Little-Known PICO Showing Signs of Life

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- PICO Holdings (PICO), historically a mini-conglomerate of sorts that has been a disappointment in recent years, is showing signs of life.

This past week, the stock breached the $25 mark for the first time in two and a half years. As usual, however, there is little to no news about the company, which has long confounded investors, including yours truly.

Perhaps best known for its ownership of water rights and storage in the southwest through its Vidler Water Co. subsidiary, the company has morphed over the years. At one time, it also owned 1.2 million acres of former Nevada railroad land, which along with the water exposure, is what led to my initial position in the company.

The company sold parcels of land over the years piece by piece, and the 480,000 acres that remained were sold for $31 million in late 2011 when the company parted with its Nevada Land Resources subsidiary.

The company is still active in real estate, but of much better quality than its previous Nevada land holdings. Subsidiary UCP Holdings (UCP), which PICO took public last summer, acquires and develops residential real estate, primarily in Northern California and the Puget Sound area in Washington state.

PICO owns about 58% of UCP, worth $70 million based on UCP's market capitalization of $122 million. Shares of UCP have done little since the IPO, up about 12%, but the stock has been inching up and is trading at an all-time high.

UCP itself appears to have substantial upside potential. The balance sheet is solid, with $58.5 million, or $7.55 a share, in net cash (cash less debt).

UCP Chart UCP data by YCharts

PICO also has some of its eggs in agribusiness, with its canola oil operation, PICO Northstar Hallock. The company's entry into the canola business was designed to take advantage of growing demand in the U.S. for canola oil, 65% of which is now imported.

Full-scale production of canola oil and meal commenced in the third quarter of 2012, and revenue for the nine months ended Sept. 30 totaled $140 million ( revenue for the company overall was about $269 million during that period). PICO, however, has yet to turn a profit from the canola business, as the environment for canola producers has been challenging.

Still, the canola business does bring with it an element that PICO has lacked -- at least during the time I've been a shareholder -- and that is recurring revenue. In the past, the company has generated much of its revenue through asset sales, be they land, water, businesses or securities. That has resulted in lumpy revenue and earnings, which has rendered the company difficult to understand in the investment community.

Management has measured success by the growth in the company's book value -- something it has not successfully accomplished in recent years -- and that is a foreign concept to many investors.

Shares trade at about 1.2 times book value per share. (I've never seen a company whose share price so closely tracks book value.)

PICO Chart PICO data by YCharts

Success for PICO will depend on the canola business generating a positive bottom line, and that remains to be seen. Meanwhile, as a "patient" value investor, I continue to like the company's major assets -- land, water and agriculture holdings.

Although news coverage is thin for this company and only one analyst follows it, we should get an update when fourth-quarter and full-year results are released in early March

At the time of publication, Heller was long PICO.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

Jonathan Heller, CFA,CFP® 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.

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