A Hot Stock at 7 Times Earnings

Over the last year, only one reader's suggestion for a possible Motley Fool Hidden Gem has made it to my watch list -- diversified international agribusiness and transportation company Seaboard (AMEX: SEB  ) .

Seaboard meets the standards for a possible Motley Fool Hidden Gems selection, in my opinion. The market capitalization is under $2 billion, the price to earnings is seven times, and the stock is so far off anyone's radar screen that no analyst follows it, and a search of The Motley Fool website reveals there is no coverage here either.

Better yet, like Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRKa  ) , there are no diluted earnings per share to worry about. There are 1,255,054 shares outstanding quarter after quarter.

What caught my attention, and finally got me to write about Seaboard, was yesterday's $151.02 per-share (18.8%) increase in the share price -- and it is up another $35.75 today.

Look at a five-year chart and you can see the stock hadn't done much before its fourfold increase over the last 52 weeks.

Two factors are fueling the surge in nine-month earnings per share from $1.30 in 2003 to $86.20 in 2004. Higher pork prices have helped pork processing, which is 36% of total sales. Earnings for the first three quarters were up from $2 million last year to $98 million this year. Complementing that gain was the marine segment's (18% of total sales) earnings jump from $40,000 to $41 million.

While Smithfield Foods (NYSE: SFD  ) is the biggest U.S. pork company, its 3.3% operating margin looks downright sickly next to Seaboard's 13.7% pork margin -- and Smithfield's stock sells for a downright porky -- comparatively speaking -- 14 times earnings. Fellow pork company Hormel (NYSE: HRL  ) doesn't have anything to brag about either.

As shareholders of dry-bulk shippers like Excel Maritime Carriers (AMEX: EXM  ) know, shipping rates have gone skyward -- as have the stocks -- with growth in Chinese imports. Seaboard is enjoying these firm shipping rates, too.

The one-two punch of pork and shipping have revealed the earnings potential of this diversified company that also has commodity trading and milling, sugar and citrus, and electric power operations.

The down side, besides the large business risk inherent in commodity businesses, is that shipping rates should start to fall in 2005 and beyond as new capacity enters the market. Pork prices will also ease.

Seaboard is undercovered, but its earnings surge has been rewarded. Investors would be wise, before buying the story, to look at the historic single-digit price-to-earnings multiples commodity companies like Motley Fool Hidden Gems recommendation Fresh Del Monte Produce (NYSE: FDP  ) can command. Seaboard is doing well and fattening its balance sheet. But the long-term outlook for its earnings is probably downward.

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Fool contributor W.D. Crotty owns stock in Berkshire Hathaway.

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