Thanks to an impressive recent rally, a number of stocks that had temporarily pulled back to bargain levels have already surged back to fresh highs. If you're looking for solid bargains among companies that are at the top of their game... good luck.
To find true bargains, you need to look at companies that have stumbled. Operational missteps are about the only reason for a stock to be out of favor these days. The key is to find the companies that have the ingredients to fix their problems.
Here's a look at three stocks trading well below recent highs -- each with catalysts to regain its footing in coming quarters.
|1. Hercules Offshore (Nasdaq: HERO)|
This provider of offshore drilling rigs and other equipment appears caught in a product cycle transition. The company is completing a new slate of rigs to put into service, but investors have grown concerned that those new rigs haven't secured new long-term contracts. HERO, which traded up to nearly $8 last summer, now hovers around $4.50. That works out to be around six times projected 2015 profit forecasts.
Shares of Hercules also trade well below book value, and have been a recent beneficiary of insider buying, as my colleague Daniel Cross recently discussed. (In fact, there has been continued strong insider buying after he wrote that column: In mid-February, a pair of directors acquired roughly $300,000 in stock.)
The question for investors: What catalysts exist to help get this stock moving back higher? Beyond the above-noted low valuations, a change in management tone in coming quarters could help shift sentiment. On a recent conference call, management said that the current year has gotten off to a slow start in terms of contract activity, which weighed on shares -- but as CEO John Rynd noted, "I think a lot of it's permit-driven, acquisition-driven, that's delayed some starts. We're still having very robust conversations with our customers."
This stock will attract value investors once Hercules is able to enter more of its fleet into long-term contracts. That process may get underway once the Mexican government starts to step up its pace of drilling activity, now that state-owned Pemex is in the process of being semi-privatized.
|2. Liquidity Services (Nasdaq: LQDT)|
I highlighted the rebound potential for this e-commerce stock back in December, and shares have rallied a solid 20% since then. Yet a lot more upside may lie ahead.
The key for this company, which provides online auction services for both the government and the private sector, is to maintain current government relationships while building more retailer relationships. The company's fiscal first-quarter results showed evidence of both of those trends.
As I noted a few months ago, fears of a loss of a U.S. Department of Defense contract appeared overblown as they were recently extended for another term, albeit at lower volumes than before. On the retail front, LQDT was able to boost the dollar value of goods sold through its auctions by 20% compared with the year-ago quarter. In the most recent quarter, LQDT signed up 40 new customer accounts -- its strongest showing in 10 quarters.
The key takeways from CEO Bill Angrick: "Increasingly, we are entering into fee-for-service and revenue-sharing agreements with our clients that share the upside created from our services... Adoption of our solution by manufacturers has been particularly strong, as these clients trust us to enhance their brand reputation by controlling the customer experience with their product in the secondary marketplace."
To be sure, the reduction in Defense Department business will make this a transition year: Total revenues are likely to be flat in fiscal 2014, at around $500 million. But the strengthening retail channel should help fuel double-digit growth in subsequent years. For a stock that has fallen so sharply over the past two years, visibility into a revenue rebound will be the catalyst to get this stock moving higher.
|3. Maxwell Technologies (Nadsaq: MXWL)|
I remain convinced that this maker of high-end electronic capacitors (known as ultracapacitors) possesses one of the most exciting technologies in the energy sector. Though shares are up 20% since my look at the company in December, they remain more than 50% below levels seen back in 2011. Just-released fourth-quarter results may seem like a disappointment (as shares fell more than 5% on the news), but it's clear that Maxwell has a growing pipeline of sales leads.
The transportation sector is a clear target for this company, as Chinese bus makers and European automakers start to incorporate ultracapacitors into their hybrid systems. Management recently predicted that "Maxwell will attain multiple auto design wins across multiple applications in 2014."
Yet it's the Chinese bus market that holds the clearest catalyst. Maxwell's management says we are "in the early stages of an undeniable ramp of larger German plug-in hybrid buses in China. The world's largest bus manufacturer recently publicly stated they will produce more than 10,000 new energy buses in 2014 with potential upside to 20,000 buses during this year. China's new energy bus policy runs through the end of 2015 and the overall demand projected by China's bus (original equipment manufacturers) is approximately 60,000 new energy buses through 2015."
A secondary catalyst: Maxwell is working with wind and solar equipment developers to incorporate ultracapacitors into power systems that can be temporarily impacted by cloud cover or a drop in wind. Storing energy in the ultracapacitors would help to smooth out the flow of power before other backup power sources would be needed to kick in.
Risks to Consider: All three of these companies have lost a considerable amount of operating momentum they had just a few years ago. As is the case with any turnaround, a growth rebound may come in fits and starts until the current headwinds change into tailwinds.
Action to Take --> These companies have all burned investors over the past year, and it is precisely that high degree of cynicism that creates solid potential upside. As these companies begin to deliver on these catalysts, that cynicism is likely to win back converts, pushing these stocks back to the highs they once enjoyed.