"The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults." - Alexis de Tocqueville
Old Alex, a noted French political thinker and writer, hit it on the screws with his observations of the American spirit during the early days of the Republic. Americans are good at recognizing (eventually) what's broken, fixing it, and moving on. We're also very good at figuring out how to profit from that change and evolution.
America has seen enormous change during the first decade of the 21st century. From the bursting of the tech bubble to the devastation of 9/11 to the financial crisis of 2008, the nation has struggled to get its economy and status as a global leader back on solid footing. But the seeds sown in that recovery process are beginning to bear fruit. It can only be described as an American Renaissance.
Old line companies thought to be dead or dying are transforming themselves as leaders in new technology. All sorts of businesses are rushing to build infrastructure to support and transport America's new found energy resources. Large manufacturers once caught up in the allure of offshoring are repatriating operations stateside putting Americans back to work. And rebuilding will be great for shareholders.
From Stamps To Software
I've profiled postage meter manufacturer Pitney Bowes (NYSE: PBI) a few times in recent years. When I started following the company, the stock was barely priced in double digits, had a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio in the single digits, and had a dividend yield that approached 10%.
|In addition to the old-line postage business, Pitney has been quietly growing its software business by spending over a half-billion dollars since 2008 to acquire five smaller software companies.|
No one wanted to own it. Conventional wisdom said that postage meters would go the way of the buggy whip with the proliferation of email. The herd proclaimed Pitney Bowes as good as dead. But they didn't drill down deep enough.
In addition to the old-line postage business, Pitney had been quietly (and cheaply) growing its small software business. Since 2008, the company has acquired five smaller software companies, spending over a half-billion dollars in the process. The software products Pitney offers run the gamut of business services from email management to e-commerce.
However -- and surprisingly for a 94-year-old company -- it's Pitney Bowes' geolocation software business has me the most excited. The company is in the middle of a multi-year commitment with Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) to provide geolocation software that empowers its check-in feature. Recently, Pitney signed a multi-year agreement with Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) to provide location intelligence solutions for Twitter's mobile platform.
The company has also done a great job of managing itself financially. The company has been aggressively buying back stock and reducing debt. Pitney has extinguished nearly $600 million worth of long-term debt over the past three years and bought back nearly 5 million shares of its common stock, with approval for nearly $50 million more. Pitney Bowes has also raised its dividend for more than 30 years straight. PBI yields 3.4% at its current price level.
Financial commentators (including yours truly) can't write enough about the great energy boom through America's midsection. From Texas to North Dakota, it seems like the entire region is awash in oil and economic prosperity. Thanks to cheaper fracking technology, extracting oil and gas from shale has become amazingly efficient, so much so that many analysts predict that the region will add nearly 3 million barrels per day to domestic oil production. In essence, that makes the U.S. energy-secure, if not very close to energy-independent.
The most successful companies involved with the boom are those providing infrastructure and transportation to the oil and gas industry, and one of the best ways for investors to cash in on energy infrastructure is through owning energy MLP (master limited partnership) units.
I'm a fan of using energy MLPs for income and infrastructure exposure. These are companies that build and own oil and gas pipelines, storage facilities and other energy infrastructure-related operations. Because of their business structure, the companies distribute most of the income to their unit holders -- and the size of the distributions is often extremely attractive.
The broader market often misprices MLP units based on the price of the underlying commodity the company stores or transports. MLP companies -- pipelines, for example -- get paid based on how much volume their customers are running. Whether oil is $100 a barrel or $50, a pipeline company gets paid like a railroad: based on volume. Right now, as oil and gas prices are at a seemingly weak juncture, the markets are discounting MLP prices due to that weakness. One of the best values in the MLP space currently is Buckeye Partners (NYSE: BPL).
Buckeye owns and operates 6,100 miles of refined petroleum products pipeline systems in the U.S. as well as 100 active storage facilities that provide aggregate capacity of 64 million barrels. The company is clearly focused on growing the business, especially in the liquid petroleum products space, which provides higher profit margins than the natural gas storage space, where margins are relatively thin due to relatively low prices for domestic natural gas.
BPL units yield almost 6.5% at current price levels, and the distribution per unit is also expected to expand nearly 5% next year, to $4.475.
If there was ever a poster child for the Great American Company, General Electric (NYSE: GE) would be a top contender. Founded in 1892 by Thomas Edison (what could be more American than that?), GE makes and does stuff that touches our lives every day. Appliances, power generation, finance, medical technology, railroad locomotives -- it would be nearly impossible to go a single day without coming into contact with something that GE was involved with at some level.
Five years ago, however, things looked bleak for the company. The financial crisis of 2008 wreaked havoc on GE Capital, General Electric's financial arm. The company, like many others, was unable to sell commercial paper, which helped finance operations. But like all great companies, GE adapted. The books at GE Capital have been cleaned up, and risk is being managed more prudently. This has set the stage for GE's success going forward, and business is strong. (My colleague Karen Canella recently outlined GE's bold push into the Industrial Internet.)
Energy infrastructure is a major component of America's resurgence, and GE has seized that opportunity big time. Although the process appears extremely chaotic now, GE will also benefit from health care reform. A longtime leader in medical equipment, especially medical imaging technology, GE's products enhance health care provider efficiency, which will remain crucial going forward.
Shareholders will be rewarded, too: GE just increased its quarterly dividend by 16%, and shares yield about 3.2% at current price levels.
Risks to Consider: While all three companies are very different, they are all susceptible to a weak economy. On an individual basis, GE is probably most vulnerable to the dangers of higher interest rates since its GE Capital division is responsible for nearly a third of the company's revenue.
Action to Take --> While very different, these three stocks fit into the American renaissance theme by profiting from technology, energy or infrastructure (or in GE's case, all three). The basket has a blended dividend yield of 4.4%, and all three companies have solid dividend growth histories. All three are suitable for purchase at current levels.