|CORNING SHAREHOLDERS MUST FEEL as if they have walked barefoot over broken glass. Since hitting a high above $23 about 12 months ago, the stock has fallen 40% to $13.84, even as the market has risen 4%.|
[Note: Barrons - Vital Sign Column from Feb 18, 2012. Corning settled at $13.18 Friday. This analysis still holds]
The company operates five major divisions, but the problem is centered in the display-technologies segment, which provides almost 90% of profit. Corning (GLW) is one of the biggest suppliers of glass used in screens for notebooks, PC monitors and televisions. Its smaller specialty-materials division makes glass for smartphones, tablets and other portable devices.
The stock fell last year on a significant slowdown in the global display-glass market. Though 2011 revenue rose 19% to $7.9 billion, fourth-quarter sales dropped 9% sequentially. More importantly, quarterly gross profit margins fell to 43.7% from 47.1% in the third quarter. Worse, the company is predicting "double-digit" price declines and more margin compression in the first half of 2012 before glass prices are expected to stabilize. After that, Corning expects flat display sales and earnings through 2014.
This comes as Corning's competition has increased glass capacity while customers are tightening their inventories, due to lower retail demand for such things as TVs. In 2011, earnings—also hurt by significantly lower profits from affiliates, higher taxes, and special items—fell to $2.8 billion or $1.77 per share, from $3.6 billion or $2.25 per share, in 2010.
The bear case says it's over for Corning. In general, unit sales of TVs, which use lots of glass by area, are slowing—though sales of the biggest flat-screen TVs are still growing. Heavy competition and lower margins are a permanent part of a new industry landscape.
All the pessimism would get a better hearing here if Corning were taking this lying down. It isn't. Corning is already cutting display capacity by 25%. And with demand for smartphones and tablets growing nicely, the company will be well-served by its R&D leadership in many of the industries in which it competes.
It has other levers to reduce shareholder pain. Higher dividend payouts—Corning yields 2.2%—and increased share buybacks are on the way.
While the shares probably will have a rocky first half, most of the risks appear to be already in the stock, which trades at a price/earnings ratio of nine. Even with earnings at $1.25 a share—a 10% haircut to the current 2012 consensus analyst estimate of $1.40—Corning trades at less than 11 times. On that and other valuation metrics, the stock is closer to historic lows than highs.
Corning is an industrial firm, but its shares trade like bank stocks these days— at less than tangible book value. The company's ratio of debt to total capital is 10%, which gives it flexibility and a strong edge against competitors. Meanwhile, Corning holds cash equal to nearly 30% of its stock-market value.
"I'm encouraged by the way they are handling the challenge," says James Hardesty, of Hardesty Capital Management, which owns Corning shares. Capital spending will be cut dramatically, by about $600 million, to $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion next year. And at less than book value, any share buybacks will be "automatically accretive to earnings."
Another Corning fan, Alan Lancz, who runs Alan B. Lancz & Associates, expects two more quarters of weakness, and advises investors to capitalize on them by buying shares. Lancz began adding shares to his firm's holdings in early February. As Apple and other smartphone and tablet makers introduce new products, Corning's momentum will build, he contends. Lancz looks for the stock to be in the $20s again in two to three years.
This seems like a good entry point for patient investors with a horizon of one year or more. As Corning works its way out of this jam, investors will get more comfortable with the company, and its stock will rebound.