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Yesterday, half of all issues listed on the New York Stock Exchange -- from American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) to Zimmer Holdings -- hit fresh 52-week lows.

Plenty of companies are looking cheap. But there's cheap, and then there's cheap.

DryShips (Nasdaq: DRYS  ) , with a price-to-earnings ratio of 1.3 at yesterday's close, appears to fall into the latter category. But the P/E ratio doesn't tell you squat about the future, so let's take a closer look at this ever-evolving enigma of an equity.

Dry bulk? More like dry sulk
Shipping rates for drybulk goods -- things like coal and grains -- are cratering, and shares of everyone from Diana Shipping (NYSE: DSX  ) to Excel Maritime (NYSE: EXM  ) are nosediving in sympathy. DryShips shares, for instance, have dropped 60% or so in three months.

Aside from general global growth concerns, there are additional factors curtailing drybulk rates today. Specifically, Vale (NYSE: RIO  ) has played hardball with the Chinese over iron ore rates, resulting in a buyer strike. With Brazil-to-China shipments suspended, a major source of ton-miles has evaporated, leaving a temporary oversupply of vessels.

Even if Brazil and China make up and play nice, it would be nutty to expect DryShips' 2009 earnings to equal recent elevated levels. But the company has taken several steps to secure respectable results. Some brand-new moves were outlined in a presentation yesterday.

Bigger, bulkier
As mentioned in my last look at DryShips, the company has shifted toward a time chartering strategy for its shipping vessels. This locks in attractive rates for years on end, rather than accepting high spot market exposure in the hopes of capturing fatter future rates. The company appears to have timed the market's turn to a T.

Although rates are reeling, DryShips hasn't developed a distaste for drybulk deals. The company has gone ahead and purchased nine additional Capesize vessels for a ballpark $1 billion.

Weighing in at around 180,000 deadweight tons, these are the bulkiest of the bulkers. Five of the nine are already employed through at least 2012, and I think it's safe to assume that the remaining newbuild vessels will be placed on long-term charter, given management's statement on the call that it's happy to go up to 100% fixed versus spot.

As usual, DryShips is purchasing these ships from a privately held related party, and analysts on the call did little to disguise their distaste for the level of disclosure. But CEO George Economou pointed out that by accepting DryShips shares as payment for his private fleet, he's not cashing out. This somewhat narrows the chasm between Economou's interests and those of outside minority shareholders.

DryShips is also reducing its debt load in this transaction. It's doing so by issuing a boatload of new shares, though, so it's not necessarily something to celebrate.

Don't underestimate the ultra deep water
As a longtime chronicler of the deepwater dance marathon, I'm naturally transfixed with DryShips' transformation into an offshore drilling magnate. The company has cemented its place among the industry heavyweights with the proposed purchase of two more newbuild drillships.

Counting future deliveries, this transaction brings DryShips' total fleet to six modern, ultra deepwater units, placing the company ahead of Pride International and behind only Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) , Seadrill, and Ensco International (NYSE: ESV  ) .

Again, DryShips will be paying with shares, but with a twist. The company plans to spin off the drilling unit, currently known as Primelead, in the form of a dividend to current shareholders. Three-quarters of the company's shares will go to DryShips shareholders, and 25% will be used to pay for the two drillships.

How much is it all worth?
Toward the end of management's prepared remarks yesterday, it made a case for the drilling segment being worth the entire market capitalization of the company. I'm going to take a bit more time to analyze that portion of the presentation, but P/E ratios aside, I suspect there may be some real value here.

American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Dive deep into any of our Foolish newsletter fare free for 30 days. We're not afraid of this market, and you shouldn't be either.

Fool contributor Toby Shute doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of American Express. The Fool has an ultra disclosure policy.

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