Is This Stock a Utility Bargain?

I'll bet dollars to doughnuts you've never heard of Lakonishok, Schliefer, and Vishny, unless you're a total investing dweeb like me. But before they founded LSV Asset Management, which now has $51 billion under management, they were obscure academics about to publish a very famous paper. Best of all, the insights they discovered can help you find stocks that will stack the odds of a successful investment in your favor. Read on to see if it can make you money in utility stocks.

Turning investing upside-down
In 1994, the trio divided stocks into 10 buckets, according to earnings yield -- E/P, or the inverse of the price-to-earnings ratio, because academics prefer the exotic. LSV found that high-E/P stocks -- also known as low P/E stocks, or value stocks -- beat low-E/P, high P/E glamour stocks by 4 percentage points per year.

LSV next divided stocks into groups using a formula based on sales growth. Amazingly, they found that boring businesses with low sales growth outperformed flashy high-growth companies by 7.3 percentage points per year.

Best of all, LSV found that a portfolio combining the high-E/P and low-sales-growth approaches outperformed its opposite – high-P/E, high-growth stocks – by 11 percentage points per year!

I keep LSV's formula in mind every month when I'm selecting dividend stocks for my Income Investor newsletter. Let's use it right now to dig up a slow, cheap, and potentially outperforming value stock for your own consideration. I used data from Capital IQ (a unit of Standard & Poor's) to unearth companies trading at a P/E less than eight, with sales growth of less than 4% last year.

Separating the fakers from the money makers
It gets us on the LSV track, but it's not a slam dunk: Price – the "P" in P/E is something we can take at face value, but earnings – the "E" – isn't. One-off accounting items and business cyclicality can temporarily skew earnings. And while LSV's results did include essentially all low-P/E stocks – accounting issues and all -- we presumably want the true low-P/E laggards, and not statistical one-offs, to best capitalize on their findings.

Let's grab a stock – any stock – that came from the Capital IQ screen and see what we can learn.

Result: Electrobras (NYSE: EBR  )
Electrobras is Brazil's biggest power company. It provides 40% of Brazil's power, and the Brazilian government owns a bit over half the company. As an eco-type, I dig that it scores much of its power from hydroelectricity. Its sales grew just 2.7% this past year. But is Electrobras a statistical one-off? A peek at its past P/E and fellow industry participants will tell us.

Industry participants can range from clone competitors to nearly unrelated businesses, but their valuations provide initial perspective.

Company

P/E

Southern Company (NYSE: SO  ) 15.2
CFPL Energia (NYSE: CPL  ) 12.8
Exelon (NYSE: EXC  ) 10.8
Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK  ) 18.9
Next, are we dealing with a temporarily low P/E? A peek at Electrobras' past reveals:

Year

2007

2008

2009

Latest

P/E 32.8 33.2 8.6 7.5

Well, Electrobras is clearly both cheaper than some of its peers and cheaper than it has traded recently. Earnings and income have been solid, but the market has yet to reward that with a richer valuation.

Generally, if you scan the news articles on value stocks, you'll see plenty of reasons not to invest. But according to LSV's findings, those same reasons have already driven many investors away from stocks like Electrobras. Thus, a company facing headwinds can get priced so cheaply that it actually becomes a good investment. Things don't have to go exactly right; they just have to turn out better than the market expects. In short, companies with low expectations can give you the best chance to score a truly great investment.

Next action steps?

Add Electrobras to your watchlist, or do the same for Southern Company, CFPL Energia, Exelon, or Duke Energy.

James Early owns no stocks mentioned in this article. You can investigate his Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter free for 30 days. Exelon is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Southern is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing covered calls on Exelon. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (0) | Recommend This Article (8)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

Be the first one to comment on this article.

Sponsored Links

Leaked: Apple's Next Smart Device
(Warning, it may shock you)
The secret is out... experts are predicting 458 million of these types of devices will be sold per year. 1 hyper-growth company stands to rake in maximum profit - and it's NOT Apple. Show me Apple's new smart gizmo!

DocumentId: 1418871, ~/Articles/ArticleHandler.aspx, 10/25/2014 4:14:12 PM

Report This Comment

Use this area to report a comment that you believe is in violation of the community guidelines. Our team will review the entry and take any appropriate action.

Sending report...


Advertisement