaks the law. We sue when we mess up, to get revenge.

Post-Holiday Sale on Kmart Shares

What a difference a few months can make. The morning Kmart announced its $10+ billion dollar acquisition of Sears, its stock soared to nearly $120 per share. Since then, sellers have come in and arbitrageurs have opened short positions. In fact, more than 11 million KMRT shares were sold short in December, up from 8.9 million in November. The stock is down 7 points this year, to its current $92 price tag.

Investors who missed out on Kmart’s run from $15 to $120 are being given a second chance. Naysayers have been very vocal in dismissing the merger’s touted efficiencies and warning about integration risk as the retailers seek to transform their businesses as one cohesive unit, Sears Holdings.

Buyers of the stock in the low 90’s should be rewarded. Many of the shares sold short (21% of the float as of 12/8/04) will be bought back when the merger closes sometime around March of this year. Despite the claim that the combination will be little more than a larger version of a poorly run retailer, Chairman Eddie Lampert and Company will be able to improve operations meaningfully, just like they have done in the past with other retailers.

Also, don’t think real estate sales are over. There continues to be hundreds of millions of dollars in value embedded in Kmart/Sears land that will be harnessed. Post-holiday sales have brought shoppers many deals in recent days, and KMRT at $92 is a prime example of how investors can grab a great deal as well.