This is either a terrible time to own shares of Universal Display (NASDAQ:OLED) or a stellar opportunity to buy more. There's not a whole lot of middle ground. So which one is it?
When the markets opened on Monday, Universal Display shares already hovered just above 52-week lows. The rumor mill was whispering about largest customer Samsung (OTC:SSNLF) turning elsewhere for a crucial ingredient in its mobile OLED devices.
But that was just the beginning. Universal Display plunged 9.7% lower before the closing bell rang on Monday. Angry investors could point fingers at Samsung once again.
According to an article in Japanese business magazine Nikkei's Asian Review, Samsung is hitting the brakes on developing large-screen OLED displays meant for living room-sized TV sets. Specifically, the Korean electronics giant reportedly nixed a brand-new manufacturing facility in Japan, which would have replaced an older and less effective OLED plant.
The article says that manufacturing inefficiencies paired up with low demand for the high-priced products, and the TV market comes with slim margins even in the best of times. So why not step back from a costly manufacturing upgrade that doesn't seem likely to drive reasonable profits anyway?
Under pressure from this combo punch, Universal Display shares took a big haircut. You could have bought shares in the Indian summer of 2010, only to stare down virtually flat returns today -- 44 months later.
So it's been a frustrating stock to own, underperforming the market over several years. The stock has dropped 31% year to date, which is enough to send many investors scrambling for the "sell" button.
On the other hand...
You know that old adage about buying low and selling high? The "buy low" part of that ancient wealth-creating wisdom is at play here.
Consider this: Universal Display's revenue has spiked 77% higher over the last seven quarters. Adjusted earnings more than tripled, and have remained consistently positive after many years of large losses.
And what did share prices do? Not much, which is why the stock now trades at a downright value-packed 15 times trailing earnings. I can think of several large-cap value stocks trading at higher earnings multiples than this exciting growth stock does.
Shouldn't I worry about Samsung taking its OLED business elsewhere? Well, the companies have a firm agreement, complete with minimum order volumes and a commitment to buy certain (but undisclosed) amounts of Universal Display's OLED materials.
The exact terms of this contract are top secret, like any big-ticket business deal worth its salt. But it's probably safe to assume that Universal Display's lawyers and deal makers made sure to hit Samsung with large penalties for falling short of its commitments. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that Samsung is better off buying OLED materials it never intends to use, rather than triggering those punitive contract clauses.
OK, but what about that crumbling OLED TV market? Wasn't that supposed to be a bankable operation with big payoffs in 2014?
Actually, not so much. Here's what Universal Display CEO Steven Abramson said about the OLED TV opportunity three months ago in his fourth-quarter earnings call with analysts: "To be honest, all of the TVs that have been made are really made on prototype lines. And they are being made in very limited quantities."
Furthermore, CFO Sid Rosenblatt spoke at a January conference, making it sound like Samsung wasn't even the biggest potential OLED TV maker at that point: "Samsung probably a year-ago talked about TV production starting in the same frame. I don't think they have announced anything specifically at this time," Rosenblatt said. One Samsung facility was supposedly getting upgraded to the next technology generation, reserving half of it for TV screens and the rest for mobile devices, "but there are no specific dates when that will occur."
That doesn't sound like betting the farm on Samsung's TV production this year. If anybody bought Universal Display shares in early 2014 with nothing but big-screen OLED TV sets in mind, they only set themselves up for disappointment.
What to do?
Which brings us back full circle. At this point, Universal Display is priced like a cold-molasses value stock but owns the revenue and earnings trends of a high-priced growth rocket. At some point, this gap will have to close, and I don't see the business slowing down to match Wall Street's expectations.
The company reports first-quarter results on Thursday. Analysts are looking for a modest $0.03 adjusted profit per share, matched with 112% year-over-year sales growth. This report could start unlocking Universal Display's true value, which is nowhere near the big discounts we're getting on the stock right now.
Volatility is the name of the game for Universal Display investors, because the business is not widely understood and many investors are hoping for a get-rich-quick payoff that never comes. Right now, that volatility is working against existing shareholders but opening a generous window for new money.
And this week's quarterly report could get this stock back on the road to recovery, even without shocking earnings and revenue numbers. All it takes is a bit of management insight on how the smartphone-driven sales growth will transition into the next big market, whether that's TV screens or wearable computing. Chances are, the wearables segment will pop before big-screen OLED TV sales do.