Sunday, April 28

Month 94 - Food and Agriculture Companies - Spring 2019 Update

Situation: Investors should pay attention to asset classes that fluctuate in value out-of-sync with the S&P 500 Index. Such asset classes are said to have minimal or negative “correlation” with large-capitalization US stocks. Emerging markets and raw commodities are important examples. Those are a natural pair, given that most countries in the emerging markets group have an economy that is based on the production of one or more raw commodities. 

The idea that you can find a safe haven for your savings, one which will allow you to ride out a crash in the US stock market, is a pleasant fiction. Articles in support of that idea are published almost daily. But unless you are a trader who can afford to rent or buy a $500,000 seat on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, you probably aren’t deft enough to arbitrage the various risks accurately enough before they develop (and at low enough transaction costs) to avoid losing money in a crash. 

If you really want to ride out most crashes, invest in a bond-heavy balanced mutual fund that is managed by real humans. The Vanguard Group offers one best, and it comes with very low transaction fees (Vanguard Wellesley Income Fund or VWINX). To refresh yourself on the competitive advantages of investing in food and agriculture companies, see our most recent blog on the subject (see Month 91). To refresh yourself on the competitive disadvantages, study this month’s Table and Bottom Line carefully.

The essential fact is that economies require money for spending and investment. That comes down to having consumers who are confident enough about their employment prospects and entrepreneurs who are confident enough about their ability to invest. Those consumers and entrepreneurs can be relied upon to transfer their successes to the larger economy by saving money, taking out loans, and paying taxes. National economies are interlinked. Because of the size and innovation of its marketplace, the US economy is the main enabler for most of the other national economies. Logic would suggest that the valuation for any asset class will roughly track the ups and downs of the S&P 500 Index, either as a first derivative or second derivative

Mission: Use our Standard Spreadsheet to analyze US and Canadian food and agriculture companies that carry at least a BBB rating on their bonds (see Column R).

Execution: see Table.

Administration: Of the 25 companies listed in the Table, only one meets Warren Buffett’s criteria of low beta (see Column I), low volatility (Column M), high quality (Column S), strong balance sheet (Columns N-R), and TTM (Trailing Twelve Month) earnings plus mrq (most recent quarter) Book Values that yield a Graham Number which is not far from the stock’s current Price (Column Y). That company is Berkshire Hathaway. We use a Basic Quality Screen that is less stringent as his: 1) an S&P stock rating of B+/M or better (Column S), 2) an S&P bond rating of BBB+ or better (Column R), 3) 16-Yr price volatility (Column M) that is less than 3 times the rate of price appreciation (Column K), and 4) a positive dollar amount for net present value (Column W) when using a 10-Yr holding period in combination with a 10% discount rate (to reflect a 10% Required Rate of Return).

Bottom Line: Only 8 companies on the list pass our Basic Quality Screen (see Administration above): HRL, COST, PEP, KO, DE, FAST, CNI, UNP. At the opposite end of the spectrum, 9 companies have a below-market S&P bond rating of BBB. So, those stocks represent outright gambles. 

Aside from Berkshire Hathaway, none of the 25 companies can be said to issue a reasonably priced “value” stock. We’re dealing with 24 “growth” stocks, only a third of which are of high quality. Three of the 9 with BBB bond ratings have high total debt levels relative to EBITDA (see Column O in the Table) that are unprotected by Tangible Book Value (Column P): SJM, MKC, GIS. The good news is that only one of the 9 appears to be overpriced, and that company (MKC) is a quasi-monopoly that has little risk of bankruptcy because it has “cornered” the US spice market

In summary, you can do well by investing in this space as long as you understand that you’re dealing with a fragmented food industry, one that is flush with companies of dubious quality. You might like to be well-informed about these companies because food, like fuel, is an essential good, and the food industry enjoys steady growth. Why? Because the number of people in Asia & Africa who can afford to consume 50 grams of protein per day grows by tens of millions per year.

Risk Rating: ranges from 6 to 8 (where 10-Yr US Treasury Notes = 1, S&P 500 Index = 5, and gold bullion =10).

Full Disclosure: I dollar-average into TSN, KO and UNP, and also own shares of AMZN, HRL, MO, MKC, BRK-B, CAT and WMT.

"The 2 and 8 Club" (CR) 2017 Invest Tune All rights reserved.

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