Twenty-seven months have passed since I urged investors to run away from all investment exposure to the residential construction market, and periodically I've reminded you to keep up the pace.
By now I hope you've jogged more miles than Forrest Gump, and you must be tired. Perhaps between breaths you've wondered whether it may now be safe to pull up a chair and kick up your feet in construction-related investment vehicles. As a value hound myself, I can appreciate the temptation to ease into a trampled sector and await recovery.
I've taken that approach myself over in the dry-bulk sector, where I sit patiently with a stake in Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX ) while I wait for an epic oversupply situation to correct itself. But whereas a strong case can be made for the growing global commodity demand that will hasten a return to balance in the dry-bulk market, I cannot say the same for housing -- which is why I want you to keep walking away from the wallboard.
Gypsum giant USG (NYSE: USG ) walked into yet another decline in sales for the fourth quarter, posting a $95 million operating loss. Industrywide wallboard shipments in the U.S. dove another 6%, dropping to levels not seen since the early 1980s (when the U.S. population was lower by about 80 million people). Sober in its own assessment of near-term prospects for growth, the company anticipates 2011 will be "another difficult year."
As if on cue, homebuilder D.R. Horton (NYSE: DHI ) kicked investors on the shin with a deeper loss than analysts had forecast. The company cited a laundry list of challenges that I trust will serve as further disincentive for Fools kicking the tires on this or related stocks, including: "rising foreclosures, significant existing home inventory, high unemployment, tight mortgage lending standards, and weak consumer confidence." When you're three or more years into a bear market, and even the analysts are unsure about the "ultimate duration and magnitude" of the downturn, then you may be well advised to walk right past the sector entirely.
CEMEX (NYSE: CX ) will report earnings next week and is also expected to post another loss. While cement demand may not be as highly correlated with residential construction as USG's wallboard, CEMEX's enormous debt burden combined with exposure to deeply stressed European economies like Spain makes this another stock to actively avoid in this Fool's view.
I don't mean to suggest that a Fool can't book a gain in these stocks. On both a one-year and a two-year chart, in fact, shares of USG are actually outpacing the S&P 500. Sadly, we cannot say the same for builders such as PulteGroup (NYSE: PHM ) and Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL ) . I merely wish to suggest that sectors with far more favorable demand scenarios exist wherein a Fool can stroll more comfortably.