Sunday, September 27

Week 221 - Status of Commodity-Related Barron’s 500 Companies

Situation: Since 2009, China has contributed twice as much to world economic growth as the US. China has also purchased ~40% of all commodities sold worldwide. One commodity in particular, copper, is used as a measure of the health of commodity demand in emerging markets because it plays an important role in building electrical grids. Copper has recently reached new lows. China is slowing down its investment machine mainly because its total debt load has reached 300% of GDP. To put China’s woes in context for the US economy, the CEOs of several corporations have recently provided specific examples of how China’s economic decline impacts their businesses

What does this mean for investors? Basically, for the next one or two years, traders of all asset classes will be in a “risk-off” mode while governments, corporations, and individuals struggle to bring down their debt loads and develop ideas for growth. This cautionary stance will coincide with a bottoming of commodity prices as demand recovers while supplies moderate. The global “oil glut” is a special case, only marginally related to falling demand in China. Instead, it is due to a global “price war” triggered by an oversupply of oil related to improvements in technology, namely horizontal drilling into oil-rich shale deposits combined with hydraulic fracturing. And, oil prices may have further to fall.

Mission: Assess the effect on commodity-related companies of oversupply of commodities. Do this by evaluating all 56 such companies in the 2015 Barron’s 500 List that have at least 16 yrs of trading records.

Execution: This week’s spreadsheet (see Table) shows the carnage. Note the abundance of red highlights denoting underperformance relative to our key benchmark (VBINX at Line 73). Let’s start with a “thought experiment.” You’re looking for GARP (growth at a reasonable price), which will allow you to take advantage of sharply falling stock prices (see Column F in the Table). Let’s start by listing the companies that have moved up in rank compared to the 2014 Barron’s 500 List. Those are the ones with green highlights in Columns P and Q of the Table. Then pick those stocks that aren’t overpriced, i.e., the ones with an EV/EBITDA that is no greater than the EV/EBITDA for the S&P 500 Index (which is an EV/EBITDA of 11).

There are 10 candidates in the “oil & gas” group: HES, DVN, TSO, CAM, CHK, NOV, VLO, HAL, WFT, NBR. Two of those have been labelled “potentially underpriced” per the BMW Method (see Week 193): CHK and NOV (see Column O in the Table). There are 5 more candidates in the “basic materials” group: NUE, SCCO, CMC, X, AA and 6 candidates in the agriculture production group (ADM, POT, MOS, TSN, DOW, PPC). POT is another “potentially underpriced” stock. That totals 21 stocks. However, three of those failed to outperform the S&P 500 Index over the past 16 yrs (per the BMW Method: NBR, AA, PPC (see Column L in the Table). Eliminating those leaves 18 candidates. 

So far, so good. Most of the 18 have fallen hard in recent quarters and now have prices that are 1-2 Standard Deviations below trendline (see Column M in the Table). The BMW Method sorts out “risk” statistically by predicting the extent of loss below trendline that you can expect in a bear market (see Column N in the Table). The abundance of red highlights in that Column denotes stocks predicted to exhibit a greater loss below trendline than the S&P 500 Index faces, which is 32%. Every one of the 18 candidate stocks is highlighted in red, so they’re all unsuitable for a retirement portfolio. But what if you’re a speculator and willing to accept a loss of 40%? That’s a 25% greater loss than you’d suffer by owning an S&P 500 Index fund like VFINX. Even allowing for the added extra risk, only one of the 18 qualifies (ADM at Line 54 in the Table).

Given that commodity-related companies compose at least 10% of a balanced stock (or stock mutual fund) portfolio, we’ll need to dig deeper. For example, 23 of 56 such stocks listed in the Table are already in a bear market (see Column M), i.e., down 2 Standard Deviations (2SD) below their 16-yr trendline. Three of those companies have raised their dividend annually for at least the past 10 yrs (see a list of such Dividend Achievers in Column R of the Table) and have a statistical risk of loss in a bear market that is less than that for the S&P 500 Index (see Column N in the Table): CVX, XOM, PX. The odds that you’d lose money by starting to dollar-average into those stocks now are low.

Another approach is to dollar-average into low-cost mutual funds that reflect commodity investment, including emerging market index funds. There are 3 listed in the Benchmark section of the Table: 1) GSG, the exchange-traded fund for collateralized commodity futures; 2) PRNEX, the T Rowe Price New Era Fund that invests in natural resource stocks, and 3) VEIEX, the Vanguard index fund for emerging markets.

Bottom Line: The global economy faces a difficult period now that China’s fast growth phase has ended. Commodity-related assets are the first to crash, and that means commodity markets and commodity-related companies will be the first to recover. We’ve evaluated 56 commodity-related companies in the 2015 Barron’s 500 List to come up with 4 that are candidates for speculative investment: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Exxon Mobil (XOM), Chevron (CVX), and Praxair (PX).

Risk Rating: 8

Full Disclosure: Commodity-related stocks are “long-cycle” investments that I tend to favor, particularly those that are related to agricultural production. I dollar-average into XOM and also own shares of CVX, AA, HRL, ADM, DE, and DD.

Note: metrics highlighted in red denote underperformance relative to our key benchmark (VBINX); metrics are current as of the Sunday of publication.

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