Earnings season is in full swing! In this episode of Industry Focus: Energy, host Nick Sciple and Motley Fool contributor Jason Hall share their thoughts on earnings reports from Enphase (ENPH -2.46%), Tesla (TSLA -1.92%), Nucor (NUE 0.31%), and UPS (UPS 0.02%). Plus, the two discuss which stock they would buy today and why.

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This video was recorded on April 29, 2021.

Nick Sciple: Welcome to Industry Focus. I'm Nick Sciple. This week, Jason Hall joins me to discuss recent earnings in the energy and industrial sector. Jason, thank you for joining me.

Jason Hall: Nick, thanks for having me. I'm excited. We're deep in earnings season and as expected, a lot of companies are doing quite well as we start to get into the recovery trade. Isn't that the reopening trade?

Sciple: Absolutely. I pulled a stat this morning. Carl Kingston, a CNBC anchor, a great follow on Twitter. He put the stat out this morning. We're about halfway through earnings season. If you look at earnings for S&P 500 companies, so far, we're on track for the strongest EPS growth since Q1 2010 up 45% compared to the year ago quarter, this is across the S&P 500. Obviously, it's a weird time when we're looking at earnings, but the pandemic is coming to an end. But what do you make of just how strong earnings have been across the board out of this quarter?

Hall: Yeah, it's interesting. We have a couple of factors. No. 1, we mentioned, it's like what happened in 2010, the world was starting to come out of the lows of the economic impact by the end of the global financial crisis, and of course, now reopening is happening. I'd be remissive if I didn't nod to what's going on in India and several other countries that are just being overwhelmed with coronavirus crisis, but at the same time here in the U.S., vaccinations are happening, people are going back to work, but also, there's still that tailwind of federal stimulus, that's part of the story too.

Sciple: Absolutely. Yeah, recovery as well as stimulus and folks just feeling more comfortable spending money. Maybe they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, that sort of thing. But let's get into some of these earnings reports across the board. What we'll see is companies delivering record earnings, the response from the market as to those reports has been varying. The first company we'll talk about here is Enphase Energy. They reported record earnings earlier this week, the stock fell over 10% on Wednesday though. Jason, what's going on here?

Hall: Well, it's a case of the market always looking ahead. If you dig a little past the record results and the record earnings, and when the company says yeah, we might have a little trouble. Our guidance, turns out it's a little bit less than what Wall Street analysts are saying. Then they say something along the lines of, we're going to have trouble getting this really important component, and we're not going to be able to make enough of our products, you get this reaction where the stock has fallen. This is one of those cases where Enphase is getting hit by the same thing that Ford and GM and big auto is, and that's the semiconductor crash.

Sciple: Absolutely. Yeah, you pulled a quote from Enphase President and CEO that said, "Looking into Q2, our shipment volumes will be constrained by semiconductor component availability. Although increasing the capacity of solar micro-inverters every quarter and the demand is increasing every quarter, the supply is unable to keep up with demand because of semiconductor constraints and component constraints in the market." For that reason, they're expecting their growth to slow down, revenue growth in the quarter, 47% higher than the year ago period, gross profit margin 40%, those are great numbers. But in the context of forward growth, going to slow down a little bit because the business is doing so well, they're outstripping what those supplies can meet, as well as the stock has just had an incredible run in the past year, Jason.

Hall: Yeah, it has and it's a company that I love. I'm not sure if it's recommended in Motley Fool services, but it certainly gets a lot of love from a lot of folks like me because it supplies a critical part. It makes the components that make solar work. It's the thing that takes solar energy from a solar panel and converts it into AC so that it can then work on the grid and power our homes and factories and all that kind of stuff. It's a really interesting business. As we've seen this year, just about anything tied to renewable energy has done incredibly well. It just so happens that this is a great business, it's an important business. They're in a duopoly in North America with SolarEdge making these panel-level electronics really for distributed solar. You think about commercial rooftop solar on a Walmart or on your house or on a parking garage that's distributed, it's not the big utility-scale facilities, it's the distributed solar between Enphase and SolarEdge. They have +90% of that market, and it's a growing market, so it's enormous. The company has certainly been rewarded for its growth. But also, again, ties back to that sell-off, there's a lot of high hopes priced into the stock right now.

Sciple: Yeah, Jason, I believe you're an owner of this stock.

Hall: Yeah, that's correct.

Sciple: How are you responding to this earnings, how do you think about the prospects for the company moving forward in the aftermath of these earnings?

Hall: Two things. First of all, if you think about the near term, because this is a key supplier, there's going to be real pressure on its North American market because there is somebody else in the business too. But with that said, how do these companies get preferred contracts, exclusive contracts to provide manufacturers, or maybe they're the main supplier to a large solar installer. Those things help. But the challenge I think is going to be internationally for Enphase. It's really focused on growing its international business and has done pretty well there. The thing is that a lot of other markets don't have the same requirements like the electrical code in the U.S. that requires the power management happened at each solar panel and distributed solar. That means that internationally, other providers may get in front of the company, which could affect its international growth story a little bit. That's a concern that I have in the near term. 

In the long term, I continue to have a lot of faith in the company that has incredible management, they have great technology, they invest in making that technology better, they are looking at ways to diversify the business into other areas that are decided to just making those panels as a supplier because let's be honest, usually, if you're a supplier, you're in a middleman and you're not making the final products, sometimes you are the one that gets squeezed on margins. This company has proven that they can have really, really good margins as a supplier. This could affect their ability to do that, but again, they're focusing on diversifying their business a little bit, getting more into energy storage, those sorts of things, and I think that's going to help the story play out over time. The addressable market is just so gigantic, I tend to think the tailwinds are going to be bigger than the pressures the company is going to have to deal with.

Sciple: Something to continue to watch. Of course, if the company is able to continue executing and delivering the types of numbers they put up this most recent quarter, I think that will probably catch up to any concerns that the market has in place. We mentioned Enphase's investment in solar energy. They also have some investments in stationary storage, transitioning to another company now that has some investments in that area as well. Tesla reported earnings this week. Like any Tesla earnings report, there's lots of stuff there for folks who were bullish on the company. What did you make of the report?

Hall: I think if you just take all the noise, take all the Bitcoin stuff, take all the metrics about how they're selling the energy credits, the terms have fallen out of my head here exactly what they are.

Sciple: Regulatory credits.

Hall: The regulatory credits. If you just take all that stuff and separate it completely and focus on this one thing, it's really hard to argue against. Tesla sold 50% more cars than they did in the year-ago quarter, 50% more cars, and they basically made zero of their Model S, Model X high-end cars. There's a little quibbling there about that actual commercial production. But we know they did shut that down because they're releasing new models and they're retooling. But to me, that is incredible, that is absolutely incredible. That tells a really important story about how disruptive Tesla has been and how much they have hit on something that car buyers absolutely want.

Sciple: Right. So, just to maybe put some numbers on there, Tesla achieved record production deliveries and surpassed $1 billion in non-GAAP net income for the first time. That's a direct quote from us on the earnings conference call earlier this week. You see significant delivery increases. They also reaffirmed guidance annual growth rate for deliveries, that's 50% moving forward. There's something to think about because how Tesla achieved this 50% growth this year they rolled out a new factory in China. So now that the snowball is starting to roll down hill there, they've got plans in place for the new factory in Austin and the other factory in Germany, and things are really starting to speed up to maintain that growth rate and keep on delivering more vehicles. 

When you look at those headline numbers, it's really impressive. What various folks might point out is just on the profitability side, you see incredible amounts of growth. If you want to waterfall, go from operating income and back out regulatory credits and back out the Bitcoin trading profits, so $594 million in operating income in the quarter, up 110% year-over-year, sold $518 million in regulatory credit, so 100% margin sales not from selling the cars specifically, and then another $101 million in Bitcoin trading profits, so that gets you up to $619 million in profit from regulatory credits and Bitcoin trading relative to $594 million in operating profit. What that tells you are folks you want to be critical of the report will say is that if you back out some of these non-core parts of the business that are maybe less repeatable going forward, things like Bitcoin trading and regulatory sales, that the core business is still not inflected to profitability. 

That said, as scale increases and costs come down, perhaps we see that at some time in the future. As far as earnings in the core business, I think there's still some progress to be made, but when you look at the deliveries, if they keep this up going forward, that will catch up sooner or later, you would think?

Hall: Yeah, you think so. Again, I don't argue with talking about those things because it is really important. If you want to be very cynical about it, you can say, well, this is just evidence that companies can manipulate GAAP to give you the result that they think that they need to deliver. Maybe there's some truth to that. With the Bitcoin thing, yeah. It is what it is. It certainly shouldn't be a core earnings part of any business that's really not in the business of investing and dealing with cryptocurrencies, so you think about a coin base. This is not their business, it is a thing that they are now doing. But I would say when it comes to the regulatory credits, Nick, and I thought a lot about this because I used to be one of those people that would be like, "Oh, that's not a thing." Somebody paid $518 million for it. You know what, I promise you that there are some people that it is worth more than $518 million to them to give that money to Tesla. Maybe it's not a tangible thing. Sure, you can say the government's involved. However, you want to spend it, there is an economic value there. Tesla has been smart enough and savvy enough to use it as part of the economics of how they are building scale. They're taking advantage of that. You know what, I think that that's a smart approach because to ignore it would be ridiculous, it's there. You know who hasn't done a good job of taking advantage of it? Big Auto. It's been there. Nick.

Sciple: Yeah, I think that's a fair point. When you think about who are the people paying Tesla this $518 million, they tend to be auto manufacturers that need to meet whatever requirements they need to make regulatorily when it comes to emissions, buy credits in order to meet those requirements. In particular, in 2020, European regulations went into place that made the penalties go up significantly. It does make sense for automakers to purchase these regulatory credits from Tesla, rather than pay the penalties for the government. I think what folks could push back and say is that certainly this is an opportunity available to Tesla, but as other automakers move more and more into electric vehicles. Say they have to spend X to buy a regulatory credit from Tesla in order to meet the government requirements when it comes to emissions. If they can sell an electric vehicle for X minus one dollar, even if they lose X minus one dollar, it makes economic sense for them to introduce that vehicle into the market. 

The incentives in place for the folks buying the credits are that to the extent they can avoid credits and lose less money by selling a vehicle even at a loss, it draws those folks into the market. As long as Tesla can sell these, obviously this is incredibly high-margin stuff they can use to maintain their advantage in electric vehicles while these other folks plan to catch up. But it is one of those things that the tailwind of regulatory credits will drop away at the same time as the headwind of competition comes up into the market. Competition will just intensify and that's part of it. When we look forward to the company, what are your biggest things will be watching for Tesla moving forward? What are the things folks should be paying attention to?

Hall: I've said this a couple of times on air lately and I really think this is where the focus needs to be. If you think about China, it is such an important market for Tesla. At the same time, there's some real questions about where the Chinese government is going to stand and allowing Tesla to grow at the same rates. Because there are a lot of -- I did a show with Anand Chokkavelu and Matt Frankel on Fool Live yesterday. We looked at a dozen companies. Of that dozen, we found four that we're the next Tesla of China. [laughs] There is so much focus domestically there. Let's be honest, China has a history of putting the thumb on the scales. You think about the GMs and the Fords that at times have had successes and then the success of the business has dried up in China. I think it's going to be a really challenging market, and I think investors should really moderate their expectations for the company's ability to succeed in a market where its destiny is maybe pre-determined. Maybe I'm saying that pretty heavy-handed, but I feel that might be the case. The U.S., North America, Europe, I think those are the markets that are going to become increasingly important because the company might not be allowed to be as important in China as it wants to be. Am I being heavy-handed there?

Sciple: Well, if you pay attention, look at outlets like the Global Times and a few others in China. There has certainly been an acceleration of inflammatory headlines that aren't necessarily the most charitable to Tesla.

Hall: Coming from state media basically, which is all the media.

Sciple: Yeah. That's certainly something to pay attention to. That's something I'd pay attention to as well. The other thing I would say is just autonomy because that's a key differentiator for Tesla. A key aspect of the business when it comes to super-normal margins, the auto industry moving forward. Just over the past few weeks and months, we've seen a number of automakers talk about introducing similar products onto the market. Tesla needs to be able to continue pushing that functionality forward in order to maintain a lead, in order to maintain an image in the minds of consumers that they have the best autonomous technology available on the market today. That's something to watch, there's been some regulatory activity there as well. I think the China story and then just the extent to which the autonomy technology is pushed forward are two very important things to pay attention to with Tesla moving forward. Any last thoughts on Tesla, Jason?

Hall: Yeah, I agree on autonomy to a certain extent. I think they really do have a huge data lead there in terms of the information they've collected. But again, a little bit too, I think it's that story they don't necessarily have complete control of their destiny. I mean, they can say all they want about their technology. But at the end of the day, [laughs] regulators are going to be making the call about when this is truly road-ready. I'm one of those people who think it's going to take longer than most of us expect. There's a lot of valuation that's based on Tesla being able to have, like you said, those super-normal margins in the auto-making business because of transportation as a service. We'll see how it plays out.

Sciple: Something to watch. Moving on from Tesla and Enphase, these are companies that really we're right in the bull's eye of the hot sectors in 2020. Let's move onto some companies, maybe less outside of those sectors. One of those is Nucor Steel, the largest steelmaker in North America. You can't make a Tesla without steel. This is another company that is reporting record quarterly earnings.

Hall: You look at the metrics, Nucor reported double-digit growth in volumes. Steel prices were up more than 20%. When you're a steelmaker, particularly any of these heavy industries, and you can charge double-digit prices and you also get double-digit volumes, the operating leverage that you get and the incremental margins that you get on the bottom line are enormous. We saw that Nucor's revenues were up 30% in the quarter, 33%.

Sciple: 33% sequentially, 25% year over year.

Hall: It's enormous. If you look at the bottom line, that's how you get to record earnings.

Sciple: Absolutely. When you look at these steel companies, the volume, you're pushing through the system. There is some operating leverage that it's realized as demand hypes up.

Hall: Yeah, it's enormous. I think shipments to outside customers, so this is actual steel shipments that they sold to somebody that wasn't from one division to another division were up 10%-11%. Total shipments were up 13% sequentially. The sequential numbers, I think, are really important because you see where demand is ramping up. Industrial demand for steel is starting to ramp up. There's another part of it too that's important for Nucor. This is a company whose track record of capital allocation is so good because the company has a rock solid balance sheet, it's investment-grade rated. One of the things that they've done really, really well, part of it is with their model, with their electric car furnaces, their mini mills, gives some scalability in their cost structure. But also just having a rock-solid balance sheet means that when this steel cycle turns negative and we're in a downturn and all of these assets are on sale, you can buy somebody that's struggling, they have something they need to sell to raise capital, you can buy at attractive prices. 

What we've seen over the past two, three years is that those things have been selling for a premium, so the company is really focused on internal projects and greenfield development and building instead of buying. It's really, really paid off because the company has moved more into higher-end steel, steel that it can get higher margins on, steel that it doesn't have to fight against commodity importers as much on, steel where there's growing demand, like the auto industry having higher-quality, lighter, stronger steels, domestic energy. Places where there's better margins, there's better demand and they're better tailwinds. It's really, really, really paying off.

Sciple: When you talk about tailwinds, one of the quotes from the conference call, Nucor President, CEO, Leon Topalian says, "When you're looking at guidance moving forward, we expect earnings for the second quarter of 2021 to exceed our first-quarter results, setting a new record for quarterly earnings. We believe the current favorable demand environment will continue through the rest of 2021." Jason, you mentioned how steel is a cyclical industry. Is it safe to say that the cycle is turning up right now?

Hall: It is. Again, the steel industry was actually relatively strong before the coronavirus pandemic. Just nailed everything. Again, you think about the U.S. domestic steel for energy was on the rise. The problem has been imported steel, has soaked away so much of the demand and it's made it harder for a lot of the domestic steel makers over the past five to six years. But now the big thing, we're talking about it again, is infrastructure. It's clear that infrastructure investment has to be made. 

But we also think a recovery in the domestic energy industry is going to drive demand for steel so that the metrics are good and you move beyond Nucor just to briefly touch on Steel Dynamics (STLD 0.61%), ticker STLD, is a really similar, smaller, newer company that uses that same mini mill business. You look at their metrics and you see a lot of the exact same things. Volumes are way up, operating incomes up, pricing is up. It's trailing, pushing along to their bottom line as well. It's tough, I'm challenged right now because these stocks are trading at all-time highs. But then you look at their forward earnings multiples and they're in high single-digits, like seven and eight times forward earnings multiples. The steel cycle, I think, is in a really, really strong place right now.

Sciple: Yeah. When it comes to investing through cycle, I think we've talked about this on the podcast before for these cyclical businesses. What do you think about the right time to buy them? Is now a time that is a good time to buy them or was that prior to the cycle really turning up?

Hall: So it's a challenge. Just from the beginning of the year, Nucor and Steel Dynamics stocks have increased 50%. So obviously a lot of people are thinking the infrastructure bill is going to happen and there's going to be big spending here. People are going to go back to buying cars, all of those things. To a certain extent I think it is "priced in". But the way I think about these businesses is unless you have an opportunity like we saw back in last March and April, both stocks have doubled since then. Those are opportunities that if you get it once a decade, you go in and you load up and you buy a lot because they are high-quality companies and you know, eventually they're going to recover. The way I think about them right now is I think it's a very reasonable thing for investors maybe to start a very small position, or maybe think about even adding a little bit right now and then continue to understand and monitor the steel industry, the economic aspects of demand that are playing out, and then look for opportunities to add and build out a position over time. 

Another thing is they both pay dividends yielding close to two%. So if you're looking for a steady, reliable source of income that can grow overtime because they also have really good track records of increasing their quarterly payouts, just about every year, I think they're good to own for that dividend growth as well. I definitely think now would be a probably not ideal time to go open a full large position in them. Again, 50% increase in four months, I think that says a lot about the potential risk of volatility in the near-term and over the next three to five years a risk of underperformance if your goal is to outperform the S&P 500.

Sciple: Certainly. It's going to be a cyclical business, keep that in mind. But I think we both agree that the long term trajectory for Nucor, its role in the U.S. economy and the North American economy isn't going to decrease in a meaningful way going forward. So to the extent they can keep making compelling capital allocation decisions and we don't find something that can replace steel, I think the company is going to have a role in the future and can be a part of a well-balanced portfolio. 

Let's move on to the last company we want to discuss today, Jason, which is UPS, another company reporting record earnings, another company blowing out analyst estimates. What do you make of the UPS report?

Hall: Again, if you think about what's happened over the past year, you've got hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in the United States and billions of people around the world that have learned that you can get anything shipped [laughs] right on the Internet. It's right there. You can buy stuff and it will show up at your house. It could be a couch, it could be anything. So that trend is absolutely paying off, vaccine distribution. There's so many interesting things that are driving companies like UPS. Their volumes increased about 14%. Incredible.

Sciple: 14% increase in average daily volume. Adjusted earnings reached $2.77 a share. That's against analyst estimates for $1.73. So when you're off by $1.

Hall: That's better than last I heard. 

Sciple: That's a lot. Revenue up 27% from a year earlier. Profits in their domestic and international segments, both have reached a record. Significant increase from small and medium-sized businesses. Growth reached a record high of 36%. So the company really across-the-board people are shipping a lot of stuff. There has been this inflection to online commerce that isn't going to reverse so companies that for a long time have maybe been hesitant to move out to selling products online have had to embrace that in a significant way and that's been to the benefit of UPS. I think there's been a lot of conversation in the market about what's going to happen with Amazon getting into logistics and they're going to squeeze out UPS and FedEx. I think what we're learning is there's a heck of a lot of demand and there's room for all these folks to make plenty of money.

Hall: We talk about Amazon and then you think about a company like Shopify that's established itself as a way for people to sell their products online and to have an e-commerce strategy that's part of their commerce strategy and they're not married to who could likely be their biggest competition. Then you think about companies like Wix. So all of the companies that are doing all of the other side of how online experience is happening and then tying into e-commerce. If you're a company like Shopify, if you believe in their future, then you can't truly believe that Amazon is going to put UPS out of business. It's a great big world and there are going to be hundreds of millions of businesses around the world that need to ship goods around. This is like the golden age to be a UPS or a FedEx right now.

Sciple: Absolutely. Last thing that I think popped out from their earnings report for me is a quote from their earnings where it said, "Given continued economic uncertainty, the company is not providing 2021 revenue or diluted earnings-per-share guidance." Why did this pop out to me? Because we saw this in a lot of earnings reports a year ago. The idea was the economic uncertainty was we don't know how bad the economy is going to get, therefore, we're not giving you guidance. My interpretation of this phrase from UPS is we don't know how good the economy is about to get.

Hall: How good the economy is going to be.

Sciple: So we're not going to give you guidance. That tells you something.

Hall: Yeah, it does. It absolutely does. I think it's a reminder too, that UPS is big domestically, but it's also a big international business too. There is some uncertainty to the downside. There is. But I think this is a clear case of what we just reported. We just blew away analyst estimates by 70%. So that's where we are. Again, I think it gets back to all the economic trends. You have economic recovery that's happening around the world, you have a return to normal. So I don't think we can discount that as much as we talk about e-commerce and we talk about those things that are going to play a big role in the future, we talk about just it's normal business that was disrupted and that kind of normalizing as we get into the second and third quarters of the year. Right, Nick?

Sciple: Sorry, my computer went down here for a second, so I lost a few seconds of what you said.

Hall: Hey, Nick, I'll tell you, if you ever need anybody to fill some airtime, you can count on me.

Sciple: You are my man. I would say this report from UPS tells me that the economy is growing at an incredible rate and the folks that are facilitating that are benefiting in an outsized way. I saw a headline this morning, they're expecting GDP to grow 6% year-over-year in this quarter. I don't know how that can't be a huge win for the folks that facilitate that trade, whether they're at a UPS or a FedEx or railroads, or we mentioned Nucor Steel earlier. This demand for more and more construction. I think all these folks that play into growth in the real economy have a huge tailwind behind them and they're going to have a really strong year. I thought coming into this year that value stocks would outperform growth stocks. Part of that is a lot of them are the companies like UPS and Nucor that play into this economic recovery in the real world. Last year, we saw the folks that facilitate business in the virtual world really benefit and have a lot of wind at their back and I think this year there's a lot more wind at their back than other groups.

Hall: Probably the biggest stat that jumped out at me from the UPS report, I don't know if we want to end it here, is their small- and mid-sized business volume is growing faster than their large customer volume. That's three quarters in a row and it's the largest portion of their volume it's ever been. That says a lot about where the economy is growing in the U.S. You think about the small and mid-sized businesses, that's the employment engine, that's the economic engine that's so important. So that's a really positive measure.

Sciple: All right, so to bring it home, Jason, I'm going to hit you with the Mac Greer desert island question. We discussed four different companies today, Enphase Energy, ticker ENPH, Tesla, ticker TSLA, Nucor Steel, which is NUE, and UPS, which is UPS. You can only own one for the next five years. Buying it today, which would you choose and why?

Hall: Probably UPS and the reason is, Tesla I'd be terrified to own for that long and not know what's going on. There is just so much expectation baked into its price. Enphase, maybe for some similar reasons and thinking about valuation and the potential for disruption, I think is still very real. Nucor. As we saw over the prior five years, as much as there are tailwinds, big tailwinds, the impact of overseas competition, even as the government continually tries to fight against anti-competitive trade moves from imported steel, was a real drag on its business. I think UPS has so many competitive advantages that are durable. It's expensive, but I still think it's a reasonable price and the tailwinds are just fantastic.

Sciple: I think I will have to agree with you, Jason. Just because of a little bit of uncertainties on valuation with the two growth of your companies there, kicks them out for me. As between Nucor and UPS, there's DHL and foreign competitors, but it's hard to replicate what UPS offers in the same way that you can replicate steel products. For that reason, I just think UPS has a stronger competitive advantage and it has some really strong tailwinds at its back with this continued shift to e-commerce. Even after this past year, e-commerce is not the majority of commerce that's done in the world, and eventually, I believe it will be. In that universe, the folks who are delivering those packages stand to gain a significant amount.

Hall: Agreed.

Sciple: Jason, thanks for hopping on the show with me.

Hall: This was fun, it's always fun.

Sciple: Yeah. Let's do it again sometime. Until then, as always, people on the program may own companies discussed on the show, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against the stocks discussed, so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear. Thanks to Tim Sparks for mixing the show, for Jason Hall, I'm Nick Sciple. Thanks for listening and Fool on!