3 Fire-Sale Stocks: Will They Bounce Back or Burn You?

Shares of Transocean, Helmerich & Payne, and Ford Motor Company have hit the skids lately. Here's why.

Tyler Crowe
Tyler Crowe, Chuck Saletta, and John Rosevear
Jun 4, 2017 at 9:20AM
Energy, Materials, and Utilities

It's hard to find stocks that are selling at a decent discount these days, which makes it even more surprising when a company's stock is selling at bargain-basement prices. Yet when we asked three of our contributors to each name a company they think is selling at fire-sale prices, they each quickly responded: with offshore rig company Transocean (NYSE:RIG), onshore rig company Helmerich & Payne (NYSE:HP), and Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F).

Here's a look at why all three of these companies' stocks are trading at such low valuations lately and whether or not this could be a buying opportunity. 

Generic digital stock chart

Image source: Getty Images.

Will this offshore drilling titan recover its past greatness?

Chuck Saletta (Transocean): With oil prices hovering between the mid-$40s and mid-$50s and OPEC continuing its inability to hold firm to hard production cuts, it's tough to make a case for offshore drilling. As a large player in that suffering offshore drilling business, Transocean is certainly feeling the pain of that current oil price reality.

Transocean's shares are trading around their 52-week lows, and its market price is around a quarter of its book value. Transocean is still generating positive operating cash flow, but at nowhere near the levels it was when oil prices were substantially higher and offshore drilling was significantly stronger. Transocean's future -- and whether it will bounce back or continue to burn investors -- depends heavily on the price of oil.

On one hand, oil prices have always been notoriously cyclical. High prices lead to investment, investment leads to higher capacity. Higher capacity leads to low prices. Low prices lead to underinvestment, which causes prices to rise as wells dry up, and the cycle repeats.

On the other hand, shale drilling technologies have been advancing to the point where they can be profitable at far lower energy prices than when the techniques were first introduced. That makes offshore drilling much less attractive than it used to be, potentially lengthening the time until capacity dries up to the point where Transocean can command higher revenues for its services.

Put it all together, and Transocean is a stock trading at what looks like a potential fire-sale price, but only if oil prices cooperate. At these prices, it may be worth a nibble for investors with a speculative streak in them. Still, given its dependency on oil prices cooperating, I wouldn't take a giant position in its shares.

Business is booming, but the stock is busting

Tyler Crowe (Helmerich & Payne): Take a look at this chart, which shows the active drilling rig count in the U.S. since the beginning of the year: 

US Rig Count Chart

US Rig Count data by YCharts.

That's a 38% gain in only six months, and it shows how quickly shale drillers have been able to bounce back with relatively low costs for oil services and an oil price that can generate a modest return. That kind of increase in total active rigs would usually mean investors would be bidding up the stock prices of rig companies such as Helmerich & Payne, but surprisingly, the company's stock has gone in the exact opposite direction:

HP Chart

HP data by YCharts.

The reason Wall Street believes Helmerich & Payne's stock isn't worth an investment today is that rig counts are likely to flatten out in the near future, and that the upside for the company is rather limited. 

Perhaps that is true, and the company won't be putting new rigs into the field at a rate of one every 52 hours. What that overlooks, though, is that Helmerich & Payne continues to receive a margin premium over its peers, and that it was able to generate modest free cash flow at the bottom of the cycle. Costs have increased in recent quarters to re-equip idle rigs, but once rig demand starts to slow, those costs should decline, and the company should be able to get back to generating gobs of free cash flow to support its lucrative dividend that yields 5.3% today.

A slower growth environment is very likely in the cards for Helmerich & Payne, but that hardly seems enough of a reason to hit the panic button with this stock. Its management has proven over time to be effective stewards of shareholder capital, such that today's panic offers a great opportunity.   

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Can this old industrial giant pull off a big transformation? 

John Rosevear (Ford Motor Company): Remember when Ford was the shining example of an effective corporate turnaround under CEO Alan Mulally? When its stock was an investor darling?

That was then. Look what has happened to Ford's stock since Mulally retired at the end of June 2014.

F Chart

F data by YCharts

Right now, Ford's stock is trading at just 6.5 its expected 2017 earnings. That's not quite a fire sale, but it's awfully cheap for a healthy, profitable automaker. 

On one level, Ford's price decline is surprising. Under Mulally's hand-picked successor, Mark Fields, Ford put up the most profitable year in its history in 2015 -- and followed that with its second-most-profitable year ever in 2016. Sales have been good, its new products have been strong, and Ford is making big investments in future tech like electric vehicles and an autonomous-driving system

But on another level, it's no surprise. Ford's margins, cost improvements, and work on future tech under Fields didn't keep pace with those at General Motors under CEO Mary Barra. In the context of larger concerns about the future of private auto ownership when electric self-driving vehicles are everywhere, as they may be in 10 to 15 years, you can see why investors were getting worried. 

Ford CEO Jim Hackett

Ford's new CEO, Jim Hackett, will try to accelerate Ford's high-tech transformation. Image source: Ford Motor Company. 

That's why Ford has a new CEO: Jim Hackett, who had been running Ford's future-tech subsidiary, got the top job last week. Hackett said he will have three priorities: speeding decision-making and innovation, boosting (or cutting) the underperforming parts of Ford's business, and transforming Ford to ensure that it's a profitable player in that future world.

Can Hackett pull it off? His track record suggests that he's the right person for the job, and Wall Street seems cautiously optimistic. I think if his efforts start to become visible soon, the stock will likely jump. And in the meantime, Ford's solid dividend gives a 5.5% yield at current prices, so an investor in Ford now will get paid whether Hackett succeeds -- or just holds the company steady.