If you look at lists of the world's greatest investors long enough, you'll notice an interesting trend: All of them have a track record spanning many years. Some hedge funds can deliver eye-popping returns when the economy is flying high, only to collapse once turbulence hits. Not so for the world's best. They take the long view, keep their emotions in check, and are better than most at picking winners.
With that in mind, we recently asked three contributors at The Motley Fool to weigh in on stocks that top investors and funds are scooping up right now. Here's why they chose pharma company UroGen Pharma (NASDAQ:URGN), telecom CenturyLink (NYSE:LUMN), and oil and gas driller Encana (NYSE:OVV).
A major milestone before year-end
Maxx Chatsko (UroGen Pharma): I'm cheating a little bit here, but this under-the-radar pharma stock recently joined the Russell 3000 index. That will force it to be included in mutual funds tracking the index and increase its exposure to institutional investors. It hasn't really helped yet, though, considering shares of UroGen Pharma have dropped 4.5% since its inclusion on the reconstituted index. Shares are down 20% since the beginning of 2019.
But that might just make the clinical-stage pharma company even more enticing to investors with a long-term mindset. UroGen Pharma is developing a portfolio of drugs aimed at urologic diseases and cancers. Each of the three clinical assets in development today utilize the company's unique reverse thermal hydrogel platform, called RTGel. It works quite simply: Drugs are formulated into a gel that exists as a liquid at room temperature, but which turns more viscous once heated up inside the human body. That allows the therapeutic product to be delivered in a simple outpatient procedure using a catheter and to remain in place within the urinary tract, which is notoriously difficult to target with precision.
The lead drug candidate, UGN-101, is being developed to treat low-grade upper tract urothelial cancer (LG UTUC). Given the difficulty of accessing the urinary tract, the rare cancer often requires surgery and often spreads to the kidneys. An estimated 78% of patients have a kidney removed during treatment. The drug candidate could change that.
The latest results from a phase 3 trial show that 42 of 71 patients treated with UGN-101 achieved a complete response, characterized as having no evidence of disease. Only 27 of those patients completed a six-month follow-up when the results were announced, but 89% remained disease-free. Those solid results, coupled with the fact the drug candidate has earned breakthrough therapy designation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, provide confidence UGN-101 will earn marketing approval soon. The company thinks it could be available in early 2020 if all goes well in meetings with regulators.
Despite that approaching milestone, the company is valued at just $700 million today. If the drug lives up to analyst expectations calling for over $500 million in peak annual sales, then patient investors should be handsomely rewarded. That would also give UroGen Pharma plenty of financial flexibility to pursue the development and expansion of its pipeline. Investors should give it a closer look.
A value investor coming back to its biggest holding
Jason Hall (CenturyLink): Southeastern Asset Management has held shares of beleaguered telecom CenturyLink since the fourth quarter of 2017, and since that time CenturyLink has consistently been the investment manager's biggest single holding. Unfortunately, things haven't gone as planned over the roughly 21 months since Southeastern took a major position in the company:
Southeastern's leadership has made it abundantly clear that it didn't agree with CenturyLink's decision to cut its dividend earlier this year. But despite not being completely on board with management's decision to prioritize improving the balance sheet with cash flows, Southeastern made the decision to add to its stake in the first quarter, buying almost 3 million more shares.
At the end of Q1 -- the most-recent data available -- Southeastern Asset Management held 67.3 million shares of CenturyLink, just over 6.2% of the company. This investment kept CenturyLink by far the company's biggest single holding, worth almost 12% of its portfolio at quarter-end.
So far, Southeastern Asset Management's bet on CenturyLink being undervalued hasn't paid off, but there's good reason to think that it will. The company generates substantial cash flows from its operations, and I think CenturyLink's management made the right call to cut the dividend and pay down debt. Moreover, its enterprise and data-centric businesses are set for long-term growth, and the company's plans to explore selling off its legacy copper line and residential telecom operations could help it further focus on where its business is headed.
Betting on a bounce-back
Matt DiLallo (Encana): Shares of Canadian oil and gas driller Encana have been under lots of pressure over the past year. The company's stock has tumbled nearly 70% over the last 12 months. That's due to a roughly 17% decline in the price of oil over that time frame, as well as Encana's questionable acquisition of Newfield Exploration.
This sell-off caught the attention of many of the world's top investors. More than 40 hedge funds owned shares of Encana as of the end of the first quarter, which was a 25% increase from the beginning of the year. Among the notable names buying shares were Ken Griffin's Citadel Investment Group and Paul Singer's Elliott Management.
Aside from Encana's lower stock price, one of the factors drawing some of the world's top hedge funds to Encana is its improving results. The company has focused on driving down well costs so that it can generate free cash flow. That operational improvement was on full display during the second quarter. Encana delivered record oil production while its cost came in well below budget. That enabled the company to generate $127 million in free cash flow, which it's using to buy back its dirt cheap stock.
Encana expects to continue using its free cash to buy back shares, which should eventually send them higher as Encana's operations keep improving. That upside potential is why several of the world's best investors have been buying this oil stock.