Three years ago, when I asked readers to nominate companies for
the Future Fantastic 50, the candidates were dominated by technology companies. Indeed, the search then seemed to be for companies that would turn into the next
. The secret was to make telecommunications gear or Internet software or communications chips. Almost none of us were looking for the next
Johnson & Johnson
If they did that same search today, investors would come up with a very different list of companies. I know I did when I set out to find 19 stocks to fill the slots I created in the Future 50.
That's not just a reaction to the beating that technology stocks have taken -- and the pain that investors with technology-heavy portfolios have felt -- in this bear market. I've tried to make my picks with that bias in mind, and the fact that I've managed to find technology stocks to include indicates to me that I've been at least somewhat successful.
But the real reason that these 19 stocks look so different from past lists is that the economy has changed and the economics of specific sectors look very different today than they did in 1999.
Long Cycles in Technology
Take a look at the technology sector. The demand for the products that technology companies make has slowed, and to a degree that's not just a product of a short economic cycle. Technology innovation goes through long cycles, too, and we seem to be in one of those periods when the innovation that produces huge new consumer products is in a temporary slump.
On the supply end, technology companies of all stripes are coping with huge increases in available inventory. Chip companies have plans over the next decade to build enough new factories in Asia and elsewhere to just about double current world-chip production, for example.
And as if the squeeze on profits that results from too much supply chasing too little demand weren't enough, technology companies are seeing their costs rise as well.
Companies have less time to amortize development costs and at the same time face rising research and development budgets to keep pace with the ever-faster rate of change. Technology markets are fragmenting as buyers demand more and more customization -- and that increases manufacturing, development and marketing costs.
Change can be healthy for the company and industry. The pressure on technology companies to cut costs and speed development cycles has spurred growth at contract manufacturers that are able to exploit the benefits of even larger economies of scale -- and often their location near low-cost labor. Companies that have mastered the art of rapid product development have gained a leading position in their market and can now use that "problem" as a way to crush less profitable or slower-moving competitors.
Bumpy Trip for Airlines
The kind of sectorwide change isn't limited to technology, either.
The current troubles of the airline industry, for example, look likely to lead to a full-scale reorganization of the industry. Indeed, it's hard to see how high-cost airlines such as the United Airlines unit of
can manage to turn themselves into low-cost competitors -- with or without the help of the bankruptcy court. Over the next decade, the big names of today in the sector are likely to continue to gradually lose share to existing low-cost companies such as
. The economics all certainly point in that direction.
So here are my choices to fill the 19 open slots in the Future 50 portfolio. This year, rather than use a formal poll of readers, I've drawn on a year's worth of e-mail from readers suggesting stocks that I should look at. Here they are organized by sector and/or theme.
It's a sector that unfortunately has moved to the top of everyone's mind lately. My additions to the Future 50 are
SunGard Data Systems
. Anyone still confused about what I'm looking for in a Future 50 stock can use Symantec as a template. The company, the world's leading provider of security software, drove market share to 21% in 2001 from 15% in 2000. It increased its market lead over No. 2 in the market by six percentage points. Symantec owns about 50% of the market for antivirus software. Ah, if only they were all so clear-cut.
Basic Materials and Garbage.
The economics are very similar even if the mining and waste disposal industries are very different: Build up massive scale, develop the discipline to constantly cut costs and then cut them some more, and build up the financial strength to get the company through the inevitable down cycles. My additions here are
, the world's largest nickel producer outside Russia, and
Waste Management Inc.
( WMI), a company that finally seems to understand how to wring cash out of its tremendous pool of landfill assets. Inco estimates that it can hit earnings break-even in fiscal 2002, when nickel is at $2.35 a pound. The current spot price is $3.70.
Make it for Somebody Else.
How do you cut manufacturing costs? Run a very large, state-of-the-art factory -- with very expensive state-of-the-art equipment -- in a low-cost labor market. Not an easy combination to master because it requires hefty capital resources to afford the factory and experience in setting up very complicated manufacturing processes in often distant locales that may be close to cheap labor but that are often therefore far away from corporate headquarters and the traditional sources of engineering and management expertise.
The companies that can pull off this trick, though, are assured a steady and growing stream of business sent their way by a global economy that says, "Cut costs or die." My additions here are chipmaker to the world
and contract manufacturer
. And to go along with the manufacturers I'll add
, the leader in the bar-code printing industry.
Food: Size Counts.
Thanks to relentless pressure from Wal-Mart on retail prices and supplier margins, the food industry is going through a radical restructuring. Companies are getting larger and more integrated in an effort to wrap up profitable niches -- my choice here is the No. 1 natural foods retailer
Whole Foods Market
( WFMI) -- as well as to capture more profit by controlling as many of the stages in production as possible -- my additions are hog-to-ham producer
and food service and fresh-produce specialist
Performance Food Group
Staying Healthy -- or at Least Active.
Two themes, really. First, I'm still looking for the search for the next biotechnology stock to make it into the big leagues to join
. My addition here is
( DNA). Second, the population continues to age and needs to stay active longer. My choice is
, a superbly managed leader in orthopedic implants and other surgical services.
Regional Airlines Fly Higher.
Regional airlines find themselves in a very sweet spot right now. They fly passengers for the majors, who need them as feeders for their longer routes, under contracts that pass along any climb in costs to the majors. Their fleets tend to be younger and more efficient and their workforces less costly in both wages and pension benefits. If the majors can't find a way to solve their cost problems, their regional partners turn into a wave of low-cost competitors. My choices are
( SKYWE) and
Atlantic Coast Airline Holdings
Tech's Brave New World.
Some tech companies actually seem well-positioned for the rapid turnover, R&D-intensive world that I think will dominate the next five years or more.
seems to understand the importance of leapfrogging the competition with whiz-bang technology on a short but predictable schedule.
should escape the worst of the competitive carnage because its analog chip products are custom-built for specific uses and are often manufactured in short runs. And
has staked out a solid lead in the most lucrative part of the telecommunications equipment market and seems capable of defending it.
And for these two I couldn't come up with a theme. In the financial realm,
Capital One Financial
has shown -- to date, at least -- that it is possible to marry technology with solid marketing to control risks while growing a credit-card business very, very quickly. And
is set to move from No. 2 to the No. 1 slot in the direct broadcast satellite business with its acquisition of No. 1
( GMH). If regulators block the deal, which is still a possibility, then I think EchoStar is headed to the top of its market, given how much more profitable it is than Hughes. It will just take longer.
And that completes the new and I hope improved Future 50 and my survey of potential winners that have emerged from the bear market. I haven't put a "buy" on any of these stocks. Consider that rating pending until a not-so-distant column that looks at how to decide which members of a watch list like this are actual buys and sells.