Second-quarter calendar year 2021 earnings season is mostly now in the books, and technology companies around the globe continue to be the engine of the economy. Revenue and profits are growing near record paces and showing little sign of slowing anytime soon. Lots of investment returns can still be had for those with a long-term mindset.
If you're looking for a place to invest some spare cash right now, three Fool contributors think Western Digital (WDC -1.86%), Aspen Technology (AZPN), and Alibaba Group Holding (BABA 0.51%) are worth a look right now. Here's why.
This storage giant is cheap and in talks for a transformative merger
Billy Duberstein (Western Digital): Shares of storage player Western Digital are down about 20% from recent highs, and nearly 50% from all-time highs set back in early 2018. That was before the onset of the U.S.-China trade war caused a memory and storage pricing crash, from which Western Digital has never recovered. Western Digital even cut its dividend in May 2020, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and just when new CEO David Goeckeler came on the job, giving the company a fresh start.
Yet coming out of the pandemic, Western Digital has been doing pretty well under Goeckeler. Last quarter, revenue rose 14% to $4.9 billion, and adjusted earnings per share rose to $2.16, beating expectations by a rather sizable $0.66. Management also guided for sequential growth, to between $4.9 billion and $5.1 billion in revenue and adjusted EPS of $2.25 to $2.55. The digitization of the economy is spurring strong demand across Western Digital's hard disk and NAND flash products, with each segment seeing revenue growth and gross margin expansion last quarter.
Based on those solid results, Western Digital trades at just over six times average forward earnings estimates, and only five times the most optimistic analyst forecast. Of course, the stock is this cheap because its business has traditionally been extremely cyclical, especially the NAND segment, resulting in losses when a downcycle hits the industry.
But there could be good news coming in the NAND world. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Western Digital was in advanced talks to merge with privately held Kioxia, another large player in the NAND and HDD businesses. Western Digital already has a strategic partnership with Kioxia, so merging would make a lot of sense.
Should the merger go through -- still a big if, as regulatory hurdles remain in both Japan and China -- the NAND industry will consolidate from six players last year to just four main players, following SK Hynix's acquisition of Intel's NAND business, which was agreed to last fall.
The more consolidated DRAM and HDD industries have been able to maintain higher profitability through cycles than the NAND players, due to larger scale and less competition. Should the NAND business go down to just four players outside China, it could lead to structurally higher profits going forward. Western Digital's stock seems cheap enough to buy even without that scenario, but the stock could go much higher should the merger happen.
Here's a direct bet on stronger industrial operating budgets
Anders Bylund (Aspen Technology): Industrial asset optimization may not sound like much of a party, but Aspen Technology is making that market look downright exciting.
AspenTech's software helps its customers produce fuels, engineered materials, and chemicals more efficiently. These tools are difficult to replace once your company has gotten used to tweaking its production processes with AspenTech's tools. These tools are based on AspenTech's 40 years of engineering analytics experience and boosted by a powerful hub of artificial intelligence and Internet of Things assets.
Two weeks ago, in the most recent earnings call, AspenTech CEO Antonio Pietri highlighted how one Japanese client reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 160,000 metric tons per year thanks to a successful supply chain analysis. In another example, a global mining giant signed an AspenTech contract worth $3 million a year to boost the safety and sustainability of this customer's operations.
Customer interest in AspenTech's software is high, but lowered software budgets during the coronavirus panic of 2020 have limited the purchasing plans of many IT directors.
"We're confident this is a temporary phenomenon and that as the operating conditions require it, customers will begin to budget for operations and maintenance spending that will support increased growth in the future," Pietri said. "Our baseline assumption is that spending conditions improve in the second half of the fiscal year as customers set their calendar 2022 budgets in the context of greater certainty and a better operating and macro environment than they did last year."
The stock is trading roughly 20% below 52-week highs, hamstrung by mixed results in that recent earnings report. I think that drop opened up an inviting buy-in window for AspenTech's stock.
You can think of AspenTech as a bet on artificial intelligence or as a coronavirus rebound opportunity, or you might simply appreciate the company's rare combination of ultra-loyal customers and 45% bottom-line profit margins. Any way you slice it, AspenTech looks like a solid buy today.
A wall of regulatory changes won't stop Alibaba long-term
Nicholas Rossolillo (Alibaba): China's e-commerce giant Alibaba had a fantastic showing in its fiscal 2022 first quarter (the three months ended in June 2021). Excluding its acquisition of a leading supermarket chain, revenue increased 22% year over year to $29 billion, building on the massive surge in online spending from the same period last year during China's pandemic lockdowns. Adjusted net income increased 10% to $6.72 billion.
Now that we have the numbers out of the way, let's address the massive elephant in the room: China's renewed zeal for regulating its tech industry. Compounding on top of ongoing geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China, Chinese regulation crackdowns on Alibaba as well as internal scandals have sent the tech behemoth from a market cap high of over $840 billion last October to just $450 billion as of this writing. Shares trade for 20 times trailing-12-month earnings per share (or 14 times trailing-12-month free cash flow), which would otherwise be a steal of a deal given Alibaba's enduring growth story.
I struggle to see why the regulatory risks that need to be accepted with Alibaba differ so much from the regulatory risks with U.S.-based big tech. Sure, when viewed through our lens here in the states, the Chinese Communist Party's crackdown on tech is a perennial problem -- one that has sent companies like Alibaba and its Chinese tech titan peers like Tencent Holdings and JD.com reeling on more than one occasion.
But this is a dynamic longtime investors in U.S. tech have had to grow accustomed to as well (numerous lawsuits, fines, and calls for antitrust action against Facebook and Alphabet's Google anyone?). While the ruling party in China may have fewer checks on it than here in the states, political powers around the globe are trying to reel in the economic power technology companies wield. It's part of the game, no matter which country you invest in.
I'm not saying Alibaba stock is devoid of risk. There are reasons you might give serious pause before plopping some money down here. Tread lightly, and stay diversified. However, after getting absolutely clobbered, I think the risks are well priced in -- and Alibaba will continue to grow as China continues to develop its economy for the 21st century. For those with the appetite for some extreme volatility, the stock looks like a pretty good long-term buy to me right now.