With the roaring tech bull mostly tamed in recent months, investors are lamenting the dearth of opportunities for big price bursts in short time frames.
But some stock pickers think they have found, in an unlikely place, the next potential hotbed of 30% and 40% one-day price pops: Old Economy stocks on the takeover radar screen. Not many investors have noticed, but several managers say old-line companies may be embarking on a buying spree for low-priced and well-run competitors at tidy premiums.
"During this difficult past year the question has been, 'When will investors care about Old Economy stocks again?' I think we don't have to care because corporate investors will do so to take advantage of these mispricings," says Bill Nygren of Chicago-based Harris Associates, manager of
Oakmark Select funds. His funds have benefited from several recent mergers, including
takeover deal by rival tissue-paper concern
, announced July 17.
For investors, these deals can lead to big gains: Fort James' shares surged 33% the day the deal was announced. And since many old-line companies' stocks are well below the
26.7 average price-to-earnings ratio, the downside risk is substantially smaller than many tech stocks that still have lofty valuations. Many fund managers are putting their money on out-of-favor companies from stodgy old-line industries such as grocery stores and mining concerns. (See the chart below listing 14 stocks that look like takeover bait.)
"There's been a lot of consolidation, and it sounds plausible that there could be more," says Wally Weitz, manager of the $2.5 billion
Weitz Value fund. Although he's seen significant corporate couplings in media and telecommunications, he's also seen it in his less frothy industries like financial services.
Weitz thinks two cable companies,
, might be prime candidates for larger competitors.
To be sure, not all professionals see an Old Economy M&A renaissance. Chuck Carlson, manager of $148 million
Strong Dow 30 Value, warns investors not to get too excited about ripe Old Economy stocks.
mergers are a reasonable expectation, but the $64,000 question is how long will it be sustainable? Over the last two years we've had these spikes for
Old Economy stocks that have paid off, but then they've gone back to tech," he says.
George Walker, president of
Friends Ivory Funds
, also isn't sanguine about Old Economy mergers. "I can see why people are saying this, but it's not a trend we've seen."
But if the acquisition wave that many managers anticipate does come, it could be a savior for forlorn value investors, who essentially hunt for bargains in the stock market -- a style that's kept them out of sizzling sectors like technology. They've seen their stocks' prices and price-to-earnings ratios sag.
So far this year there have been 286 acquisitions in the broker and investment industry worth more than $58 billion, 60 acquisitions in the food-processing industry worth $47.8 billion, and more than 20 deals in the paper industry worth nearly $21 billion, according to researcher
That's certainly less than the 1,475 deals in the computer software industry, worth some $111 billion, but it's nothing to sneeze at. Among this year's 10 biggest deals you'll find plenty of low-tech entries like
"Without question, there are some extraordinary values in the Old Economy stocks," says Robert Mullin, manager of
Marathon Resources Partners
, a natural-resources hedge fund offered by San Francisco-based
. He thinks several basic materials stocks like mining concerns
could be scoffed up.
Managers think the mergers might continue as biggies gulp down smaller rivals to boost earnings, hoping to cut costs through economies of scale. They might buy a smaller player in their industry that has lucrative and different customer bases, products or regional strength.
"When valuations are depressed it's a great time to build market share or extend your product line through an acquisition. A lot of companies in Old Economy businesses are selling at great prices," says Scott Mayo, co-manager of
John Hancock Small-Cap Value and
John Hancock Large-Cap Value, who owned shares of Fort James prior to the lucrative Georgia-Pacific deal.
So, what's the next possible Fort James? A poll of a few value-oriented managers yields a list of stocks that's both intriguing and eclectic. As you might expect, there are some financial-services companies, as well as some unloved stocks from sectors you might not expect, including cable and retailing. Many are way down for the year, making them more attractive to suitors seeking bargain-basement prices.