In today's fast-changing world of technology, investors need to find strong businesses that with the ability to survive and thrive. Better yet, those businesses should be able to shape the industries in which they participate.
I think both Corning Incorporated (NYSE:GLW) and Universal Display (NASDAQ:OLED) have proved they fit this bill. So let's look at what makes these two technology leaders stand out, and -- perhaps most interesting -- which is the better buy for investors right now.
Why Corning's strength is clear
Corning is a 166-year-old glass technology specialist with a market capitalization of just over $27 billion as of this writing. Corning makes most of its money in its core display technologies segment, primarily through selling specialized glass substrates for liquid crystal displays in televisions, smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and computer monitors. Growth is modest in this segment, however, with display technologies' core revenue rising just 2% year over year last quarter to $846 million, as mid-teens percentage growth in the LCD glass market has been almost entirely offset by glass price declines -- though those declines have steadily moderated in recent years. Corning has simultaneously made the most of manufacturing efficiency and cost-reduction initiatives, helping display technologies' core earnings rise 15% year over year last quarter to $256 million.
That said, Corning has also striven to diversify its business into a number of other promising markets. Optical communications revenue, for example, jumped 35% year over year last quarter to $818 million, driven by telecommunications giants' heavy investments in their respective fiber-to-the-home networks. And optical communications' core earnings skyrocketed 258% to $93 million last quarter, demonstrating the benefits of its scale and operational leverage.
That's not to mention Corning's specialty materials segment, where revenue and earnings rose 32% to $300 million, and 50% to $48 million last quarter, respectively, driven by the rapid adoption of its latest Gorilla Glass cover glass variants on millions of new smartphones and tablets worldwide.
And to be fair, that only scratches the surface of Corning's reach. The company boasts an annual $1 billion-plus environmental technologies segment, which has delivered modest growth of late thanks to growth in light-duty ceramic substrates in the auto market. And it even makes high-quality life-sciences products (think beakers and lab equipment), which generate hundreds of millions in sales each quarter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its mature business, Corning has returned over $6.5 billion (of a $12.5 billion goal by 2019) to shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases under a capital-allocation framework formed in late 2015. And it simultaneously aims to invest $10 billion in the business through research, development, and engineering to maintain its technological leadership.
With shares trading at just 15.8 times this year's expected earnings, Corning could still prove a bargain for long-term investors.
Why Universal Display shines bright
That all sounds impressive, because, well, it really is. And Corning shares have climbed nearly 50% over the past year as it demonstrated its strength and future growth prospects.
But that's nothing compared with Universal Display, a $5.4 billion organic light emitting diode (OLED) specialist whose stock is up 110% so far in 2017. More specifically, Universal Display sells OLED materials and licenses its thousands of OLED-centric patents to the world's leading display makers -- Samsung Display and LG Display stand tall as its top two customers in terms of revenue -- enabling them to make cutting-edge OLED displays for smartphones, tablets, televisions, and even lighting applications.
Before you recoil at the thought of buying OLED shares after their big rise, keep in mind that Universal Display is still in the earliest stages of its torrid growth story. Most recently last month, Universal Display shares skyrocketed after the company revealed that revenue had climbed 87.2% year over year to $55.6 million, while net income more than quintupled to $10.4 million, or $0.22 per share.
CFO Sidney Rosenblatt insisted last quarter that the company expects its "growth trajectory to be positive for the foreseeable future," and then followed by raising full-year guidance and even dropping vague hints about the widely expected launch of Apple's first OLED iPhone later this year.
So sure, Universal Display has climbed further and faster than Corning of late. But it's also growing much more quickly from a smaller base and shows no signs of slowing down in the near future. And even trading at 46 times forward earning estimates, that's a perfectly acceptable premium given Universal Display's stellar growth rates.
It's also worth noting that Universal Display initiated its first cash dividend earlier this year, albeit in the form of a tiny $0.03-per-share quarterly payout. Management has since called the dividend a "good place to start," leaving the door open to increases down the line.
All things considered, I find myself favoring Universal Display as the "better buy" right now. But I also don't mind the volatility -- both up and down -- that tends to come with investing in a smaller, faster-growing business. If you're an investor who would rather opt for stability, you'll probably be just as pleased (and sleep better at night) owning shares of the innovative behemoth that is Corning. Either way, I think both Universal Display and Corning are poised to continue beating the market.
Steve Symington owns shares of Apple and Universal Display. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Apple and Universal Display. The Motley Fool recommends Corning. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.