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Misunderstood Stocks Can Stay That Way for Years

The company went whole hog into the agriculture business in 2010 via its new canola oil and canola meal business, PICO Northstar Hallock, which is now in full production. While early results for this business have been disappointing, as canola crush margins are at ten-year lows, the future appears to be much brighter.

PICO's balance sheet remains strong, and the company ended last quarter with $67 million in cash, and $49 million in investments (debt and equity securities). The company currently trades at just 1.12 times book value per share.

The question is why shares have not performed better over the past several years, and why this company seems to be the perennial small unknown but "must own" company, yet never quite delivers. The answer, in my view, is at least partially due to PICO's inability to deliver consistent earnings. In fact, PICO has not had a positive bottom line on an annual basis since 2008. Confusing the issue is the fact that management does not measure success via earnings but rather growth in book value per share, which is a foreign method to many investors. Furthermore, book value has fallen four consecutive years, from $27.84 in 2009, to $19.98 at the end of last quarter, so the markets are discounting PICO until the company can show something positive.The canola business should ultimately deliver some stability to earnings, but until it is able to, investors may remain skeptical. PICO Chart PICO data by YCharts

And so it goes, the value investors great dilemma; a company with seemingly valuable assets that has difficulty delivering, and remains "misunderstood" eleven years after I took my first position.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
At the time of publication, Heller was long PICO.

Jonathan Heller, CFA, is president of KEJ Financial Advisors, his fee-only financial planning company. Jon spent 17 years at Bloomberg Financial Markets in various roles, from 1989 until 2005. He ran Bloomberg's Equity Fundamental Research Department from 1994 until 1998, when he assumed responsibility for Bloomberg's Equity Data Research Department. In 2001, he joined Bloomberg's Publishing group as senior markets editor and writer for Bloomberg Personal Finance Magazine, and an associate editor and contributor for Bloomberg Markets Magazine. In 2005, he joined SEI Investments as director of investment communications within SEI's Investment Management Unit.

Jon is also the founder of the Cheap Stocks Web site, a site dedicated to deep-value investing. He has an undergraduate degree from Grove City College and an MBA from Rider University, where he has also served on the adjunct faculty; he is also a CFA charter holder.
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