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Value Investor
Wealth Building Opportunites for the Active Value Investor

January 16, 2024

Earnings season has arrived, and with it could be a recalibration of investor expectations for stocks broadly.

The S&P 500 Index seems reasonably priced at 19.5x estimated 2024 earnings. But nearly 30% of the index’s weight comprises Magnificent Seven stocks, whose average multiple is 33x. Estimated earnings growth rates for these Mag Seven stocks, which average 19% for each of the next five years, set a high bar. When high expectations meet less-high reality… well, investors know what can happen to stock prices. And, any wobbling in the largest stocks can send the market broadly lower. As Dennis Gartman, the legendary and now-retired writer of The Gartman Letter, frequently said, “When the generals leave the field, the rest of the army follows.”

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Thoughts on Earnings Season

Earnings season has arrived, and with it could be a recalibration of investor expectations for stocks broadly.

The S&P 500 Index seems reasonably priced at 19.5x estimated 2024 earnings. But nearly 30% of the index’s weight comprises Magnificent Seven stocks, whose average multiple is 33x. Estimated earnings growth rates for these Mag Seven stocks, which average 19% for each of the next five years, set a high bar. When high expectations meet less-high reality… well, investors know what can happen to stock prices. And, any wobbling in the largest stocks can send the market broadly lower. As Dennis Gartman, the legendary and now-retired writer of The Gartman Letter, frequently said, “When the generals leave the field, the rest of the army follows.”

For some reason, analysts are optimistic about earnings growth for stocks broadly, according to FactSet Earnings Insight. For 2024, the S&P 500 companies are projected to collectively earn $243.91, an 11% increase over 2023 earnings. And, for 2025, estimates are for a 13% surge to $275.11. This pace would readily exceed the 10% pace from 2019 to 2022, a three-year stretch that featured the largest federal stimulus packages in history. For perspective, the long-term annual growth rate for S&P 500 earnings is about 7%.

We think these traits set up an attractive market, relatively speaking, for our kind of stocks. Ours may not have a stunning uplift of last year’s Mag Seven stocks, but they seem likely to outperform the generals.

Share prices in the table and discussion below reflect Friday, January 12 closing prices. Please note that prices in the discussion below are based on mid-day January 16 prices.

Note to new subscribers: You can find additional color on past earnings reports and other news on recommended companies in prior editions and weekly updates of the Cabot Value Investor on the Cabot website.

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This Week’s Portfolio Changes

Last Week’s Portfolio Changes

Upcoming earnings reports
Thursday, January 25: Comcast (CMCSA)
Tuesday, January 30: Sensata Technologies (ST)
Thursday, February 1: NOV, Inc. (NOV)
Tuesday, February 6: Gates Industrial (GTES)
Thursday, February 8: Philip Morris International (PM)

Growth/Income Portfolio

Cisco Systems (CSCO) is facing revenue pressure as customers migrate to the cloud and thus need less of Cisco’s equipment and one-stop-shop services. Cisco’s prospects are starting to improve under a relatively new CEO, who is shifting Cisco toward a software and subscription model and is rolling out new products, helped by its strong reputation and entrenched position within its customers’ infrastructure. The company is highly profitable and generates vast cash flow. Its announced deal for Splunk will drain most of its cash hoard but we see this as being replenished relatively quickly.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

CSCO shares rose 1% in the past week and have 31% upside to our 66 price target. Based on fiscal 2024 estimates, unadjusted for the Splunk acquisition, the valuation is reasonably attractive at 9.5x EV/EBITDA and 13.1x (on July 2024) earnings per share. BUY

Comcast Corporation (CMCSA) Comcast is one of the world’s largest media and entertainment companies. Its properties include Comcast cable television, NBCUniversal (movie studios, theme parks, NBC, Telemundo and Peacock), and Sky media. The Roberts family holds a near-controlling stake in Comcast. Comcast shares have tumbled due to worries about cyclical and secular declines in advertising revenues and a secular decline in cable subscriptions as consumers shift toward streaming services, as well as rising programming costs and incremental competitive pressure as phone companies upgrade their fiber networks.

However, Comcast is a well-run, solidly profitable and stable company that will likely continue to successfully fend off intense competition while increasing its revenues and profits, as it has for decades. The company generates immense free cash flow which is more than enough to support its reasonable debt level, generous dividend and sizeable share buybacks.

Comcast’s live-streaming (on Peacock) of the Kansas City Chiefs – Miami Dolphins game set a record for a streaming event, with 23 million viewers. The internet volume was also a single-day record. Despite a few delays during the game, we’d view the effort as a success in Peacock’s efforts to establish a widely recognized streaming brand. The effect on Comcast’s earnings is for now unknown and depends on the revenues generated from new subscriptions and from advertising, as well as the costs involved. We expect to hear more color during the next quarterly report.

Separately, as the political season rolls toward the fall elections, we would expect to see a surge in advertising revenues for Comcast’s networks.

Comcast shares fell 1% in the past week and have 7% upside to our 46 price target. HOLD

Philip Morris International (PM) Based in Connecticut, Philip Morris owns the global non-U.S. rights to sell Marlboro cigarettes, the world’s best-selling cigarette brand. Cigarettes comprise about 65% of PMI’s revenues. The balance of its revenues is produced by smoke-free tobacco products. The cigarette franchise produces steady revenues and profits while its smoke-free products are profitable and growing quickly. The upcoming full launch of IQOS products in the United States, a wider launch of the IQOS ILUMA product and the recent $14 billion acquisition of Swedish Match should help drive new growth.

The company is highly profitable, generates strong free cash flow and carries only modestly elevated debt (at about 3.2x EBITDA) which it will whittle lower over the next few years. The share valuation at about 13.5x EBITDA and 15.6x per-share earnings is too low in our view. Primary risks include an acceleration of volume declines and/or deteriorating pricing, higher excise taxes, new regulatory or legal issues, slowing adoption of its new products, and higher marketing costs. A strong U.S. dollar will weigh on reported results. While unlikely, Philip Morris could acquire Altria, thus re-uniting the global Marlboro franchise.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

PM shares fell 1% in the past week and have 27% upside to our 120 price target. The shares offer an attractive 5.5% dividend yield. BUY

Buy Low Opportunities Portfolio

Allison Transmission Holdings, Inc. (ALSN) Allison Transmission is a midcap manufacturer of vehicle transmissions. While many investors view this company as a low-margin producer of car and light truck transmissions that is destined for obscurity in an electric vehicle world, Allison actually produces no car or light truck transmissions. Rather, it focuses on the school bus and Class 6-8 heavy-duty truck categories, where it holds an 80% market share. Its EBITDA margin is sharply higher than its competitors and on par with many specialty manufacturers. And, it is a leading producer and innovator in electric axles which all electric trucks will require. The company generates considerable free cash flow and has a low-debt balance sheet. Its capable leadership team keeps its shareholders in mind, as the company has reduced its share count by 38% in the past five years.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

ALSN shares fell 1% in the past week and have 4% upside to our $59 price target. The shares offer a reasonable 1.6% dividend yield. HOLD

Aviva, plc (AVVIY), based in London, is a major European company specializing in life insurance, savings and investment management products. Amanda Blanc, hired as CEO in July 2020, is revitalizing Aviva’s core U.K., Ireland and Canada operations following her divestiture of other global businesses. The company now has excess capital which it is returning to shareholders as likely hefty dividends following a sizeable share repurchase program. While activist investor Cevian Capital has closed out its previous 5.2% stake, highly regarded value investor Dodge & Cox now holds a 5.0% stake, providing a valuable imprimatur and as well as ongoing pressure on the company to maintain shareholder-friendly actions.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

Aviva shares fell 1% in the past week and have 30% upside to our 14 price target. Based on management’s guidance for the 2023 full-year dividend, which we believe is a sustainable base level, the shares offer a generous 7.9% yield. We anticipate a dividend increase for 2024. On a combined basis, the dividend and buybacks offer more than a 10% “shareholder yield” to investors. BUY

Barrick Gold (GOLD), based in Toronto, is one of the world’s largest and highest-quality gold mining companies. About 50% of its production comes from North America, with the balance from Africa/Middle East (32%) and Latin America/Asia Pacific (18%). Barrick will continue to improve its operating performance (led by its highly capable CEO), generate strong free cash flow at current gold prices, and return much of that free cash flow to investors while making minor but sensible acquisitions. Also, Barrick shares offer optionality – if the unusual economic and fiscal conditions drive up the price of gold, Barrick’s shares will rise with it. Given their attractive valuation, the shares don’t need this second (optionality) point to work – it offers extra upside. Barrick’s balance sheet has nearly zero debt net of cash. Major risks include the possibility of a decline in gold prices, production problems at its mines, a major acquisition and/or an expropriation of one or more of its mines.

The company reported disappointing 4Q gold production of 1.04 million tons, which led to a miss of its full-year guidance. Barrick said it produced 4.05 million ounces for the full year, which fell 4% below the low end of its 4.2 - 4.6 million ounce guidance range. Copper production hit the low end of its guidance range. Barrick continues to struggle with meeting its gold production guidance, which suggests that the management is either too hopeful or is unable to generate new growth. Neither of these traits is encouraging. One risk is that Barrick overpays for an acquisition to buy growth.

Over the past week, commodity gold fell fractionally to $2,030/ounce after nearly reaching $2,100 recently. Gold seems to be holding its $2,000+ pricing. Foreign central banks have stepped up their buying. But, financial investors including hedge funds continue to have low exposure to gold, based on government reports, which could be a bullish indicator.

Our view on gold prices avoids some of these technicals and is based on what we believe is a structural change to inflation levels (no longer at near zero). These changes include war, government spending, crime, oil prices and past-the-peak fading of the benefits of global free trade, in addition to a tight labor market. Aggregate inflation statistics include subcomponents that show starkly different pictures of pricing trends, and these trends can and have changed from month to month. Despite the favorable broad trend, there remains a reasonably good chance that inflation could remain above a 3% pace indefinitely. This would imply permanent 4-6% interest rates.

The 10-year Treasury yield ticked up to 4.07%. The U.S. Dollar Index (the dollar and gold usually move in opposite directions) increased 1% to 103.40.

Investors and commentators offer a wide range of outlooks for the economy, interest rates and inflation. We have our views but hold these as more of a general framework than a high-conviction posture. Investing in gold-related equities is a long-term decision – investors shouldn’t allow near-term weakness to deter their resolve.

Barrick shares fell 7% in the past week, largely on the disappointing gold production numbers. The shares remain depressed despite gold prices above the $1,800 - $2,000 range, indicating that investors have no confidence in gold prices and little confidence in the company’s ability to generate higher cash flow. We note the increase in earnings estimates for 2024, which are due to rising gold and copper prices. Barrick shares have 66% upside to our 27 price target. BUY

Citigroup (C) Citi is one of the world’s largest banks, with over $2.4 trillion in assets. The bank’s weak compliance and risk-management culture led to Citi’s disastrous and humiliating experience in the 2009 global financial crisis, which required an enormous government bailout. The successor CEO, Michael Corbat, navigated the bank through the post-crisis period to a position of reasonable stability. Unfinished, though, is the project to restore Citi to a highly profitable banking company, which is the task of new CEO Jane Fraser. Investors have lost hope in Citigroup, creating an impressive bargain.

On Friday, January 12, Citi reported a highly scrubbed but reasonable quarter. Scrubbed revenues rose 2% while scrubbed earnings fell 24%. The Services segment and the U.S. Personal Banking business produced strong results, but Markets and Banking results were sloppy, and the Wealth segment was weak. CEO Fraser said that the new 5-segment structure is now in place and that “2024 will be a turning point” for the transformation, although 2024 guidance seems a bit optimistic. Capital and credit remain healthy while deposits and loans were reasonably steady. Citi has set aggressive revenue and cost-cutting targets as CEO Fraser has stepped up her massive full-company overhaul. The shares trade at 60% of the updated tangible book value of $86.19/share, as investors have little confidence in a favorable outcome. The dividend appears solid, and Citi repurchased about $500 million of shares in the quarter, indicating that management and regulators have some elevated degree of confidence in Citi’s capital level and capital generation. No change to our rating.

In the quarter, revenues of $17.4 billion fell 3% and were 7% below estimates. Excluding the impact of divestitures, revenues rose 4%, or +2% if the Argentina currency devaluation was also factored in. Adjusted earnings of $0.84/share fell 24% but were 22% above estimates. Earnings in both periods were highly scrubbed, and in different ways, so the comparison even on adjusted earnings isn’t entirely clean. Major adjustments included the $1.7 billion FDIC special assessment, a $1.3 billion reserve build for Russia and Argentina, an $880 million revenue impact from the Argentine currency devaluation and a $780 million charge for Citi’s restructuring programs.

Citi shares fell 3% in the past week and have 64% upside to our 85 price target. The shares remain attractive as they trade at about 60% of tangible book value of $86.19. The dividend offers investors a 4.1% yield.

When comparing Citi shares with a U.S. 10-year Treasury bond, Citi offers a fractionally higher yield and considerably more upside price potential. Clearly, the Citi share price and dividend payout carry considerably more risk than the Treasury bond, but at the current valuation, Citi shares would seem to have a remarkably better risk/return trade-off. BUY

CNH Industrial (CNHI) – This company is a major producer of agriculture (80% of sales) and construction (20% of sales) equipment and is the #2 ag equipment producer in North America (behind Deere). Its shares have slid from their peak and now trade essentially unchanged over the past 20 years. While investors see an average cyclical company at the cusp of a downturn, with a complicated history and share structure, we see a high-quality and financially strong company that is improving its business prospects and is simplifying itself yet whose shares are trading at a highly discounted price. See our November 30 Alert and the December 5 Monthly Letter for more color on our thesis.

The company is shrinking the size of its senior leadership team and re-aligning it to focus on its business segments. This change is another step in improving the company’s efficiency and results.

CNH’s shares fell 4% in the past week and have 30% upside to our 15 price target. The 3.4% dividend yield offers a worthwhile interim cash return. BUY

Gates Industrial Corp, plc (GTES) – Gates is a specialized producer of industrial drive belts and tubing. While this niche might sound unimpressive, Gates has become a leading global manufacturer by producing premium and innovative products. Its customers depend on heavy-duty vehicles, robots, production and warehouse machines and other equipment to operate without fail, so the belts and hydraulic tubing that power these must be exceptionally reliable. Few buyers would balk at a reasonable price premium on a small-priced part from Gates if it means their million-dollar equipment keeps running. Even in automobiles, which comprise roughly 43% of its revenues, Gates’ belts are nearly industry-standard for their reliability and value. Helping provide revenue stability, over 60% of its sales are for replacements. Gates is well-positioned to prosper in an electric vehicle world, as its average content per EV, which require water pumps and other thermal management components for the battery and inverters, is likely to be considerably higher than its average content per gas-powered vehicle.

The company produces wide EBITDA margins, has a reasonable debt balance and generates considerable free cash flow. The management is high-quality. In 2014, private equity firm Blackstone acquired Gates and significantly improved its product line-up and quality, operating efficiency, culture and financial performance. Gates completed its IPO in 2018. Following several sell-downs, Blackstone has a 37% stake today.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

Gates shares were flat in the past week and have 20% upside to our 16 price target. BUY

NOV, Inc (NOV) – This high-quality, mid-cap company, formerly named National Oilwell Varco, builds drilling rigs and produces a wide range of gear, aftermarket parts and related services for efficiently drilling and completing wells, producing oil and natural gas, constructing wind towers and kitting drillships. About 64% of its revenues are generated outside of the United States. Its emphasis on proprietary technologies makes it a leader in both hardware, software and digital innovations, while strong economies of scale in manufacturing and distribution as well as research and development further boost its competitive edge. The company’s large installed base helps stabilize its revenues through recurring sales of replacement parts and related services.

We see the consensus view as overly pessimistic, given the company’s strong position in an industry with improving conditions, backed by capable company leadership and a conservative balance sheet.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

The price of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil rose 2% to $72.09/barrel. Rising tensions in the Middle East, including Iran’s attack on an Iraqi base and ongoing Red Sea strikes by Houthi rebels, are supporting oil prices. The oil markets seem well-supplied for now.

Outcomes in wars are unpredictable. It would seem that the potential for sharp oil price volatility is higher with the increasingly complicated game of shifting geopolitical and economic alignments. A major new catalyst, in addition to all of the others, would be export or production cuts from the Middle East if Iran became directly or even explicitly indirectly involved (including if the U.S. restores its sanctions). Also, American sanctions on Venezuelan oil may return, which would provide at least modest support for oil prices.

The price of Henry Hub natural gas fell 2% to $2.47/mmBtu (million BTU). Cold weather across much of the United States has likely been priced in for now. The volatility points to the capricious nature of the natural gas outlook in winter.

NOV shares were flat in the past week and have 28% upside to our 25 price target. The dividend produces a reasonable 1.0% dividend yield. BUY

Sensata Technologies (ST) is a $3.8 billion (revenues) producer of nearly 47,000 highly engineered sensors used by automotive (60% of revenues), heavy vehicle, industrial and aerospace customers. About two-thirds of its revenues are generated outside of the United States, with China producing about 21%. Investors undervalue Sensata’s durable franchise. Its sensors are typically critical components that generally produce high profit margins. As the sensors’ reliability is vital to safety and performance, customers are reluctant to switch to another supplier that may have lower prices but also lower or unproven quality. Sensata has an arguably under-leveraged balance sheet and generates healthy free cash flow. The relatively new CEO will likely continue to expand the company’s growth potential through acquisitions. Electric vehicles are an opportunity as they expand Sensata’s reachable market. Our Sensata investment remains an underperforming (from a business fundamentals perspective) work in progress.

There was no significant company-specific news in the past week.

The shares will likely remain weak or stagnant for the near term due to the company’s weak fundamentals and average leadership. We will wait for a favorable change in investor sentiment but are poised to pull the plug. ST shares fell 5% in the past week and have 68% upside to our recently reduced 57 price target. HOLD

Growth/Income Portfolio

Stock (Symbol)Date AddedPrice Added1/12/24Capital Gain/LossCurrent Dividend YieldPrice TargetRating
Cisco Systems (CSCO)11/18/2041.3250.4222.00%3.10%66Buy
Comcast Corp (CMCSA)10/26/2231.543.0936.80%2.70%46Hold
Philip Morris International (PM)9/18/2396.9694.37-2.70%5.50%120Buy

Buy Low Opportunities Portfolio

Stock (Symbol)Date AddedPrice Added1/12/24Capital Gain/LossCurrent Dividend YieldPrice TargetRating
Allison Transmission Hldgs (ALSN)2/23/2239.4256.7944.10%1.60%59Hold
Aviva (AVVIY)3/3/2110.7510.74-0.10%7.80%14Buy
Barrick Gold (GOLD)3/17/2121.1316.07-23.90%2.50%27Buy
Citigroup (C)11/24/2167.2851.84-22.90%4.10%85Buy
CNH Industrial (CNHI)11/30/2310.7411.497.00%3.50%15Buy
Gates Industrial Corp (GTES)8/31/2210.7213.2223.30%0.00%16Buy
NOV, Inc (NOV)4/25/2318.1919.456.90%1.00%25Buy
Sensata Technologies (ST)2/17/2158.5734.16-41.70%1.40%57Hold

Current price is yesterday’s mid-day price.

CVI Valuation and Earnings

Growth/Income Portfolio

Current Price2023 EPS Estimate2024 EPS EstimateChange in 2023 EstimateChange in 2024 EstimateP/E 2023P/E 2024
CSCO 50.54 3.87 4.020.0%-0.1% 13.1 12.6
CMCSA 43.03 3.92 4.28-0.1%-0.4% 11.0 10.1
PM 94.55 6.09 6.520.1%0.4% 15.5 14.5

Buy Low Opportunities Portfolio

Current Price2023 EPS Estimate2024 EPS EstimateChange in 2023 EstimateChange in 2024 EstimateP/E 2023P/E 2024
ALSN 56.73 6.94 6.97-0.2%-2.8% 8.2 8.1
AVVIY 10.80 0.37 0.450.0%0.0% 29.0 23.9
GOLD 16.25 0.83 1.141.3%5.8% 19.5 14.3
C 51.92 5.60 6.05-6.2%1.3% 9.3 8.6
CNHI 11.52 1.72 1.54 na na 6.7 7.5
GTES 13.32 1.25 1.360.6%-0.7% 10.6 9.8
NOV 19.58 1.41 1.70-0.4%-0.8% 13.9 11.5
ST 33.95 3.66 3.970.0%-0.3% 9.3 8.5

Strong Buy – This stock offers an unusually favorable risk/reward trade-off, often one that has been rated as a Buy yet the market has sold aggressively for temporary reasons. We recommend adding to existing positions.
Buy – This stock is worth buying.
Hold – The shares are worth keeping but the risk/return trade-off is not favorable enough for more buying nor unfavorable enough to warrant selling.
Sell – This stock is approaching or has reached our price target, its value has become permanently impaired or changes in its risk or other traits warrant a sale.

Note for stock table: For stocks rated Sell, the current price is the sell date price.

Current price is yesterday’s mid-day price.
CSCO: Estimates are for fiscal years ending in July of 2023 and 2024

Bruce Kaser has more than 25 years of value investing experience in managing institutional portfolios, mutual funds and private client accounts. He has led two successful investment platform turnarounds, co-founded an investment management firm, and was principal of a $3 billion (AUM) employee-owned investment management company.