Although ABB Ltd. (ADR: ABB) has been around for 120 years, it’s one of those rare companies that’s kept current with the times. It continues to do so and those efforts are generating tangible results.
Indeed, as Money Morning noted in its July 7 overview of ABB, the Zurich-based industrial giant is a virtual lock to benefit from the many billions in stimulus money governments around the globe will be directing into such infrastructure-related areas as highway, construction and power-generation.
These promising opportunities remain. In fact – with the $586 billion stimulus China unveiled in early November, and the $825 billion stimulus plan that President-elect Barack Obama is kicking around, ABB’s growth opportunities have probably actually been enhanced, because infrastructure projects and job-creation are at the core of both packages.
In late October, ABB reported strong earnings for its third quarter, beating analysts’ estimates, while reaffirming its strong growth guidance for the firm’s still-to-be-reported fourth-quarter results.
In its third-quarter report, for instance, ABB reported strong (23%) year-over-year revenue growth, as well as a hefty increase in operating-profit margins (as measured by EBIT, or earnings before interest and taxes) to a healthy 14.5%.
So why are we revisiting our earlier report? What’s changed since we last looked at ABB? No surprise here: It’s the increasing uncertainty over the timing of these opportunities, given the ongoing – and, at times, escalating – global financial crisis. ABB took special note of this in the management report that accompanied its third-quarter financial statement.
“It’s too early to say how the recent financial-market turmoil will impact our markets in the short term, but our operational strength and flexibility, leading technology, competitive cost base and solid balance sheet put us in a good position to meet a tougher market. We are on target to deliver on our 2008 growth guidance,” ABB said in a statement that day.
After I published my cautious “Buy” recommendation, ABB shares rallied about 4%, a move that peaked near the end of July – which is right about the time that the Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. (LEHMQ) saga began exerting pressure on the stock market. That saga – which culminated with the brokerage firm’s Sept. 15 bankruptcy filing – precipitated an entire chain of events, which included the rescue of insurer American International Group Inc. (AIG), and widespread de-leveraging in the hedge-fund sector, all of which we’ve covered closely here in Money Morning.
By October, this financial collapse had evolved into a credit squeeze that paralyzed the world’s key economies – including the United States – in October. As the U.S. financial system ground to a halt, and as the effects reverberated across the world, growth projections for almost every country were revised downward and international-bank financing all but disappeared. Financing is a key issue in long-term infrastructure projects, since many of those big-ticket jobs could get delayed if financing is not readily available.
Thus, the financial crisis, has affected ABB’s stock price, both because of the forced de-leveraging and because of the downward revisions to estimated earnings per share. The stock came down from about $27 to a double-bottom low of $10 in October and November, and then rallied 50% to close the year at $15.01.
So what’s next for ABB’s shares?
For starters, the company is seeing a slowdown in large contracts: “Large project orders declined significantly, reflecting in part a comparison with a very strong quarter a year ago,” ABB stated when it reported its third-quarter results. “In addition, customers’ decisions on a number of industrial and infrastructure investments have been delayed as a result of the recent market uncertainty.”
ABB will be reporting its fourth quarter results on Feb. 12. In late December, when it set the date for that report, ABB announced it would be taking a fourth-quarter provision of $850 million for anti-competitive price-fixing, for a legal provision for suspicious payments in the United States, as well as for a tax dispute, restructuring charges and asset impairment. At the same time, however, the company announced it has found more than $1 billion in cost savings. That latter revelation is consistent with expected continued margin improvements, a conclusion reached in our earlier “Buy, Sell or Hold” column.
Although some issues of concern have arisen, there are a number of mitigating factors. These positive factors might even turn the story completely around in short order and will definitely be a huge plus in years to come.
As the company stated above, ABB has a number of very strong positives working in its favor. Sales in emerging economies outpaced sales in advanced economies for the first time in the company’s history in 2008. The afore-mentioned $586 billion China stimulus is heavily focused on infrastructure projects, as well as consumer spending (For an excellent overview of the overall investment opportunities China presents, take a look at my colleague Don Miller’s recent “Money Morning Outlook 2009 Series” installment on China. To read that report, which is free of charge, please click here).
But this infrastructure theme is not limited only to China. It’s a common threat that runs through virtually all the stimulus plans announced by countries all around the world in recent months. Even President-elect Barack Obama, in unveiling his own stimulus plan, made it clear that infrastructure will be a central component of his job-creating stimulus plan. One key goal: The modernization of the aging-and-inefficient U.S. energy grid.
Europe’s infrastructure is likewise old and in dire need of a major makeover. And emerging economies such as India, Brazil and Chile will continue to use their new-found wealth to stimulate their economies by staying on course with their ambitious infrastructure plans.
There’s an important point to understand here. Anytime major infrastructure investments are planned, investors can be assured that major investments in power-generation and power-transmission will be a central element of the billions in economic infusions. It has to be that way. You see, investments in power generation (and transmission) have a direct correlation with gross domestic product (GDP) growth. What’s more, as much as 90% of the world’s growth this year will come from emerging economies around the world – markets that are already driving sales for ABB.
For example, Chile’s stabilization fund has reached some $24 billion dollars, or 14% of GDP. This type of savings by countries that pursued sound economic policies during healthy periods is now enabling those same countries to mitigate the effects of the worldwide financial crisis, even as they continue to grow.
There are relatively few emerging markets to totally steer clear of, although Argentina is certainly one to be avoided.
In sum, while the financial disruptions have slowed down the pace of infrastructure spending, stimulus packages are keeping those projects from disappearing completely – and are perhaps even serving to stretch them out.
ABB may be one of the few companies positioned to benefit from all these trends. The company has a bullet-proof balance sheet, strong margins and solid cash flow. These strengths will mitigate the fallout from the financial crisis and over the long haul will keep propelling this giant to higher profits. The market has already discounted the slowdown, but has not discounted the cost-cutting efforts, whose details have been sketchy so far. We continue to be very upbeat about ABB’s prospects and will look at any market weakness in the year’s first half as a buying opportunity.
Action to take: Buy shares of ABB Ltd. (ADR: ABB). The stock has been buoyed in anticipation of the so-called “January Effect,” although the U.S. stock market has badly misbehaved since then (**).
Given the uncertainty, if you haven’t already established a position in ABB shares – as I urged in my prior column – then I would split my purchases so that they are made before and after the mid-February earnings report. But I would not “chase” it, and I would save some cash in order to possibly add the last 20% towards the end of the first quarter, as visibility about the U.S. and Chinese infrastructure plans improves, and as the company’s legal hassles become more clear.
[Editor’s Note: Veteran Wall Streeter Horacio Marquez is the author of Money Morning’s hugely popular “Buy, Sell or Hold” series, and is also the editor of the longstanding “Money Moves Alert” trading service. For a free report detailing some of the profit opportunities that service has uncovered, please click here.]
(**) – Special Note of Disclosure: Horacio Marquez holds no interest in ABB Ltd.
News and Related Story Links:
- Money Morning Buy, Sell or Hold:
Buy, Sell or Hold: ABB Ltd..
- Money Morning Economic Outlook 2009 Series Archive:
- Money Morning Economic Outlook 2009 Series:
China’s Red Dragon Turns Financial Crisis into Opportunity.
- Money Morning News Analysis:
Massive China Stimulus is Viewed as an Attempt to Help the West.
- Money Morning Week Ahead Column:
$800 Billion Obama Stimulus will be Topic of Debate Through Inauguration.
- Money Morning News Analysis:
Hedge Funds Have Another $200 Billion to go to Complete Their “De-leveraging”.
- Money Morning News Analysis:
Federal Government Grants AIG a New Bailout Package.
- ABB Corporate Press Release:
ABB fourth-quarter results to be impacted by pre-tax provisions of about $850 million.