Top 4 Staffing Stocks for an Improving Economy

staffing stocks
staffing stocks

NEW YORK -- We all know someone who has been stuck in a job they dislike but, due to a weak economy, has had little choice but to suck it up and stay put.

Not anymore. The U.S. economy has suddenly shifted into a higher gear, and "help wanted" signs are popping up at many more companies. As a result, many workers will soon start to sniff around, seeing if they can land a better job elsewhere.

That's great news for staffing firms. From executive recruitment firms to temporary staffing agencies, the whole industry should benefit.

To get a handle on Friday's jobs report and what it means for future gains, you need to look back at historical patterns. In the early 1990s, after companies laid off many employees, they froze hiring. It wasn't until early 1993 that more than 200,000 jobs were being created on a monthly basis. But the hiring upturn created a virtuous cycle as companies scrambled to hire talent before rivals could snatch them away. As a result, non-farm payrolls grew by more than 200,000 per month for much of the next six years.

Are we on the cusp of a sustained jobs boom? It's too soon to tell, but if we see another 200,000 jobs created in each of the next few months, then a clear trend will have been established.

Here are some names that may benefit.

Robert Half International

Thanks to a focus on professional staffing, especially in IT, Robert Half International (RHI) never took a deep hit from the economic slowdown as companies preserved spending on hard-to-replace technology staffers. As a result, sales rose from $3.2 billion in 2010 to $3.8 billion in 2011.

Still, that's well below the $4.6 billion in sales that Robert Half took in back in 2006 and 2007. EPS of around $1 in 2011 is roughly half of what the company earned a half-decade ago.

Might Friday's jobs report be putting Robert Half on a path back to peak performance? Well, the national unemployment rate would need to move below 7% for that to happen, as that is when job-hopping really kicks in.

In addition to its exposure to the IT field, Robert Half has a strong reputation among accounting and finance clients. The company maintains a strong network of relationships with existing professionals, and can offer prospective employers a wide range of choices.

"Knowing that Robert Half has a quality supply of resources, employers often use it as the vendor of choice for their staffing needs. These factors feed upon each other to create one of the most formidable job networks and narrow economic moats in the staffing industry," note analysts at Morningstar.


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Manpower Group

Staffing firm Manpower Group (MAN) saw its shares tumble this summer, and they have only partially recovered. That's because this Wisconsin-based firm also has a great deal of exposure to Europe, which accounts for 66% of sales.

Still, that exposure hasn't hurt results as badly as you'd expect. In the most recent, Manpower noted that European results were up in every country compared to a year ago. And that enabled the company to beat EPS forecasts by more than 10%.

Make no mistake, the European job market will lag the U.S. job market. Analysts expect U.S. employment to keep building from here, but don't expect that to be the case in Europe until at least the second half of 2012.

Analysts think Manpower's EPS will drop around 5% this year to around $3.10. Merrill Lynch has the lowest EPS forecast on Wall Street, anticipating EPS of just $2.70, but it also thinks results will sharply improve after that, with EPS hitting nearly $4 by 2014.

Shares of Manpower trade for roughly half of what they fetched back in 2007, and for long-term investors, this staffing stock may have the greatest upside as it slowly regains lost ground.

Kelly Services

Kelly Services (KELYA) got a powerful 10% lift from Friday's jobs report. That's only a mild salve in the wound of investors that had seen the stock fall nearly 20% the day before. Kelly had just delivered quarterly results that reflect a still-sobering job market. Operating income fell 25% from a year earlier. And EPS would have been 29 cents were it not for a one-time tax gain, trailing the 42-cent consensus forecast.

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At this point in the economic cycle, this is a company in transition. Kelly has seen its revenue mix shift in recent years towards temporary staffing, which carries slim profit margins. The company's permanent placement segment carries much firmer margins. The good news: companies that had been heavily relying on temps are likely to shift their focus back to permanent employment as the broader economy strengthens.

Of all the staffing stocks, this may be the best bargain, trading for less than its $18 tangible book value. The dowdy valuation may be the result of overly cautious management guidance. Management said earlier this week that sales in the current quarter will rise only modestly from a year ago. That forecast was issued before Friday's stunning employment surprise.

In all likelihood, Kelly Services is positioned to meet or even exceed their current forecast. For long-term investors, it's worth noting that shares of Kelly Services trade for half the levels seen five years ago.

On Assignment

For investors who aren't fully convinced that the U.S. is on the cusp of a jobs boom, On Assignment (ASGN) is a more conservative play. The company provides staffing in health care, biotech research, engineering and other niches that aren't economically sensitive. That focus is what the company calls the "math and science" niche.

Management tends to downplay expectations as evidenced by the fact that On Assignment has topped EPS estimates by at least 14% for four straight quarters. This staffing firm will release quarterly results on Feb. 14, and if history is any guide, an upside surprise may be in the offing.

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