Another Screen for Safe, Cheap Stocks

After several weeks of exploring and experimenting with stock market ideas, I am back to focusing on the basics as the first half of the year comes to a close. Although I am constantly wandering around the corners of the markets, kicking over rocks and looking for ideas and methodologies that have the promise of profit, I always come back to my deep value roots.

On Thursday, I examined the old standby screen based on Walter Schloss' approach to the markets. Today I want to look at another old favorite screen that has served me very well over the years.

The screen is very simple and basic. I look for companies that trade below book value, pay a dividend, are currently profitable and have been able to grow sales and earnings for the past five years. This simple screen has provided some powerful ideas over the years, and I expect it will continue to do so.

The first thing I noticed was that the list has shrunk considerably since the first of the year. When I ran the screen in December 2011, about 80 names popped up as candidates. Today the list has fewer than 40 names. The feverish hunt for yield has driven many stocks higher in 2012, especially the larger-cap, more liquid dividend stocks. That's something of a warning sign in my eyes, and it makes me a little cautious about the overall direction of the market in the next few months.

The largest-cap name on the list is MetLife ( MET). The company has the same problems as other life insurance companies with a weak economy and low interest rates. In addition, MetLife has suffered from failing the stress test for bank holding companies and will not be able to raise its dividend or aggressively buy back shares in the near term. I expect to see it shed holding company status by the end of the year and get out from under FDIC restrictions. The life-insurance giant is seeing strong results in retirement plan products and its international sales efforts that should drive earnings for the foreseeable future. I have owned the stock since 2008 and missed my chances to sell higher. That's fine with me, as I expect the stock to eventually surpass the 2007 highs as the economy recovers and interest rates begin to rise.

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