Friday, June 29, 2012

Investopedia: Thompson Creek Hopes Short-Term Pain Leads To Long-Term Gain

It takes money to make money, and that lesson is proving painful for Thompson Creek (NYSE:TC) and its investors. Higher than expected development costs for the critical Mt. Milligan project have dented management credibility, while dilutive financing has smacked the stock. Making matters worse, investors seem to be back in one of those moods where steel (the primary market for molybdenum) and copper (a major future commodity for Thompson Creek) are doomed to eternal malaise.

Thompson Creek is absolutely not a stock for the mortgage money, nor for impatient investors, but for those who believe a steel rebound is probable and want an undervalued play on a small industrial metals miner, this is a stock worth checking out.

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Investopedia: Is There Enough Growth To Really Push Life Technologies?

Investors are often surprised at the relatively low growth rates that are available in the life sciences industry. While there are indeed segments that offer exceptional top-line growth prospects (like genetic sequencing), the sheer size of the sector and the fact that many new offerings simply supplant older technologies and products means that the overall growth rates are more moderate.

It's important to understand that backdrop when looking at Life Technologies (Nasdaq:LIFE). Life Tech is indeed a very good life sciences company, but serious competition in sequencing from Illumina (Nasdaq:ILMN) and Oxford Nanopore does challenge the company's ability to outgrow the broader market, as does the less-desirable state of government-sponsored research funding in the U.S.

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Investopedia: General Mills May Be Making A Mistake With Its Spending

Nothing changes all that fast in packaged food, and the trends that drove General Mills (NYSE:GIS) in the fourth quarter are basically the same that we've seen from ConAgra (NYSE:CAG), Nestle (OTC:NSRGY) and the rest of the sector. While this company's focus on building its international business is a smart move for the long-term, I do wonder if the company is under-spending on promotions and putting 2013 sales performance at risk.

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Investopedia: Stable Volumes Support Premium Valuation For McCormick

If investors want to find a bargain in packaged food, they have little choice but to go with small up-and-comers that aren't fully appreciated yet or dip into the box of broken toys. Companies like Kellogg (NYSE:K) and Kraft Foods (NYSE:KFT) offer some potential on the basis of past missteps and/or restructuring potential, but a well-run company like McCormick (NYSE:MKC) doesn't come cheap these days. Although I believe there's still upside to the McCormick story, these shares aren't priced to permit many mistakes.

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Investopedia: Can Body Sculpting Bulk Up Solta Medical?

Most investors are probably aware that the healthcare industry slowed significantly during the recession and has been very slow in coming back. Hospitals have pulled back on capital spending and procedure counts have dropped as would-be patients worry about inadequate insurance coverage, higher co-pays and/or the opportunity to take time off for recuperation.

There's another segment of the healthcare industry, though; one built around elective procedures that is generally not covered by health insurance. Aesthetics is a big part of this segment, and the market for skin tightening, rejuvenation and so on nearly collapsed in the recession. Procedure counts are starting to come back, though, and Solta Medical (Nasdaq:SLTM) is a risky name worth checking out by virtue of its differentiated business model and new LipoSonix body-sculpting line.

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Investopedia: Talisman Energy Has More Charm Than The Market Thinks

Institutional investors seem to approach energy stocks with the same sort of discipline and dedication that teenaged girls show towards boy bands and pop stars. Whatever was popular last year isn't going to be hot this year, but there's not always a lot of logic in the process. Talisman Energy (NYSE:TLM) does have real challenges that merit a discount, but it seems as though the Street has gone a little overboard here and patient investors may want to consider the name.

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Investopedia: Total Has More To Lose With Falling Oil Prices

Major oil and gas companies are clearly suffering as oil prices decline. While some investors look at this situation as a bargain-in-the-making on the basis of a never-ending demand for oil around the world, the truth is a little more nuanced. Oil demand does indeed look solid on an intermediate-term basis, but many majors are finding that they have to spend enormous amounts of money to harvest their reserves. Consequently, today's oil prices do start to change the expected path for project development and dividend payouts.

Total (NYSE:TOT) is one of those companies that looks vulnerable to the squeeze play. Not only does Total have a sizable downstream (refining) business that drags on results, but the upstream operations have some questions around them as well. With so much expected production tied to areas with political risks and/or advanced technological needs, Total has a has a problem with sub-$90 oil.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Investopedia: Investors Should Probably Delay A Trip To Forest City

When properly managed, real estate can be one of the best investment vehicles around. When managed less well, the high levels of debt and long timelines for development and transactions can lead to outsized losses. Forest City Enterprises (NYSE:FCE-A) doesn't conveniently fit into either of those two buckets; the company is certainly making progress in its efforts to restructure, but the apparent value in the shares today isn't really enough to make it worthwhile for investors to buy into the story of transformation.

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Investopedia: Arena Pharmaceuticals - One Huge Step Forward, But Many More Remain

Patient (or long-suffering, depending upon your point of view) Arena Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq:ARNA) shareholders got some major validation on June 27, 2012, when the company announced that the FDA had formally approved the company's weight-loss drug, Belviq (aka lorcaserin). With a commercial launch with marketing partner Eisai expected around the end of the year, investor attention now shifts to the questions of whether Belviq will prove popular with doctors and patients, whether it will get adequate reimbursement, and what the total market potential will ultimately be.

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Investopedia: Heartland Payments Another Company Poised To Rebound With Small Businesses

Setting aside the ceaseless news media squabbling over whether the private sector is getting stronger (and doing so fast enough), there is a large ecosystem of publicly traded companies leveraged to a recovery in small and mid-sized businesses (SMB). As a large payment processor oriented towards the SMB category, Heartland Payment (NYSE:HPY) is one such company.

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Investopedia: Back To The Future With ArcelorMittal

2012 has been a tortuous year for investors hoping for a steel rebound. While valuations across the sector have looked low, companies struggled to make price hikes stick and the slowdowns in Europe and China have led to widespread worries about demand. All of that said, ArcelorMittal (NYSE:MT) is now trading close to its 2008 troughs, but without the same debt and inventory worries that attended that low. Constant disappointment has blunted the virtues of making any sort of value call in the steel sector, but patient investors may want to look at ArcelorMittal as a long-range value turnaround.

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Investopedia: Apollo Still Searching Out The New Normal

One of the most dangerous investment plays for value-oriented investors is an apparently cheap stock of a company that is seeing a serious and significant reordering of its business and industry. That covers for-profit education company Apollo Group (Nasdaq:APOL) rather well, and I admit that I got sucked into what looked like a low valuation combined with a quality company built to last. The stock is down almost one-third since my late January optimism, and though the long-term outlook for the company is still solid, it's clear that this story is going to take time to work.

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Investopedia: With SL Green Realty, Focus Is Clearly Not An Issue

Analysts and investors prize diversity, and that often serves a company well as it reduces the overall risk profile of the company. On the other hand, sometimes the opposite is true - sometimes running an intensely focused and specialized operation can provide above-average returns by virtue of truly understanding that market and its risks. Investors considering SL Green Realty (NYSE:SLG) pretty much have to subscribe to that second point of view to find an attractive investment idea here.

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Investopedia: Patience Is Proving Rewarding For Quest Shareholders

Lower-growth tech investments can be tricky, as the Street is often slow to reward consistent cash flow growth in favor of impressive revenue growth. In the case of Quest Software (Nasdaq:QSFT), though, patience is showing that value almost always eventually gets its due recognition.

A Low-Key Bidding War
Quest Software has been a rumored acquisition target for quite some time, as the company would offer an acquirer a platform-neutral array of software offerings in database development, identity management, performance monitoring and data protection. Although definitely not a household name, Quest has trafficked in shortfalls at Microsoft (Nasdaq:MSFT), IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Oracle (Nasdaq:ORCL) to build simpler-to-use solutions that has given it a large and diverse customer base.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Investopedia: Waiting For A Better Price On Wright Express

Closed-loop systems can be licenses to print money, and Wright Express (NYSE:WXS) certainly has ample room left to grow in the trucking fleet service market. That said, the volatility of fuel prices, the actions of competitors and the inertia of potential customers are all challenges to the company's potential growth. While Wright Express would be a very interesting growth stock at the right price, today's valuation is not so compelling.

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Investopedia: Darden Hits A Dry Patch

As the economy continues to wobble along in the U.S., economically sensitive businesses like restaurants continue to face some significant challenges. Newer concepts like BJ's Restaurants (Nasdaq:BJRI) and Buffalo Wild Wings (Nasdaq:BWLD) continue to bring in the patrons, but many established chains are having to work harder and harder for even minor improvements in comp-store growth.

That puts Darden Restaurants (NYSE:DRI) in a tough spot. Darden is definitely a well-run veteran restaurant operator, but the company's core restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster are hardly novel to the restaurant going public. With same-store sales coming in a little weak for the fiscal fourth quarter and the stock sporting a fairly robust multiple, it seems like this is a stock that is going to be stuck for at least a little while longer.

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Investopedia: It's Volatile, But Materion Is Worth A Look

Specialty metals and materials don't often end up looking so special, as they are often just as cyclical as other industrial metals like copper or zinc. That said, Materion (NYSE:MTRN) has consistently looked to find new value-added uses for beryllium and related alloys, ceramics and specialty products. Admittedly, the company's long-term cash flow production and returns on capital are not stellar, but recoveries in consumer electronics and telecom equipment could push this company into another cyclical upswing.

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Investopedia: Harsco Could Be Troughing

These have been challenging times for industrial conglomerate Harsco (NYSE:HSC). Weak demand for commercial construction and weak funding for infrastructure projects has hurt the company's infrastructure business, while a weak market for European steelmakers has likewise hurt the mill services business. Calling a bottom in non-residential construction or steel is a fool's errand, but odds favor these markets getting better over the next year or two and a new CEO could reverse a disappointing record regarding cash flow generation and asset efficiency.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Investopedia: Q1 Results Highlight The Risks At Bed Bath & Beyond

Occasionally, companies report earnings that really can be read and interpreted in opposite, but equally valid, ways. That seems to be the case with housewares superstore operator Bed Bath & Beyond (Nasdaq:BBBY). Pessimists can point to weak comp growth despite promotions as proof of weakening fundamentals, while optimists can argue that this quarter's weakness was as expected and the company's recent acquisitions show a prudent aggression towards building the business.

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Investopedia: Red hat Seems Ill-Fitting

Complaining about valuation with tech stocks is a little like complaining about diving in European soccer - none of the true fans really seem to care. That said, one of the ever-present lessons of the stock market is that valuation always matters eventually, and flagging growth tends to accelerate that day of reckoning. While Red Hat (NYSE:RHT) has had a volatile growth trajectory in its past and that means investors need to be careful about overreacting to any particular quarter, the results from Thursday night do nothing to ease worries about the company's growth.

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Investopedia: ConAgra Doing Better, But Can It Last?

ConAgra (NYSE:CAG) didn't pick the easiest time to start changing its business, but there's never really a bad time to try to fix an underperforming business. Although macro trends in the food sector aren't doing the companies any particular favors, and a lot of Street analysts have already bought the story on the turnaround, the company does seem to be making some sound moves.

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Investopedia: Is Clarcor's Business Slipping Away?

Filtration has proven to be a consistently popular business with many investors and corporations. The appeal makes sense - as performance and environmental quality demands increase, so does the demand for better filtration. Filtration also tends to be a business oriented towards defensible high-margin consumables business. All of that said, Clarcor's (NYSE:CLC) business is not looking so strong right now and it's worth asking why that is.

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Investopedia: Time To Play The Micron Yo-Yo Again?

When shares of memory maker Micron (Nasdaq:MU) go up, shares of Micron go down, over and over again. Like the broader consumer electronic device market, the recovery in memory demand is apparently always one or two more quarters away. Although I'm not all that interested in joining the fruitless guessing game as to when the memory market will rebound, I do believe that Micron shares trading in the mid-single-digits are interesting for investors with a medium-to-high risk tolerance.

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Investopedia: Sonic Not Breaking The Sound Barrier With Its Growth

Americans love to eat out and they seem to love store concepts that offer a break from burger-world - witness the growth at concepts like Panera (Nasdaq:PNRA), Chipotle (NYSE:CMG) and Dunkin' Brands (Nasdaq:DNKN). Of course, that's not to say that burger-world is exactly suffering either; McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) has been remarkably and consistently strong and newer concepts like Five Guys are also doing well.

Sonic (Nasdaq:SONC) definitely offers a different concept with its drive-in store format and a menu that offers many foods and drinks that cannot be found at other national or regional QSR chains. So far, though, "different" hasn't really meant better, as Sonic has struggled to deliver really exciting growth over the years.

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Investopedia: Bull Vs. Bear - Tech IPOs Are A Smart Play For Savvy Investors

Question: Is it foolish to buy into tech IPOs?

Bull's Response
Initial public offerings (IPOs), and tech IPOs in particular, seem to garner a disproportionate share of financial media attention. Maybe it's simply the novelty of the new, or maybe it's because hot tech IPOs are often associated with companies that are just coming into their own and getting the attention of the public, but many of these IPOs tend to be real events for the market.

History shows that not all of that attention is well-deserved. The process of bringing a company to the public markets inevitably involves a lot of promotion and hype; bankers profit directly from investor interest in IPOs and almost every company wants to have a hot IPO. In that process, then, it's entirely common for excitement and hope to take the place of reason and prudence, and many of these deals go off at poor prices. What follows is as predictable as Tuesday following Monday - the stocks go out at too high a price and ultimately fade in the after-market, leaving investors who bought into the hype holding losses.

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Investopedia: Actuant Down To One Horse

Actuant (NYSE:ATU) is a tricky company to evaluate, given a pretty heterogeneous mix of markets and products. Nevertheless, it's following a pretty typical pattern for industrial stocks - slowdowns in Europe and China are pressuring growth and the company is increasingly dependent upon energy to drive near-term results. While Actuant will do alright if global industrial growth picks up as expected later this year, management's own guidance suggests that might not be as likely as the Street has been hoping.

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Investopedia: Walgreen Hopes That It Can Buy Growth

Walgreen (NYSE:WAG) management cannot be faulted for being passive in response to the challenges it is facing in producing growth. With an arguably saturated U.S. market, ongoing challenges from the likes of Walmart (NYSE:WMT) and Target (NYSE:TGT), further penetration from mail-order pharmacies and its ongoing dispute with Express Scripts (Nasdaq:ESRX), the company had to do something. The question remains, though, whether paying up for KKR's British-based Alliance Boots is the long-term solution to what ails Walgreen.

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Investopedia: To Unlock More Value, CA Needs More Growth

I've been a fan of mid-sized software company CA Technologies (Nasdaq:CA) for a while now, but it has taken quite a bit of time for the Street to appreciate it. A relatively recent willingness to share more capital with shareholders (buybacks and bigger dividends) has helped, but management really needs to outline a clear plan to boost growth to close more of that gap between today's price and the fair value suggested by the company's free cash flow.

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Investopedia: Volatility Is The Price Of Opportunity At FSI International

Financial writers love to write articles that talk about how if investors had simply bought "Super-Duper Tech Stock" back in the earliest days and held on tight, they'd be sitting on windfall profits and debating which island to buy for their retirement. What those articles often fail to mention is that the road from small up-and-comer to successful growth stock is never straight or smooth; there are bumps, potholes and detours along the way and some of them are real doozies.

That is worth remembering when it comes to wafer cleaning equipment company FSI International (Nasdaq:FSII). The volatility in growth and guidance over the past few quarters highlights several key points about this stock - there is real growth potential here, but the company is exceptionally vulnerable to any wobble in orders.

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Investopedia: Value Is Value When It Comes To Jabil

I've never been fond of Jabil (NYSE:JBL) as a long-term holding but, I did write back in September that I thought the stock might be priced to perform. And the stock was quite obliging in that regard, as it rose more than 50% over the next six months before taking another sharp downward turn. While I still have major reservations about owning these shares over a long stretch of time, the upcoming Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) iPhone launch could offer some upside.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Investopedia: Bio-Reference Labs Taking Advantage Of Esoteric Opportunities

Bio-Reference Labs (Nasdaq:BRLI) is an odd diagnostics company. It combines a somewhat sleepy conventional diagnostics business centered on the Northeast (New York City, in particular) with a nationwide esoteric testing business. The company has had a less-than-spectacular record of cash flow generation and cash conversion, but it has improved significantly in recent times. While its smaller scale and fierce competition from Quest (NYSE:DGX) and LabCorp (NYSE:LH) are risk factors, growth in the esoteric testing business could make this a name worth following.

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Investopedia: Allianz In Relatively Good Shape

Investors are understandably reluctant to put money into companies tied to the health of the European financial system. As one of the biggest, but also one of the best, insurance companies in Allianz (OTC:AZSEY) might be a company worth an exception. While low rates do compromise the company's ability to grow, quality underwriting and a healthy balance sheet make Allianz a value-priced name worth considering.

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Investopedia: Oracle Brings The Good News A Little Early

Amidst some worries about earnings performance and rumors of a management shake-up, Oracle (Nasdaq:ORCL) decided to move up its earnings announcement and the company delivered a positive earnings surprise Monday night. While it continues to struggle in hardware, the software business is growing nicely and Oracle remains an apparently undervalued major tech stock.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Investopedia: ING - The Destination Is Known, But The Path Is Murky At Best

Banking is still complicated, particularly in Europe, and insurance is pretty murky today as well. Combine the two, add in certain (but uncertain) divestitures, and bailout repayments and you have ING (NYSE:ING). While there's a decent bank buried in here, the uncertainties that attend the insurance divestitures mean that valuation is close to a shot in the dark.

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Investopedia: AllianceBernstein Could Be Looking At A Long Turnaround

Reputation is a critical asset for asset management companies, and a few years of bad performance can take a very long time to reverse. That's one of the key challenges for AllianceBernstein Holding L.P. (NYSE:AB), as this partnership is seeing ongoing outflows fueled by underwhelming fund performance. While these shares do offer a high yield and performance could improve if higher rates drive investors back into equity funds, the poor performance and rankings of the company's funds will likely weigh on results for some time.

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Investopedia: Aviva In The Wrong Place At The Wrong Time

Even though investors are encouraged to focus on the long term, timing still has a lot to do with share price performance. In the case of global (but UK-focused) insurance company Aviva (NYSE:AV), timing really isn't on the company's side. While this looks like a pretty respectable long-term business, balance sheet issues may well force the company to sell assets at a time when valuations are quite low.

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Investopedia: How Much Better Can It Get At Discover?

By any reasonable measure, Discover Financial Services (NYSE:DFS) has come back strongly from the worst of the credit crunch - having broken $5 in the spring of 2009, this stock has very nearly reached $35 in the past couple of months. The company has certainly made progress getting more merchants and shoppers to use its cards and network, and it also seems to be picking up a little debit card share in the wake of new regulations. While these shares aren't overpriced, investors may want to ask themselves how much better they think a business can get before they buy shares.

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Investopedia: Adobe Still Short On Sizzle

Another quarter goes into the books, and not much is different over at Adobe (Nasdaq:ADBE). While Adobe continues to chug along and produce cash flow, there's not much outperformance on the top line. Consequently, while fundamentals-oriented investors will likely see some value in these shares, the process of unlocking that value could take a lot of patience. Investopedia Broker Guides: Enhance your trading with the tools from today's top online brokers

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Investopedia: Can Pier 1 Rekindle The Fire?

By any reasonable standard, Pier 1 Imports (NYSE:PIR) has delivered an exceptional turnaround. It wasn't really that long ago when people were writing this company off as hopeless and pointing to Warren Buffett's investment in the retailer as a sure sign (yet again) that he had lost his touch. Since then, the stock has delivered exceptional returns to those brave enough to buy during the dark times.

Now Pier 1 has a new problem - that of Wall Street's bottomless appetite for growth. Good enough is no longer good enough, and investors may be in for a few more difficult quarters before the shareholder base has turned over to a more a conventional retail growth crowd.

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Investopedia: Will Microsoft Be Key To A Barnes & Noble Turnaround?

For the number of people seemingly willing to pull the plug on Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS), you'd think there was a fat inheritance at stake. There's no point in pretending that the traditional retail format for books and other print media is permanently impaired (if not condemned to a steady downward spiral), and there are no guarantees that B&N's NOOK is going to emerge as a viable long-standing e-reader/tablet platform. All of that said, Microsoft's (Nasdaq:MSFT) support, and a relatively thin float, could make this a pretty wild stock from time to time.

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Investopedia: Want A High-Yield Healthcare Stock? Look To Canada

Canada doesn't factor into discussions about healthcare very often outside of its national single-payer system. Nevertheless, investors looking for rich dividend payers in healthcare have to be willing to go the extra mile, and Canada rewards that search. While CML HealthCare (TSE:C.CLC) is not the easiest stock for American investors to buy or follow, the rich 8% yield, strong margins and growth potential make it worth the effort to consider. Investopedia Broker Guides: Enhance your trading with the tools from today's top online brokers.

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Investopedia: FedEx Still Getting A Pass

Even after all these years, I find it interesting to see which stories analysts and investors are willing to believe in, even when the fundamentals don't always support that belief. I don't believe that anybody seriously questions that FedEx (NYSE:FDX) is a well-run business, or that it would be very (if not prohibitively) expensive to replicate the infrastructure that it and rival UPS (NYSE:UPS) have built.

By the same token, the company has had a hard time producing a truly impressive return on invested capital, and the company's free cash flow generation capabilities have always been limited--maintaining that network of planes, trucks and so on takes a lot of capital. Looking at the company's fiscal fourth quarter earnings, it looks like investors are willing to give the company another pass--margins and volumes were not that exceptional (nor was guidance), but the performance wasn't as bad as the results of other transportation and logistics companies might have suggested.

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Investopedia: How Much Worse Will Itau Unibanco Get Before It Gets Better?

Stop me if you've heard this one before - banks are starting to see increasing loan losses, shrinking spreads and fears of an economic slowdown are leading banks to curtail lending, while government officials would prefer to see more lending to stimulate growth. That's not the United States nor Europe that I'm talking about, but rather Brazil. With economic conditions in Brazil looking less secure, Itau Unibanco (NYSE:ITUB) could be looking at a longer stretch of compressed earnings and returns than optimists want to believe.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Investopedia: Alliance Grain Traders Needs To Make Better Use Of Its Assets

Ag processing can be difficult on a year-to-year basis, but companies like Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) and Cargill have built solid businesses through scale and diversification. It's an open question as to whether Canada's Alliance Grain Traders (OTC:AGXXF) can achieve the same sort of long-term success. While Alliance is a global leader in the processing of pulses (lentils and the like), the company's lack of diversity and poor asset utilization have hampered results in recent years.

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Investopedia: Aspen Doesn't Really Stand Out

With so many stories out there in the insurance sector--from turnarounds or restructurings like Hartford (NYSE:HIG) and XL Group (NYSE:XL) to well-run operations like Allied World (NYSE:AWH) and RenRe (NYSE:RNR)--investors have plenty of choices and a lot of undervalued stocks to consider. Unfortunately, Aspen (NYSE:AHL) really doesn't stand out in any particular regard. While this company has a reasonable record of returning cash to shareholders, and the move towards writing more insurance business makes sense, neither the strategy nor the valuation are exceptional today.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Financial Edge: Who Should Pay For College

There's little debate that higher education in the United States is not only quite expensive, but getting more so at a rapid rate. The average total cost for one year of college is now over $21,000, while the average private school costs nearly $33,000. By comparison, the median household income is around $50,000. What's more, while household net worth fell about 40% from 2007 to 2010, the cost of higher education rose about 10%. In a normal market, high costs are supposed to reduce demand. However, higher education isn't a normal market. Not only does the federal government get involved in the form of grants, subsidized loans and other kinds of assistance, but there is a widespread viewpoint that higher education is essential to future success in life. Consequently, students have little choice but to figure out some way to pay for their education.

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Financial Edge: Good Facebook, Bad For Google And Apple

One of the announcements from Apple's recent Worldwide Developers Conference that drew the most attention, was that the Apple was going to integrate Facebook into its new mobile operating system (iOS 6) in a big way. While this is a big win for Facebook and a nuisance to Google, it's a deal that could also end up backfiring for Apple.

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Financial Edge: The Gasoline Business Is All About Location

Along with barbecues, parades and a day off of work, one of the Memorial Day traditions in the United States is to talk about the price of gas at what is still called the "start of the summer driving season." Readers who don't travel much may be surprised at the extent to which gasoline prices can vary from state to state - a byproduct of not only the number of refineries in a given region, but pipeline access, quality/formulation regulations and taxes. What's true in the United States is also true around the world. Gasoline prices vary remarkably around the globe, with some countries offering subsidized rock-bottom prices and others layering sizable taxes on every liter or gallon.

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Financial Edge: Summer School or Summer Job? How To Decide

Every year, college freshmen, sophomores and juniors have a difficult choice to make - whether to stay in "school mode" and take classes during summer sessions or earn money through a summer job. There's no right answer for every student, but there are compelling arguments for each option that students should consider.

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Financial Edge: Innovative Packaging That Packed A Punch

Packaging has long been a key part of brand building, but how often does packaging really make a difference in sales or customer acceptance? Shoppers may have long since learned to recognize the red, white and blue logo of PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP), the yellow and blue design of Kraft's (NYSE:KFT) Mac & Cheese and the red and white of Campbell Soup (NYSE:CPB), but how often does a clever package prompt shoppers to pick up a new product?

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Financial Edge: The Costliest Diseases In America

Over the last two decades, healthcare costs have become a major topic of conservation and a major worry for governments, businesses, healthcare providers and private citizens. Medicare and Medicaid capture nearly one-quarter of the U.S. federal budget, while according to Bloomberg, healthcare takes up more than 15% of consumer spending. Healthcare costs have likewise loomed large for many corporate pension plans and many companies have cut or stopped subsidizing health insurance costs for workers.

So, what are the biggest items on the national healthcare bill? While there are a lot of complicating factors in the math (as well as double-counting), it's fairly clear that heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer make some of the largest demands on the U.S. healthcare budget.

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Financial Edge: Why Are We Still Talking About Greece?

The expression "sell in May and go away" has been around for a lot longer than the economic crisis in southern Europe, but as the U.S. markets once again had a tough May it looks like the bad penny that is the Greek/Spanish crisis has turned up once again. While this is admittedly a complicated situation, it's entirely fair for investors in North America to ask why we are all still forced to talk about this mess and why it continues to impact our markets and economy.

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Investopedia: Hartford's Transformation Is A Multi-Year Proposition

At a time when many insurance companies are looking to diversify and enter new markets to stimulate growth, Hartford Financial Services (NYSE:HIG) is looking to go in the other direction. Although exiting life insurance, retirement and annuities should both improve and stabilize returns over the long term, but it's likely going to take many years for the benefits to show up. While Hartford's current valuation seems to understate the core value in the business, investors could be looking at dead (or at least very sleepy) money for a while.

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Investopedia: Bull Vs. Bear - Apple's Growth Plays Are Drying Up

Question: Is Apple a good buy at today's price?

Bear's ResponseWhat Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) has accomplished is truly remarkable. From a great growth stock to flirting with bankruptcy and/or a scrapheap acquisition, Apple has come roaring back to be the most highly-valued publicly traded stock on the market. Not only that, but Apple has essentially redefined the portable music player and mobile phone businesses and journalists and financial writers have made a cottage industry of trying to guess the next market that Apple will fundamentally upend.

But here's the thing - no growth story goes on forever. Apple has already shown some of the signs of a company transitioning to a more mature trajectory. There's a new CEO in place who is more manager than disruptor, the company has started to return capital to shareholders, and many analysts are no longer foaming at the mouth to project ever-higher price targets.

Those who think Apple is a still an outstanding buy today should consider the following risk factors:

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Investopedia: Smithfield's Miss May Be An Opportunity

Companies that operate in commodity markets often require a bit of reverse psychology when it comes to their stocks. Invest in protein producers like Tyson (NYSE:TSN) or Smithfield (NYSE:SFD) when times are great, and you are likely to be buying into a peak. With that in mind, the lackluster performance of Smithfield in its fiscal fourth quarter, combined with some iffy market fundamentals, might make this a stock worth watching.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Investopedia: Everest Re Trying To Balance Risk And Opportunity

Plenty has been written over the last few months about the hardening market in many insurance markets. With companies forced to pay out for major disasters across the globe, including major earthquakes and floods, companies are now pushing through policy price increases for the first time in quite a while.

When it comes to Everest Re (NYSE:RE), though, there appears to be some limit to how much this hardening market will help. Everest Re is a quality insurance company, and one with substantial property reinsurance exposure, but the company's decision to prudently manage its risk exposure could limit some of the growth potential from these market developments.

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Investopedia: Once Again, Rails Suggest Summer Slowdown Isn't That Bad

This summer is starting to feel a lot like last year. Europe seems to be coming apart at the seems, volatility is tracking up, and investors are on the hunt for proof that the economy is sliding back toward recession. Like last year, though, the data from the Class 1 North American railroads just doesn't support a panic scenario. Yes, business activity is leveling off, but that's what usually happens in the summer and there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason to hit the big red button just yet.

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Investopedia: Nokia Moves Around The Deck Chairs One More Time

At this point, the agonizing pace of Nokia's (NYSE:NOK) never-ending turnaround is starting to evoke the idea of a band-aid being pulled off incredibly slowly. Once again the company is looking to take charge and fire workers, but nothing in the proposed changes are likely to boost the company's share against Apple (Nasdaq:AAPL) or Samsung. Absent a hardware-software duo that can seriously challenge the top players, Nokia's slide toward irrelevance seems likely to continue.

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Investopedia: Argo Group Is A Confounding, But Potentially Undervalued, Stock

The world of insurance stocks can be simultaneously quite simple and quite complex. Actuarial science is by no means easy, and it can be difficult-to-impossible to really evaluate a company's underwriting risks or investment strategy from outside of the company. On the other hand, watching metrics like book value growth, return on equity, premium growth, combined ratio and prior year development can usually point investors towards successful insurance stock picks.

Argo Group (Nasdaq:AGII) stands out as something of a challenging case. Book value growth and return on equity have both been unimpressive, but the company's low valuation may represent a real bargain if the company can improve its operating results.

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Investopedia: When Will Genworth's Turnaround Come?

There's still ample economic wreckage from the housing bubble and crash, but many participants have clawed their way back and are starting to see signs of normalization. Major mortgage issuers like Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) are back to paying dividends and thinking about long-term growth strategies, while insurance companies like MetLife (NYSE:MET) are largely secure from a capital standpoint (even if U.S. regulators don't completely agree).
Genworth (NYSE:GNW) is a different case. While the stock and company are clearly back from the brink of complete ruin (the stock traded for less than 90 cents just over three years ago), the company is not exactly strong or thriving again. The resignation of the company's CEO may facilitate a better turnaround strategy, but investors considering these shares are going to have to have patience to see the investment work out.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Investopedia: Piedmont's Total Return Prospects Look Middling

Utilities are predictable businesses, but not entirely risk free. That's especially true in the case of a company like Piedmont Natural Gas (NYSE:PNY) where a lot of the company's future growth is predicated on customers switching over to gas. While Piedmont does enjoy a constructive regulatory environment and has been a very consistent dividend payer, buying the shares with a yield below 4% doesn't seem to make all that much sense.

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Investopedia: Adecoagro Has Taken Its Lumps

Adecoagro (NYSE:AGRO) gives investors direct exposure to the ups and downs of farming, and that hasn't been such a good thing over the past year. While nobody seems to seriously doubt that Argentina and Brazil will be major global breadbaskets for many years to come, results and sentiment have been dented by a significant drought and major political uncertainty in Argentina. Weather-related turbulence is a core risk to this company, but investors who can patiently stay focused on the long-term potential should consider these shares today.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Investopedia: High-Quality RenRe Not A Striking Bargain

Investors are fairly spoiled for choice when it comes to the insurance sector, so not only can they afford to be picky, but they pretty much have to be. With the sector having been relatively strong of late, despite weak investment returns, a lot of the great bargains in the space have disappeared. RenaissanceRe (NYSE:RNR) is a difficult case in point; while this company remains a top-flight reinsurance company and is not exactly overpriced, it's not that much of a bargain either.

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Investopedia: Can AXA Put All Of The Pieces Together?

For this writer, global insurance giant AXA (OTCBB:AXAHY) has always felt like a company that struggles to keep everything on the straight and narrow. On those rare occasions when everything has come together, the results have been quite impressive. More often than not, though, there's a brush fire here or a lagging unit there and the share performance chops around wildly. With the stock close to intra-crisis lows, though, it's worth asking if these shares are worth another look today.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Investopedia: Is Shinhan A Good Option For Investors Looking For Banking Performance?

Investors who want to put new money to work in the banking sector are finding a shrinking pool of good options out there. While there are a few banks here and there, like U.S. Bank (NYSE:USB), that still offer some solid long-term potential, most U.S. and Canadian bank stocks have caught up to their fundamental values and so many European banks are just a horror show of credit risk and low growth.

So what about emerging markets? Investors have started to worry about the growth outlook in Brazil, and the problems in Argentina have offered up a reminder that success in these markets can be fleeting. But Asia may be a different case. In particular, investors may want to consider the opportunity in Korea's leading bank Shinhan Financial Group (NYSE:SHG).

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Investopedia: UTIW Suffering Along With The Rest Of Logistics

These aren't great days in international logistics. Airfreight companies like Atlas Air (Nasdaq:AAWW) and Air Transport (Nasdaq:ATSG) aren't having the easiest time of it, and data from the likes of IATA, HACTL and Cathay Pacific haven't been great either. Conditions on the sea are marginally better, but the economic conditions in Europe, China and (increasingly) other emerging markets are taking its toll on international traffic.

Against that backdrop and weak numbers from fellow forwarder Expeditors International (Nasdaq:EXPD), UTi Worldwide's (Nasdaq:UTIW) miss is not entirely surprising. While the company is showing some definite margin benefits from its restructuring efforts and revenue wasn't that bad net of FX movements, these numbers still aren't going to help the stock, those of other companies like FedEx (NYSE:FDX) or UPS (NYSE:UPS) nor sentiment on the global economy.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

Investopedia: Is Titan Machinery Overpaying For Growth?

Investors have been getting more and more nervous about companies tied to heavy vehicle sales in markets like agriculture and construction. To some extent, then, I think the Street was looking for an excuse to approach Titan Machinery's (Nasdaq:TITN) earnings with a skeptical eye. While equipment sales remain robust, margins have weakened and the company's aggressive expansion plans may be coming at too high of a cost if the ag sector has indeed seen its best days.

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Investopedia: The Navistar Mess Gets Messier

It hasn't been easy to follow, or own, heavy-duty truck builder Navistar (NYSE:NAV) over the last four years. Not only has the company had to deal with the normal deep cyclicality of the heavy truck market and the big changes in the defense market, but also self-inflicted challenges brought about by breaking with Cummins (NYSE:CMI) and developing its own engine technology.

With the fiscal second quarter results in hand, it's pretty clear that we are not even close to a "steady state" with Navistar. Significant erosion in overseas markets has made investors nervous about the sector as a whole, but the company's ongoing warranty and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance issues continue to occupy management's time and unnerve customers.

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Investopedia: lululemon Chooses "Jam Tomorrow"

"The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday - but never jam to-day." - Lewis Carroll

It's tempting for a company to pull out the stops and grab all the money that it can whenever it can. Smart companies, though, realize that being overly aggressive in the short term can cause bigger problems. To that end, lululemon athletica's (Nasdaq:LULU) decision to focus less on maximizing current sales, in lieu of rolling out fresh product, may be a decision that compromises near-term growth, but keeps the brand healthier over the long term.

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Investopedia: Can Greif Find A Second Wind In The Second Half?

If you're a company with hefty exposure to industrial markets, these are uncertain times. If you're a company with hefty exposure to European markets, these are scary times. Perhaps it's not so surprising, then, that Greif (NYSE:GEF), a manufacturer of industrial packaging products like steel and plastic drums, is near its 52-week low. With European chemical companies seeming a little more optimistic about the second half of the year, though, maybe this is a stock to consider as a rebound/recovery play.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Investopedia: Could Best Buy's Founder Take The Company Off The Market?

Electronics retailing giant Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) badly needs stability, and that seems to be exactly what the company is not getting. The company is still looking for a new full-time CEO, preferably one with experience in turning around a retailer, and now the company's founder is stepping away from the company. Now board chair and founder Richard Schulze has elected to step away from the company entirely, instead of staying on the board for another year as had been planned.

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Friday, June 8, 2012

Investopedia: ACE Looks Like A Card Worth Playing In The Insurance Sector

The insurance sector has largely outperformed the S&P 500 over the past year, but that doesn't mean that there still aren't some stocks worth considering as buys today. Among the more interesting names is ACE Limited (NYSE:ACE). Not only is ACE leveraged to hardening markets, but the company's less cyclical mix of business, strong underwriting reputation, good international exposure and strong capital position make this name a good balance of quality and value at today's prices.

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Investopedia: Brown-Forman Another Example Of Overpaying For Safety

As has been the case with other names in the spirits business like Diageo (NYSE:DEO) and Beam (NYSE:BEAM), investors seem comfortable overpaying to own the stock of Brown-Forman (NYSE:BF.B). Certainly there is a growth angle to this story, as the company looks to extend its world-leading share in bourbon to new markets like China. That said, even high single-digit free cash flow growth isn't enough to push the fair value estimate to an attractive level.

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Investopedia: Smucker A Relatively Interesting Play In Food

As I've mentioned often in recent weeks and months, investors have reacted to the uncertain global growth outlook by bidding up the shares of those stocks and sectors seen as safe and relatively inelastic, and food has been one of the primary targets. While Smucker (NYSE:SJM) does have some challenges from private label competition, and the long-run returns on capital have not been good, the combination of growth, share and valuation makes this a relatively interesting stock to consider today.

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Investopedia: American Superconductor - From A Growth Play To A Survival Survival

Much as investors and so-called "socially responsible" funds seem to like the sector, energy technology really has yet to deliver an established winning company to match a success story like Amgen (Nasdaq:AMGN) in biotech. As has so often been the case, American Superconductor (Nasdaq:AMSC) gave investors a glimpse of a successful future only to see market conditions erode significantly. Where American Superconductor was once an interesting risky growth play on wind power, now the company is simply trying to stay in the game long enough to rebuild its business and participate in the eventual wind power recovery

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Investopedia: American Woodmark Making The Best Of The Worst

When you sell products into the housing market and the housing market is going through its worst stretch in living memory, the rest of the story goes pretty much the way you would expect. From peak to trough, cabinet and vanity maker American Woodmark (Nasdaq:AMWD) saw sales drop more than 50% and free cash flow plunge into the red.

That said, American Woodmark hasn't really done any worse than rivals like Masco (NYSE:MAS) or Fortune Brands Home & Security (Nasdaq:FBHS) in terms of market share, and has only had one year of negative free cash flow. With a clean balance sheet and major placement in both Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Lowe's (NYSE:LOW), this may be a "when, not if" recovery story that could pay off for patient investors.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Investopedia: How Good Will The Good Times Be For Allied World Assurance?

Even though investment returns are low, and likely to remain so for the near future, many insurance company stocks have come to life over the last six months. One of the strongest has been Allied World Assurance (NYSE:AWH), a relatively small global insurance company that splits its activities among American and international insurance and reinsurance. While there are a lot of fine attributes that make Allied World a solid hold, the momentum in the stock has taken the cheapness out of the name.

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Investopedia: Premium Foods Not Driving Premium Cash Flow For United Natural

For most of the last three years, shares of United Natural Foods (Nasdaq:UNFI) have pretty consistently flummoxed value-oriented investors. While the margins aren't great for this organic food distributor (nor for food distribution in general), revenue and profit growth has continued to support a pretty healthy valuation and a rising stock price. The market may eventually realize that it's not "different this time" and that the fundamentals of United Natural's business cannot support this valuation, but that's been a money-losing thesis for skeptics so far.

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Investopedia: W.R. Berkley's Valuation Has Caught Up

Specialty insurance company W.R. Berkley (NYSE:WRB) has long been one of my favorite under-valued insurance companies. While it is still one of my favorites in terms of management quality and addressable markets, the stock has been quite strong over the past two years and no longer represents much of a bargain. While long-term investors may wish to hang on, investors considering a new position may have to wait for a better opportunity.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Seeking Alpha: More Non-Core Investments Almost Certain For WellPoint

Although the sell-side community seemed surprised by WellPoint's (WLP) decision to acquire 1-800 Contacts, it seems likely to me that there are going to be quite a few more deals like this in the future. Health insurance companies (or managed care organizations, if you prefer) are realizing what banks realized long ago - there's just not enough growth in the core market to meet Wall Street's bottomless appetite.

Consequently, growing those businesses that lie outside of regulatory authority is one of the few options left, and it's one that I expect WellPoint and Unitedhealth (UNH) will pursue as aggressively as shareholder sentiment will tolerate.

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More Non-Core Investments Almost Certain For WellPoint

Investopedia: XL Group Seems To Be Back On The Right Track

While it never got as much attention as AIG (NYSE:AIG), XL Group (NYSE:XL) was also seriously stressed during the global credit crisis and found itself very much on the brink. New management and a new business plan has made a great deal of difference, though, and the company looks like it's back on a believable path. Investors have an interesting dilemma with this company, though, as the book value and near-term return on equity path seem to point in different directions as to the company's fair value.

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Investopedia: Quanex Is Going To Take Some Time

There's still not that much joy to be found in the residential building world. While the superstores Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and Lowe's (NYSE:LOW) have seen improvement in same-store sales and companies like Louisiana-Pacific (NYSE:LPX) are well off the lows, the actual building starts numbers still aren't good. That means investors considering the shares of Quanex Building Products (NYSE:NX) need to have some patience. While this company has built impressive share in markets like window and door components, demand still just isn't that strong. Quanex does seem undervalued on the basis of its potential long-run free cash flow, but with so much of that growth coming in the foggy future the risk here is above average.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Investopedia: Control May Be Herbalife's Real Long-Term Problem

Herbalife (NYSE:HLF) has gotten knocked around hard lately, as well-known investor David Einhorn has apparently taken some interest in the company and asked some fairly pointed questions. Although I don't agree with those who have interpreted his questions as implying that there is any sort of pyramid scheme at work, that doesn't mean that there aren't inherent issues with the Herbalife model. While there is likely to be sustained ongoing demand for the sort of supplements that Herbalife sells, I wonder whether Herbalife's model takes too much of the company's growth potential out of its own hands.

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Investopedia: TreeHouse Foods And The Good Business / Good Stock Gap

More and more these days, and seemingly especially in sectors like food, there is a growing gap between good companies and good stocks. TreeHouse Foods (NYSE:THS) is another good example. While management has built an increasingly diversified and competitive private label packaged food business, and private label brands continue to gain share at supermarkets, investors seem to be overestimating just how valuable that market exposure is.

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Investopedia: Eni Still Not Getting Much Love

Admittedly these aren't the best of times for energy companies, but it's even worse for those whose assets lean towards natural gas and/or politically dicey areas. Eni (NYSE:E) has never been among the most-loved major energy companies, but valuation is now starting to look quite interesting. With progress on divestitures and big discoveries off the coast of Mozambique, there's still work to do, but management has taken some solid positive steps.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Investopedia: Can Aerospace Produce Enough Lift For Carpenter Technology?

Carpenter Technology (NYSE:CRS) has a lot going for it as a company. Few companies can match its technical capabilities (it's just one of three companies capable of making alloys good enough for the demands of jet engines), and there are growth opportunities everywhere for alloys that offer enhanced performance (strength, corrosion resistance, etc.) and less weight. What's more, the company's acquisition of Latrobe and ongoing capacity expansion will significantly boost its capabilities, particularly in premium products.

Yet, for all of those good points, this is a still a cyclical business tied to major end-markets like aerospace and energy. While the surge in commercial aircraft production will almost certainly boost Carpenter's sales and earnings for the next several years, the question is how much of that is already in the stock and whether investors can really expect outsized gains here.

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Investopedia: The Fresh Market Needs To Be Whole Foods 2.0

It's rare enough to find a retailer that trades at an enterprise value-to-revenue ratio of even 1.0, let alone the 2.17 times of The Fresh Market (NYSE:TFM). Clearly, then, investors are putting a premium on what is one of the few exciting growth stories in food retailing today. While there's a lot to like about this story, including a massively under-penetrated market, accelerating comps and good margins, the bulls seem to have this story well ahead of itself. At these prices, The Fresh Market pretty much has to be the next Whole Foods (NYSE:WFM) to support the implied valuation.

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Investopedia: Premium-Priced athenahealth Leaves Little Room For Error

athenahealth (Nasdaq:ATHN) offers another example of how it's important to separate a company from its stock. From the perspective of an operating company, there are a lot of positive things going on at this provider of software and services to medical practices. From a stock perspective, though, expectations are already red-hot and success is taken as a given, leaving little on the table for the future and significantly increasing the risk that any future earnings shortfall will be met with a painful sell-off in the shares.

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Investopedia: For Joy Global, It's No Longer "If" Or "When", But "How Long?"

Between the cautious comments from companies like Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) and Cummins (NYSE:CMI), the economic and company reports coming from China and the worsening conditions in the mining sector, there's really no doubt left that the market for mining machinery has slowed. Joy Global (NYSE:JOY) echoed that, as solid second quarter results were overshadowed by lower guidance. Now the question is no longer about when Joy Global will see the slowdown, but how deep it will be and how long it will last.

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