Cupboard Nearly Bare of Deep Value Stocks

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- I thought I'd seen it all when it comes to the far reaches of deep value, but I hadn't.

I didn't think that the cupboard could get any barer than it had been in recent months in terms of the number of companies trading for less than net current asset value (net/nets), but it has.

In the years that I've been researching, writing about and investing in net/nets, this is the first time that I can recall seeing only one net/net with a market cap in excess of $100 million.

As a refresher, a company's net current asset value (or NCAV) is calculated by subtracting total liabilities (including preferred stock and minority interests if applicable) from total assets.

If the result of that calculation is greater than the company's market cap, it is considered to be a net/net. In terms of valuation, such companies can be incredibly cheap, but they can also be damaged goods, appearing to be cheap but with no real prospects. The trick for investors, is to separate the wheat from the chaff -- not an easy task, and one fraught with risk.

Last month at this time, there were six net/nets including Systemax ( SYX), which I featured in an April column.

SYX now trades at slightly more than its NCAV, at 1.07, having risen 8% since that column ran. That does not necessarily mean that SYX is now expensive; it just happens to have popped back above its NCAV.

In fact, I often peruse the ranks of companies trading at between one and two times NCAV, in order to see which names might become net/nets in the near future. Since many of these names are smaller and more volatile, market pullbacks tend to hurt them more than the bigger names, and it does not take a huge downside move to put them back in net/net land. SYX Chart SYX data by YCharts

In case you are wondering, the only net/net that has a market cap of more than $100 million is none other than Trans World Entertainment ( TWMC), which operates 358 entertainment retail stores, primarily under the f.y.e brand. Many of these are mall-based stores, selling videos, music, video games and other entertainment products.

Given the changing landscape of entertainment retailing, it is easy to see why the company has been banished to net/net land. For a time, the market believed that TWMC would disappear, as the stock traded for less than 60 cents in early 2009. TWMC Chart TWMC data by YCharts

But since then, TWMC has risen more than 650%. The company has taken steps to right the ship, including store closings and asset sales, which have greatly bolstered the balance sheet. In fact, the company ended last quarter with $133 million, or $4.17 per share, in cash, and that's after the payment of nearly $15 million in a special dividend last December. The company has no debt, and currently trades at just 0.86 times NCAV.

Bringing a mall-based entertainment retailer back from the brink is an impressive feat; that is not an easy business, and one that most believe is dying. Despite the stocks run since 2009, however, the market is still not impressed, given the discount to NCAV. The question now is what will TWMC do with all that cash.

Stay tuned.

At the time of publication, Heller had no positions in stocks mentioned.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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.

More from Opinion

Apple Needs to Figure Out Its Self-Driving Vehicle Strategy

Apple Needs to Figure Out Its Self-Driving Vehicle Strategy

Throwback Thursday: Tesla, Chip Stocks, TheStreet's Picks

Throwback Thursday: Tesla, Chip Stocks, TheStreet's Picks

12 Stocks That Our Writers and Their Sources Recommend You Buy Here

12 Stocks That Our Writers and Their Sources Recommend You Buy Here

Musk Goes on Unoriginal Media Tirade

Musk Goes on Unoriginal Media Tirade

What's Happening in Video Games This Week: On the Road to E3

What's Happening in Video Games This Week: On the Road to E3