Just as there are many ways to scalp a feline, there are plenty of ways to invest in the digital display market. Two popular choices involve glass and ceramics materials specialist Corning (NYSE:GLW) and organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology researcher Universal Display (NASDAQ:OLED).
Both of these companies have deep connections to digital displays, and the screen on your current smartphone may contain products and technologies from both of them. The same goes for your large-screen OLED television set, though those are still a bit too pricey to be found in every living room.
Universal Display and Corning actually don't have much in common apart from that shared reliance on some key markets -- at least not from an investor's perspective. So which one should you buy today?
Life in the fast lane
Universal Display's revenue depends directly on the total area of OLED screens being produced under license to the company's patents. What started as an almost exclusive focus on smartphone and tablet computer screens is now a near-perfect split between small-screen mobile devices and big-screen OLED TV sets. Screen manufacturers are currently ramping up their production lines to handle larger volumes of TV-sized screens, paving the way toward economies of scale and lower street prices in due time.
The amount of produced screen area varies from quarter to quarter, driving Universal Display's revenue higher and lower at the whims of consumers and device builders around the world. As the top line goes, Universal Display's earnings and share prices typically follow suit:
Sales have doubled over the past five years while adjusted earnings tripled. Universal Display's shares rose 720% over the same period.
This is a growth investment, not a value stock. Universal Display's $10 billion market value is largely built on expectations of further hypergrowth. The stock trades at 78 times trailing earnings and 86 times free cash flow today -- way up in Wall Street's nosebleed section.
Steady, as she goes
Corning runs a diverse business where no single market accounts for more than one-third of the company's total sales. This broad collection of unrelated target markets makes the company less vulnerable to sudden shifts in any particular area. For example, Corning's third-quarter report saw a 7% lower display technology top-line haul and a 10% drop in optical communications revenue on a year-over-year basis. But life sciences posted an 11% gain while automotive orders came in 38% higher. All in all, Corning's third-quarter sales fell just 2% despite turbulent markets and macroeconomic headwinds.
So Corning may be a less exciting stock to own than Universal Display, but it also lets you sleep at night. Over the past five years, sales and earnings rose by 20% each and the stock gained 29%. This stock trades at 22 times trailing earnings and 19 times free cash flow -- a fair valuation for a mature and generally slow-growing business.
Different strokes for different folks
Universal Display is by far the more exciting growth investment in this matchup. I own it myself and it's one of the most profitable holdings in my real-money portfolio. I also believe that Universal Display's high-octane growth story has only just begun. If you can tolerate the wild swings this stock tends to make, sometimes on the flimsiest of news, I highly recommend that you grab a few shares and hang on for dear life. You will probably thank me later.
That being said, there's nothing wrong with owning Corning, either. It's a much safer and slower investment, paired with a generous 2.7% dividend yield (compared to 0.2% for Universal Display), and a fine choice for income-generating portfolios. In this era of commission-free stock trades, there's nothing stopping you from picking up Corning shares alongside a spicy little bet on Universal Display.