No matter what the industry, every company which has ever been formed has encountered challenging trading conditions at one time or another. Of course, that’s not to play down the severity of the commodity price falls or the challenging outlook for consumer stocks, but rather is intended to show that there is nothing particularly new about blue-chip companies reporting declining profitability.
In fact, such moments can present a golden opportunity to buy in at a discounted price, so long as the prospects for long term earnings growth are bright. And while in the short run there can be considerable paper losses through buying shares in poorly-performing companies, the long term capital gains can be superb.
One company which is experiencing a difficult period is BHP Billiton Limited (ASX: BHP). The commodity price falls of the last couple of years have left even a highly diversified resources business such as BHP in a dire position regarding its profitability, with its bottom line falling by 25% last year and being forecast to plummet by almost 69% in the current financial year.
While commodity prices may move lower and hurt the company’s share price further after its fall of 45% in the last year, BHP is seeking to take the opportunity to strengthen its position relative to its industry peers. In fact, it is rumoured to be mulling M&A activity to take advantage of low asset prices. And with BHP conducting a major reorganisation which included the spin-off of non-core assets, it looks set to generate further efficiencies in the long run which have the potential to boost its financial performance.
While BHP trades on a price to earnings (P/E) ratio of 29 (using current year’s forecast earnings), it is expected to record a rise in its bottom line of 17% next year, thereby giving it a price to earnings growth (PEG) ratio of 1.7. While not exactly dirt cheap, the potential for rising commodity prices due to the continued industrialisation of the developing world in the long run, plus BHP’s prospects for efficiencies and an increase in its market share, mean that for less risk averse investors it could be a sound long term buy.
Also struggling due to external factors is Woolworths Limited (ASX: WOW). Its shares have fallen by 25% in the last year as the supermarket sector has become increasingly price competitive, with the likes of Aldi and Costco winning market share. As a result, Woolworths has invested heavily in pricing, which has hurt margins and is a key reason behind the forecast fall in earnings of 15% per annum during the next two years.
However, the economic outlook may be more positive than previously thought. The latest GDP growth figures were ahead of expectations and showed that the Aussie economy is performing relatively well despite pressure from declining commodity prices. Therefore consumer confidence, combined with a low interest rate, could mean that household spending holds up and that consumers do not become as price-conscious as had previously been expected.
Of course, Woolworths lacks a clear long-term strategy due to it being in the midst of management changes. However, with the company’s shares trading on a price to sales (P/S) ratio of 0.5 versus 0.9 for the wider food and staples retailing sector, there is upward rerating potential in the long run. And with Woolworths having a yield of 5.5% from a dividend which represents 80% of profit, it remains a relatively enticing income play, too.
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Motley Fool contributor Peter Stephens owns shares in BHP Billiton. Unless otherwise noted, the author does not have a position in any stocks mentioned by the author in the comments below. The Motley Fool Australia has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Bruce Jackson.