The global effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 has resulted in widespread economic shutdowns. That's not good news for industrial stocks, which tend to track along with economic growth. For long-term investors, however, economic weakness could actually be a good time to pick up industry-leading names at relatively cheap prices. Today, U.S. steel giant Nucor Corporation (NUE 2.39%) and diversified global powerhouse 3M (MMM -0.17%) both appear attractive -- especially their historically high yields.
1. A different kind of steel mill
The core of Nucor's business is making steel using electric arc mini-mills. These are generally more flexible than the older blast furnace method of steelmaking, allowing Nucor to easily ramp up and down with demand. Nucor is also vertically integrated, with scrap steel operations, bulk steel mills, and specialty steel and steel products businesses. It is one of the largest mills in North America, and has a long history of operating with industry-leading margins.
While the company can't avoid the cyclical nature of the steel industry, since economic growth largely dictates demand in the sector, it has a built-in safety valve. A material portion of Nucor's employee pay is based on a profit-sharing arrangement. When Nucor is doing well its workers do well, often earning above-industry wages. When Nucor is struggling, employees feel some of the pain. That gives Nucor a break on the cost side of the ledger right when it most needs it.
In addition, Nucor has long focused on maintaining a rock-solid balance sheet. Today its financial debt to equity ratio is roughly 0.4 times, a very reasonable number. Meanwhile, it covered its trailing interest expenses 10 times over in the first quarter. The dividend payout ratio, meanwhile, is around 60% -- which isn't exactly low, but also isn't outlandishly high. The dividend, by the way, has been increased annually for 47 consecutive years, showing a commitment to returning value to shareholders through both the ups and downs of the steel industry.
Today Nucor's stock yields around 4%, which is toward the high end of its historical range. That suggests Nucor is trading at an attractive price for long-term dividend-focused investors.
2. Spreading the science around
Once known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, 3M has shortened its name to match its ticker symbol (everyone already called it 3M anyway). While on some level it's sad to see an iconic name get altered, the old name didn't really do justice to the company's business. Yes, 3M started out in mining and manufacturing, but today it's a far more diverse company with a foundation built on research and development.
3M breaks its business down into four broad segments: Safety & Industrial (about a third of sales), Transportation & Electronics (25%), Healthcare (25%), and Consumer (the rest). Each of these divisions is broadly diversified as well. For example, healthcare provides everything from dental adhesives to specialized wound care. The consumer division offers up Post-it Notes and adhesive wall hangers, among many other things. And those weren't just random examples, they involve a similar technology -- adhesives. One of the things that 3M is known for is developing a new technology and then applying it widely across many businesses. The company is definitely an industrial concern, but it has a high-tech research and development flare to it.
In addition to being diversified by industry, 3M also spreads its bets around the world. It operates in more than 70 countries and generates around 60% of its revenue from outside of the United States. Although economic cycles are important here, the company's broad diversification helps to smooth out the ups and downs over time. That's not so helpful right now, since the entire world is dealing with COVID-19, but it's an important long-term factor to consider.
The company's yield today is roughly 4%; as in Nucor's case, that's toward the high end of its historical range. The payout ratio is currently around 65% -- not low, but not unreasonable. It looks like an interesting opportunity for long-term investors to jump aboard this industrial giant.
However, 3M comes with a caveat. Part of the reason for the high yield today is related to the headwinds associated with COVID-19, and part is to concerns about litigation. 3M is currently facing large lawsuits over two different product lines. There's no way to tell how these cases will turn out, but neither is likely to put the company out of business. Collecting a historically high yield from a company with a 62-year track record of annual increases is probably worth the added uncertainty.
Time for a deep dive
The global economic view is hazy today, which has investors on edge at Nucor and 3M. It's understandable, but they have both proven throughout history that they can roll with the punches. Offering relatively high yields today, each of these industrial stocks is worth a deep dive for long-term investors with an income focus.