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TheStreet Open House

Misunderstood Stocks Can Stay That Way for Years

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- A conference last week in Arizona reminded me just how dry parts of our country and the world are, and how frequently I take water for granted.

Upon returning from my first mission trip in the Dominican Republic several years ago, a place where clean water is not easily accessible as it is here in the United States, I vowed to never again view a glass of clean, drinkable H2O as I once had. But human nature often takes over, and those stark reminders of just how fortunate we are to have an abundant supply of clean water, at least in the East, often fade away. But the desire to have some exposure to water in the portfolio remained.

Eleven years ago, I stumbled onto a little-known company, PICO Holdings (PICO), a mini-conglomerate that I referred to as the "poor-man's Berkshire Hathaway". At that time PICO, an asset-rich business, owned among other things, a vast amount of Nevada land, a water business, and two insurance companies. It was a misunderstood company with valuable assets; a value investors' dream.

It turned out to be a great purchase as shares more than quadrupled between late 2002 and early 2007, as institutions and investors caught onto the story. But the great market meltdown of 2008 punished PICO severely, pushing it into the high teens. Five years later, shares stand at about $22.50, up less than 25% since bottoming. Unlike most positions that I take, I have been in and out of PICO several times over the years.

The company has changed since I first purchased shares. The 1.2 million acres of Nevada land has been sold, as have the two insurance companies. My primary reason for owning shares, however, the water resource and storage operations, Vidler Water Company, remains, and this is arguably the company's most valuable asset.

In 2008, seeking to capitalize on the residential real estate bust, PICO formed UCP (UCP), which acquired developable land, developed lots and finished lots in certain California and Washington markets. That business generated about 39% of total 2012 revenue. This past July, PICO took UCP public, selling 42% of its stake, which raised $108 million. PICO's stake is worth about $63 million

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