Over the past decade the stock of Dow Chemical (NYSE:DOW) is up by just 10%. That's it, that's not on an annualized basis, but 10 years ago today the stock sat just 10% below today's price. Sure, the company has consistently paid a dividend along the way, though it was cut during the financial crisis, but this certainly wasn't the type of return investors were expecting. With a history of underperformance, is that enough of a reason to beware and stay away from Dow's stock or are there enough compelling reasons to buy?
Why you should buy
To good news for potential investors is that there are several catalysts on the horizon. First, the company recently received $2.2 billion in damages from its failed joint venture in Kuwait. The company sees this as its final step in returning its dividend to pre-recession levels.
In addition to that, the Dow of today is a much stronger company with a solid balance sheet and a business that generated $4 billion in cash from operations last year. Dow believes it can generate $25 billion in cash from operations over the next five years which will further strengthen its balance sheet, afford it to fund organic growth opportunities, and raise that dividend on its stock to pre-recession levels and beyond.
Growth opportunities abound and, because of the low price of natural gas in the U.S., Dow has been spending billions to build out its ability to use of natural gas as a feed stock. In addition to this opportunity to grow its petrochemicals business, the company sees a bright future in agriculture. To take advantage of what it's seeing, Dow has been investing 30% of its R&D budget into its agricultural sciences division in order to better compete with Monsanto (NYSE:MON) and DuPont (NYSE:DD). Dow certainly needs to invest to keep up as those other two companies recently settled a long-standing legal battle which should lead to more collaboration between the two. Dow's ability to grow in this key industry could really lift its stock in the future.
Why you should beware
Despite all of those positives, Dow is not out of the woods just yet. The company has been engaged in a very public battle to limit natural gas exports. Increasingly, the tide seems to be turning in favor of its chief advisor, ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM), which apparently can now count President Obama as being on its side. As an investor, one has to question whether this public debate might end up costing this company, and its stockholders, more than just cheap natural gas.
There is no doubt about it, Dow has a lot of money riding on cheap natural gas; it's spending $4 billion to expand its Gulf Coast petrochemical facilities. However, instead of looking for ways to lock up its supply, Dow has been fighting to limit exports. On the other hand, Nucor (NYSE:NUE) which has joined Dow in its opposition to increased natural gas exports, has at least hedged its bets. The company entered into an agreement with EnCana to invest in natural gas wells to lock up much of its future needs. Dow might be better off walking away from its fight with Exxon over exports. Instead, it should follow Nucor's lead and lock up its natural gas supply for the long term. I'd even bet that the nation's No. 1 natural gas producer would make that deal, because as we all know, Exxon wins either way.
Foolish bottom line
The more I've explored Dow's position on natural gas exports, the less enthused I am of its outspoken disapproval exports. That being said, there are enough catalysts in Dow's future to send its stock higher. That's why I think you'd be better off buying Dow's stock and collect it's soon to grow 3.65% dividend while waiting for those catalysts to play out. Just be aware that Dow still has some issues that need to be worked through.