Sunday, December 28

Week 182 - Our Current List of Hedge Stocks

Situation: It has been 32 weeks since we published our list of Hedge Stocks (see Week 150). That list of 17 companies grows shorter due to market volatility and overvaluation. Even so, the idea of owning stock in a company that is relatively immune from “shorting” by hedge funds remains worthwhile. Why? Because the 10-yr Treasury Notes that professional investors typically use to immunize their portfolio against short sales will continue to pay a lower-than-inflation rate of interest, as long as the Federal Reserve continues its policy of “financial repression” (see Week 79). That means any high-quality bond will have a historically low interest rate, limiting its utility as a portfolio protector. In this environment, stocks that have none of the features that attract hedge fund traders gain added value because it is unlikely that such stocks will plummet in a bear market. That means Hedge Stocks don’t need to be backed by high-quality bonds or low-risk bond funds.

Initially, the stocks we were looking for had these features (see Week 150):
        a) low volatility (5-yr Beta less than 0.7);
        b) a P/E of 22 or less;
        c) higher returns over both the past 5 and 14 yrs than our benchmark (VBINX);
        d) higher Finance Value than VBINX (see Column E in our Tables);
        e) an S&P rating of BBB+ or better on the company’s bonds.

With experience, we’ve decided to modify those criteria. One change is that we’ll only consider companies large enough to appear on the Barron’s 500 List, which is published each year in May. That gives us a way to evaluate fundamental metrics year-over-year: “median three-year cash-flow-based return on investment; the one-year change in that measure, relative to the three-year median; and adjusted sales growth in the latest fiscal year.” Another change is that we’ll only consider companies which either appear in the top 2/3rds of that list (i.e., rank in the top 333) for the two most recent years or have a higher ranking in the most recent year. The third change is to measure valuation by EV/EBITDA (Enterprise Value divided by Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization) instead of by P/E (stock price divided by the past 4 quarters of earnings). EV/EBITDA is the market value of all the stock and bond issues that are used to capitalize the company, divided by operating earnings. The use of cash, which is gained from operating earnings plus the issuance of stocks and bonds, is not addressed by EV/EBITDA. We have set the upper limit for valuation of a Hedge Stock at an EV/EBITDA of 13, instead of at a P/E of 22. Finally, to exclude under-analyzed companies, we’ll require an S&P stock rating of at least B+/M.

Bottom Line: Of the 17 companies in our last list of Hedge Stocks (see Week 150), only 9 remain: WMT, MCD, ED, SO, GIS, NEE, XEL, PEP, KMB (see Table). Three companies have been added: Altria Group (MO), Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), and Lockheed Martin (LMT). As it happens, all 12 companies are Dividend Achievers. That should tell you something.

Risk Rating: 4

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into WMT and NEE, and also own shares of MCD, GIS and PEP.

NOTE: Metrics in the Table are current as of the Sunday of publication; red highlights denote underperformance relative to our benchmark (VBINX).

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