Monday, April 7, 2014

How to analyze investment opportunities?

I have discussed before my criteria for screening dividend stocks. The screen narrows down the list of companies to look into more detail, to a more manageable level. In addition, it makes you focus on a set of companies with minimum set of earnings and dividend growth characteristics which are cheaper. Therefore, you would avoid looking at Automatic Data Processing (ADP) at 26 times earnings that yields 2.50%, and instead focus on researching the likes of Chevron (CVX) at 10.70 times earnings that yield 3.40%.

However, it is very important to avoid being short-sighted in regards to stock screens. This is due to the fact that data could not be fed correctly, or it might be misrepresented in the database you are using. For example, some companies usually record one-time adjustments to earnings. Any astute dividend investor should know to exclude these one-time items from the calculation of price earnings ratios. Back in 2010, Coca-Cola had to record a one-time gain on the acquisition of Coca Cola Enterprises North American Bottling Operations. As a result, the stock appeared as a much better bargain in comparison to PepsiCo (PEP). However, this was an illusion, made possible by the one time gain discussed earlier.

The opposite also happens, where a onetime adjustment could push earnings so low, that the P/E ratio and dividend payout ratios scream avoid. In reality, if a one-time adjustment should be taken out, it would usually show that the stock might be a good opportunity.

This is why simply relying on a stock screen to find ideas is not sufficient. This is also why astute dividend investors should research every prospective buy candidate one at a time.

For every company I look at, I focus on several quantitative factors to begin with:

1) Rising earnings per share over the past decade
2) Rising dividends per share over the past decade
3) A stable and sustainable dividend payout ratio
4) Returns on Equity that are stable over time

I also try to read the annual report, and quarterly press releases from the company. There is usually a lot of information, but not all of it can be actionable. I usually try to understand the company’s business while reading reports. However, the thing I am most interested in is trying to determine if there are catalysts for growth in earnings. Only a company that manages to grow earnings per share over time, will be able to afford to increase distributions for its loyal shareholders.

Companies can grow earnings by selling more products, creating new products and services, expanding in new markets, increasing prices, cutting costs, squeezing out inefficiencies, buying back stock, acquiring competitors to name just a few ways. Sometimes, companies can manage to grow earnings per share through a combination of all of the above. For example, Coca-Cola (KO) can earn much more per share, if it manages to convince the average consumer in China and India to drink as many servings of its product as the average US consumer. The average US customer consumes 401 servings of Coca-Cola product every year, compared to 39 in China and 14 in India.

I usually like to see companies which offer a product or service which is unique, and results in repeatable sales to consumers. I also look for companies that have strong brand names for products or services, which are pursued by a fan base of loyal customers. If the customers really like your product or service, and cannot get it anywhere else due to various reasons, you can have very good pricing power. This could be extremely profitable, if there is a limited amount of government regulation. This is referred to as the business having a moat, or strong competitive advantages.

For example, consumers who like Coca-Cola, would be much less likely to buy a Pepsi (PEP). Therefore, if a store does not offer Coke, customers are likely to go to another store to purchase their daily fix. The same is true for other branded products like Hershey (HSY) bars for example.

Full Disclosure: Long KO, PEP, CVX, ADP

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