Does Hormel Foods Look Like A Winning Investment?

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As investors, we always want our investments to generate a healthy return. However, investors often forget that returns stem from two, not one, extremely important factors:

  1. The business' ability to generate profits, and
  2. the price you pay for one share of those profits.

This idea of price versus returns provides the bedrock for the school of investing known as value investing. In this series, I'll examine a specific business from both a quality and pricing standpoint. Hopefully, in doing so, we can get a better sense of its potential as an investment right now.

Where should we start to find value?
As we all know, the quality of businesses vary widely. A company that has the ability to grow its bottom line faster (or much faster) than the market, especially with any consistency, gives its owner greater value than a stagnant or declining business (duh!). However, many investors also fail to understand that any business becomes a buy at a low enough price. Figuring out this price-to-value equation drives all intelligent investment research.

In order to do so today, I selected several metrics that will evaluate returns, profitability, growth and leverage. These make for some of the most important aspects to consider when researching a potential investment.

  • Return on equity divides net income by shareholder's equity, highlighting the return a company generates for its equity base.
  • The EBIT -- short for Earnings Before Interest and Taxes -- margin provides a rough measurement of the percent of cash a company keeps from its operations. . I prefer using EBIT to other measurements because it focuses more exclusively on the performance of a company's core business. Stripping out interest and taxes makes these figures less susceptible to dubious accounting distortions.
  • The EBIT growth rate demonstrates whether a company can expand its business.
  • Finally, the debt-to-equity ratio reveals how much leverage a company employs to fund its operations. Some companies have a track record of wisely managing high debt levels, generally speaking though, the lower the better for this figure. I chose to use 5-year averages to help smooth away one-year irregularities that can easily distort regular business results.  

Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at Hormel Foods (NYS: HRL) and some of its closest peers.

Company

ROE (5-Year Avg.)

EBIT Margin (5-Year Avg.)

EBIT Growth (5-Year Avg.)

Total Debt / Equity (%)

Hormel Foods16.5%8.1%9%22.7%
Zhongpin (NAS: HOGS) 17.2%7.5%56.3%67.6%
AgFeed Industries (NAS: FEED) 14.8%9.9%189.1%58.1%
Pilgrim's (NYS: PPC) (42.7%)0.2%938.6%182.9%

Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company.

As far as past ROEs go, Hormel, Zhongpin, and Agfeed all produced respectable, but not spectacular, figures over the last five years. The same holds true with their average operating margins. Growth seems like the primary selling point for most of these companies, with three firms notching over 50% annual growth. Considering financial risk, Pilgrim's seems like the only company that looks alarming. However, these companies' respective financial performances only make up one part of the price/value equation.

How cheap does Hormel Foods look?
To look at pricing, I chose to look at two important multiples, price to earnings and enterprise value to free cash flow. Similar to a P/E ratio, Enterprise Value (essentially debt, preferred stock, and equity holders combined minus cash) to unlevered free cash flow conveys how expensive the entire company is versus the cash it can generate. This gives investors another measurement of cheapness when analyzing a stock. For both metrics, the lower the multiple, the better.

Let's check this performance against the price we'll need to pay to get our hands on some of the company's stock.

Company

EV / FCF

P / LTM Diluted EPS Before Extra Items

Hormel Foods14.316.4
Zhongpin(80.6)4.3
AgFeed Industries(3.5)NM
Pilgrim's(6.6)NM

Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company. NM = not meaningful due to negative earnings.

On the surface, these companies look pretty unappealing. Hormel looks slightly too expensive. Both AgFeed and Pilgrim's registered losses recently, resulting in the ugly numbers you see above.

On the whole, I don't see a lot of opportunity here at present. Hormel looks like the best option, with OK performance and OK price. However, investors should always demand a reasonable margin of safety for their investments. I'd rather pass on an OK opportunity than risk my hard-earned money overpaying for stocks.

While Hormel Foods stock doesn't look like a winning stock on the surface, the search doesn't end here. In order to really get to know a company, you need to keep digging. If any of the companies mentioned here today piques your interest, further examining a company's quality of earnings, management track record, or analyst estimates all make for great ways to further your search. You can also stop by The Motley Fool's CAPS page where our users come to share their ideas and chat about their favorite stocks or click HERE to add them to My Watchlist.

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At the time this article was published Andrew Tonner holds no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended writing puts in Zhongpin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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