Is the market rigged? While it's an interesting question, it might not ultimately matter. Even in a rigged market, history has shown that individual investors can profit by owning stocks over the long term.
Some do have a market advantage
There seems to be plenty of evidence showing that some have a market advantage. High-frequency trading powerhouse Virtu Financial reportedly that it experienced only one day of losses in nearly five years, while investment bank Goldman Sachs reported a similar knack for ensuring profits. It recorded losses on just 27 out of 260 trading days last year. And that was a relatively rough period: It had only 16 losing days in 2012.
These firms appear to have what it takes to get an inside track on the market -- namely, large amounts of capital, superior transaction speed, and specialized knowledge. The gobs of money that flow to successful financiers and advanced technology would seem enough to achieve a substantial edge. But having a jump on information via favorable access to market-making news or trading flows virtually ensures profits.
The individual investor's long-term advantage
While there will always be someone doing their best to swindle the market, individual investors can still do well investing in stocks. They can have their own market edge by concentrating on buying stocks of good companies at attractive prices and holding them for the long term.
In the late 19th century, Hetty Green, the famed "Witch of Wall Street," showed the benefits of long-term investing. In a time when women couldn't vote and stock market manipulation was rampant, she amassed a fortune. How? She summed up her method by saying, "When I see a good thing going cheap because nobody wants it, I buy a lot of it and tuck it away."
But what is "cheap"? Let's look into some undervalued stocks and learn by example.
Stocks in the clearance aisle
Republic Services (NYSE:RSG) basically collects refuse and brings it to recycling centers and landfills. The company's business appears rock solid, delivering revenues of around $8.1 billion consistently throughout the great recession. Now, business seems to be improving. Revenue increased more than 5% year over year in the company's last two quarters, sales are expected to rise another 4% in 2014. This top-line growth easily tops competitor Waste Management's 2013 revenue growth of 2.4% and forecast 2014 revenue growth of 2%. Republic has capitalized on increased demand, with volume growing 2.5% in the latest quarter, topping off the first full year of positive volume performance since 2006.
The company is one of few in the industry with a national presence, and size matters in waste collection. While smaller competitors can be a hindrance in certain regions, Republic's economies of scale can produce cost savings that are hard to match. A majority of the company's total waste collected last year was disposed at landfills that it owns or operates. This integration makes for a lower cost of operation and better cash flows than those of non-integrated competitors.
Republic shares, which offer a 3% dividend yield, appear reasonably price at 21.2 times trailing earnings and 15.9 times forward earnings, given the company's strong competitive position and favorable outlook.
Susquehanna Bancshares (UNKNOWN:SUSQ.DL) is a promising Mid-Atlantic financial-services company. Through the recovery, it has grown assets from around $14 billion in 2009 to more than $18 billion at the end of 2013. Thanks to an improving economy, Susquehanna was able to report record earnings last year. Net income rose 23% year over year to $173.7 million, helped by a focus on cost. The bank undertook a branch consolidation plan in which 14 locations were closed and 30 properties were sold and leased back. The resulting savings are expected to support increased lending, additional investing, and the payment of debt.
Offering a dividend yield near 2.8%, the banking firm looks attractively priced at around 12.2 times trailing earnings and 1.5 times tangible book value. Tangible book value -- i.e., a bank's net asset value after all intangible assets are subtracted -- is a common financial-services valuation benchmark.
Susquehanna Bancshares' peers have noticeably higher valuations. Webster Financial, a Northeastern financial with about $21 billion in assets, trades at 16.1 times trailing earnings and 1.8 times tangible book value. Regional competitor United Bankshares trades around 17.6 times earnings and 2.3 times tangible book value, while rival financial-services giant M&T Bank Corporation, with more than $88 billion in assets, is priced around 14.4 times earnings and 1.9 times tangible book value.
Food distributor and grocery store chain SpartanNash (NASDAQ:SPTN), formerly known as Spartan Stores, was created from a Spartan Stores and Nash Finch Company merger last year. The combination looks beneficial. Its increased size should provide additional business opportunities, and cost cuts appear meaningful: The company expects synergistic savings to top $100 million over the next three years.
By revenue, SpartanNash is the nation's largest supplier of food to military commissaries and exchanges. It's also positioning itself for further growth: A major store remodeling and branding project, two new stores in growing markets, and a military distribution-center expansion are all planned for this year. The company is also making sure legacy locations deliver adequate returns. Up to 10 underperforming stores could be closed in 2014.
"We are making excellent progress in combining our retail, food distribution, and military distribution businesses," said CEO Dennis Eidson during last month's Q3 earnings conference call. "We continue to expect synergies of approximately $20 million, $35 million, and $52 million in fiscal years 2014, '15, and '16, respectively."
Based on expected 2014 adjusted EBITDA, SpartanNash has an enterprise value of 6.2 times EBITDA -- a seemingly reasonable multiple, given the cost savings and growth potential provided by the merger. The company's decent 2.1% dividend yield also adds to the shares appeal.
Evidence suggests that some market participants will always have a decided advantage. But it does not mean an individual investor needs to suffer from a "rigged" playing field. History has also shown that buying good companies at good prices -- possibly including Republic Services, Susquehanna Bancshares, and SpartanNash -- can generate gains even in the shadiest of environments. While investors may not garner Hetty Green-like fortunes, those who look for and find good value in the market will profit in the end.