In a market near all-time highs, chemical stocks look like a potential source of value. Shares of top chemical companies still look reasonably cheap, with many priced at a mid-teen — or lower — multiples to earnings and free cash flow.
That said, there are some reasons why the sector appears cheap. Chemical stocks are notoriously cyclical, even those of the top chemical companies. That goes double for specialty manufacturers with narrow portfolios and/or those exposed to input costs of volatile commodities (among them oil). Earnings in the industry often don’t grow in a straight line. Rather, some sort of choppiness is the norm, which dissuades some investors from entering the space at all.
But there are some attractive stocks to buy in the space. The U.S. economy is strong, with no sign of imminent slowdown.Commodity costs are reasonably stable. And — again — valuations are cheap. Here are five chemical stocks to buy that look particularly intriguing, though not always for the same reasons.
Chemical Stocks to Buy: DowDuPont (DWDP)
DowDuPont (NYSE:DWDP) is one of the top chemical companies in the world. In fact, it’s the global leader in sales. And yet DWDP stock doesn’t appear to be getting much respect at the moment.
DWDP trades at just 14.5x forward earnings, and there is value to be unlocked from the merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont. DWDP is spinning off three companies, leaving a specialty products business to be renamed DuPont.
It’s possible, if not likely, that the uncertainty around those decisions is holding down the DWDP share price. But the smart money seems to see quite a bit of value in the stock. The average Wall Street target price of $44 suggests about 43% upside, and 46%, including a 3%+ dividend yield, making it a good stock to buy.
Chemical Stocks to Buy: Albemarle (ALB)
The case for Albemarle (NYSE:ALB) is pretty simple. The world’s biggest lithium producer presents a derivative play on the growth of electric vehicles like those produced by Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), as Larry Ramer argued earlier this year. Lithium is a key input for EV batteries, and Albemarle should benefit from increasing demand going forward.
That case actually has been a negative so far in the past year. ALB stock is down by a third over the last 52 weeks. Analysts have expressed some concerns about potential oversupply, and rival Sociedad Quimica y Minera de Chile (NYSE:SQM) has said it will take Albemarle’s No. 1 market share position within four years.
Still, the selloff appears overdone. Like DWDP, analysts see big upside at ALB, with the consensus target implying nearly 50% gains. ALB’s lithium business is growing in the near term, and it should have years of similar growth ahead, even if SQM does take share.
Also consider that a forward price-to-earnings ratio of ten suggests its valuation is reasonable at worst, and so does an aggressive $500 million share repurchase program implemented last year. With TSLA stock struggling, Albemarle looks like a more reasonable, and potentially more attractive, play on the growth of electric vehicles, making it an attractive stock to buy.
Chemical Stocks to Buy: W.R. Grace (GRA)
W.R. Grace (NYSE:GRA) has basically stalled out for the past few years. The company’s spin-off and combination with Sealed Air (NYSE:SEE) hasn’t helped the stock. Nor has solid growth, and a steady drumbeat of strong earnings reports (Grace has beat consensus on the top- and bottom-lines for seven straight quarters).
At this point, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. GRA always looked like one of the top chemical companies, but with a stock that traded at a questionable price … that’s no longer the case. The forward P/E multiple has dropped below 15x, mostly in line with the sector.
The company’s exposure to gasoline, through its FCC (fluid catalytic cracking) business, does raise a risk, particularly for investors betting on exponential growth in electric vehicles. But GRA is well-managed, cheap and as I wrote in July 2018, an oft-cited takeover target. The past few years have been disappointing for GRA shareholders, but the next few might be much better.
Chemical Stocks to Buy: H.B. Fuller (FUL)
H.B. Fuller (NYSE:FUL) already has had a nice run. Shares have risen about 30% from 2015 lows. But there’s reason to see more upside ahead.
Fuller is one of the leaders in the global adhesives market, competing with 3M and Germany’s Henkel (OTCMKTS:HENKY), along with a myriad of smaller producers. Its 2017 acquisition of Royal Adhesives added to its scale and market share, while also boosting profits by nearly 50%.
Management has set aggressive growth targets for 2020, backed by acquisition synergies, cost-cutting and a shift-toward higher-growth, value-added products. If Fuller can get to those targets — or close — there’s easily double-digit annual returns on the way.
Longer-term, the adhesives business is an attractive one. It’s less cyclical than many other chemical end markets, and one where Fuller can continue to build and acquire market share to drive growth. At ~11x EBITDA and ~17x earnings, not all of Fuller’s potential looks priced in.
Chemical Stocks to Buy: Tronox (TROX)
Tronox (NYSE:TROX) is a stock only for investors with high tolerance for risk, as proven by the stock’s multi-year chart. TROX traded above $35 in 2012; it was below $5 at the beginning of 2016. From there, the stock ran to $27, and now it trades below $11.
A key reason is the company’s reliance on titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigment, used in paints, plastics and other applications. TiO2 prices are notoriously volatile, which leads to swings in TROX earnings. Add on a reasonable amount of debt, steady M&A activity (including the sale of a business last year and the pending acquisition of another at the moment) and mining activity, and the volatility in TROX stock makes some sense.
But it may also provide an opportunity. TROX trades at just five times next year’s earnings-per-share estimates (though investors can’t count 100% on the accuracy of any projections in such a fluid market).
Again, this is not a stock for the faint of heart. It’s a high-risk, high-reward play. But at a cheaper price, and with more certainty coming at some point in the next twelve months, there is a path for TROX stock to rebound nicely.
As of this writing, Vince Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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