Preventing cybercriminals and hackers from stealing sensitive data has been a profitable business for Palo Alto Networks (PANW) - Get Report , which reports first-quarter fiscal 2016 results after the closing bell Monday. And although its shares aren't cheap today compared to the rest of the market, the Santa Clara, Calif.-based software giant, which is quickly gobbling up market share in the fast-growing cybersecurity market, is projected to outgrow its peers in the quarters and years ahead.
So despite a worse-than-expected earnings report last month from cybersecurity specialist Barracuda Networks (CUDA) , which sent its stock plummeting 35%, investors looking for value and safety should hold onto their PANW stock -- it's one of the safest and smartest ways to play the cybersecurity market.
Palo Alto shares have surged 190% and 200% over the past five years and three years, respectively, crushing the S&P 500 (SPX) index during both spans. And, with its stock up some 33% in 2015, Palo Alto has outperformed the iShares North American Tech-Software ETF (IGV) - Get Report , which is up 14% on the year. Accordingly, valuation concerns have crept in.
With its share price around $166, PANW is trading at 94 times fiscal 2016 consensus estimates of $1.71 a share. That means its forward P/E is 5.5 times the forward P/E of 17 for the S&P 500. So, no question -- Palo Alto stock is pricey. But it would seem, based on analysts' rising EPS estimates, that the company's business outlook is getting better, making its stock -- expensive or not -- an investment to hold for the long term.
Consider: Since the start of the quarter, the consensus earnings per share estimate for both the just-ended quarter and the full year ending in July 2016 have climbed 3% and 6%, respectively. Further, during that span, EPS estimates for fiscal 2017 have climbed 7% (17 cents) to $2.62 a share.
Assuming Palo Alto does earn $1.71 for fiscal 2016, that would be year-over-year EPS growth of almost 100%. And if both sets of estimates prove out, to reach that $2.62 a share figure, the company would have to grow EPS in fiscal 2017 at around 53%. By contrast, competitors such asCheck Point Software (CHKP) - Get Report and Fortinet (FTNT) - Get Report are projected to grow 2016 earnings at rates of 10% and 35%, respectively.
In short, combined with Palo Alto's projected five-year average annual earnings growth rate of 42%, PANW stock still looks like something of a bargain among its peers, despite its seemingly lofty P/E ratio. This may help to explain why the stock not only has a consensus buy rating, but an average 12-month price target of $200, around 20% above current levels.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.