At Least +60% Potential Upside from this Undervalued Home Builder

Just like the title character in the play Waiting for Godot, the much-anticipated housing rebound has yet to make an appearance on stage.

Many had assumed a housing recovery would be underway by now, but we’re still at least a year — or more — away from a true turnaround. Housing sales showed a solid rebound in April, largely fueled by large federal tax credits, but those credits have now expired and housing analysts expect sales to remain below average levels for the remainder of the year. (New home sales are expected to lag, as the inventory of unsold existing homes remains at elevated levels.)

But it’s not too soon to profit from home builders, as operating metrics are already starting to improve, which could translate into meaningful sales leverage in coming quarters. And for the fortunate few that have lots of cash to spend, undeveloped parcels can now be had for far cheaper than four or five years ago.

This factor plays right into the hands of MDC Holdings (NYSE: MDC), which is sitting on more than $500 million in net cash. Assuming the home builder looks to start acquiring land, it could probably spend closer to $1 billion and still sport debt/equity ratios in line with its peer group.

Most importantly, recent data indicates that MDC has already turned the corner. The builder saw a big spike in orders for new homes in the first quarter, which might lead the company to deliver an unexpected profit surprise in each of the next two quarters.

But a few decent quarters doesn’t yet represent a turnaround. Some investors think a housing turn is still far off and that sentiment has pushed shares of MDC down almost -20% since May 3. If the bears are right, then shares are likely to tread water for at least another few quarters. But if the first quarter backlog trends continue, shares could be headed far higher.

At this point, it’s fair to speculate on how financial results will look when a turnaround is truly at hand. Right now, analysts think per share profits could approach $0.40 next year. To put that in context, MDC earned, on average, more than $6 a share each year from 2001 through 2006.

The gap between next year’s profits and the historical profit strength is strictly a function of sales leverage and purchasing costs. On the purchasing front, the builder makes about 20% gross profit on every home it builds. Gross margins had been above 25% in the middle of the last decade, but fell -800 basis points in 2006 when land values soared. These days, gross margins have room to rebound as land prices remain very low.

Also, like all home builders, MDC carries a fair degree of overhead, whether it sells homes or not. With sales still well below historical rates, that overhead is eating into any gross profits the firm can generate. When sales were higher, Selling, General and Administrative expenses (SG&A) was about 13% of sales. In the past few years, that metric has spiked up above 20% but should fall slightly below 20% next year. As the housing rebound takes shape in ensuing years, SG&A, as a percentage of sales, should fall back below 15%. And that should translate into earnings power of more than $4 a share.

Yet that math assumes that MDC will develop its existing holdings during the next few years, with modest additional land acquisitions paid for with cash flow. But if management chooses to snap up bargains more aggressively while land values are cheap, it will gain even more leverage, pushing annual earnings power closer to the $5 or $6 range. The company’s recent losses should also shield the next three to four years’ profits from any taxes.

MDC shares moved past $80 roughly five years ago, as investors awarded the stock a P/E ratio of around 13 times that $6 a share mid-cycle earnings average. Then again, the housing boom was atypical, and we’re likely to get a more muted housing rebound this time around, so P/E ratios may top out closer to 10 for the group. Applying a projected $5 in mid-cycle earnings power, shares have room to run up to $50 when analysts start to forecast what MDC can earn in a sustained housing rebound. That price implies more than +60% upside from current levels.

As noted earlier, shares could tread water for a time as the long-awaited housing upturn continues to take hold. In the case of MDC, investors need to show some patience. But with its hefty cash balance and improving order rates, the stock could represent real value at these levels.