Friday, October 20, 2006

Headwaters (HW)

Adding value to energy… and possibly your portfolio.

Value investing involves finding a discrepancy between the price of a security and the value of the underlying company. Some people criticize value investing as boring or too prone to overlooking growth opportunities. But what happens if a solid, cash producing business was integrated with a research group intent on finding synergies to generate additional earnings from current operations, and also on finding important new breakthroughs to fuel growth further down in the company’s life?

That company would be Headwaters (ticker: HW), which has three distinct operating divisions - construction materials, coal, and alternative energy. Before I get into valuation, here is an overview of Headwaters’ various segments.

The materials unit currently makes up a majority of earnings and revenues, and involvement in that industry was management's decision to diversify the more risky and cyclical energy operations which offer most of the growth potential. While revenues have undoubtedly been raised by the housing construction boom, only about one-third of Headwaters sales in the area are for new housing construction, so any decrease in revenues and earnings because of fewer housing starts should be minimal. Wisely, there are already some synergies within the company because Headwaters converts used coal into concrete additives and synthetic stone. The use of fly ash-based concrete reduces atmospheric pollution, and as such is endorsed by the federal government and all fifty states for government contracts. Fly ash is also finding its way into mortars and stuccos, which Headwaters sells. Over the last few years, Headwaters has been making capital expenditures to expand its distribution network and establish itself in the field of building supplies. The conservative scenario is for Headwaters to keep capital expenditures in-line with revenues and earnings, so no marginal decrease in free cash flow rates should occur from the Materials division. Look for solid earnings and consistent growth.

The coal division is involved in coal combustion and by-product utilization (see above). Headwaters makes using coal inherently more efficient, and then also finds ways to add value to the byproducts after it has been used to produce energy. Coal remains a cheap, easy way to generate power and with the volatile and increasingly expensive, coal will become even more important in generating energy, both in America and around the globe. There are over 150 proposed coal-fired plants in the U.S. (not to mention hundreds more in other parts of the world), and environmental groups, while usually unable to stop construction, can at least get laws applied to make the coal “cleaner”. Headwaters is perfectly positioned for such a trend, offering both emissions control should coal be burned and is developing coal-to-liquids technology to allow for the creation of synthetic crude oil or natural gas from coal.

Considering that approximately 95% of America’s energy production capacity comes from coal, an amount significantly greater than can be found in the oil reserves of the Middle East, the uses for coal, and coal-to-liquids technology, seem abundant.

The final and most dynamic division is the Technology and Innovation unit, which does research in the alternative energy and heavy-oil areas. For everything you hear about the Canadian oil sands, regular refiners have enough problems handling and grade worse than light, sweet crude. As the remaining supplies of light, sweet crude are extracted, eventually more inferior grades will need to be refined… all the way to tar sands, which is proving the most difficult to handle. Headwaters’ (HC)3 Hydrocracking technology allows for heavy oil to be upgraded to more easily refined grades. Additionally, Hydrocracking can be used on low quality distillates remaining after the initial refining to turn them into higher-value petroleum products. A quick value-added calculation shows that it could easily be a multi-billion dollar addition to the economy, and if Headwaters' maintains its standard operating margin of 11% on it (not to say that it couldn't be higher, but I'm being conservative) it could double earnings just from capturing the upgrading market. If HC3 gained wider use as light oil blends decline and refiners increasingly switch to heavy oil, that could add even more to the bottom line. The high-side estimate for "upgrading" profits is about $600 million. Such a number does not include any profits to be made from applying Hydrocracking technology to the Canadian Tar Sands, as for now that is still too speculative to count on as a potential future revenue.

Headwaters is also involved in nanotechnology and fuel cell research, with numerous potential applications. Their proprietary NxCat nanotechnology is claimed to be the most efficient nanoagent created, outperforming today’s standard catalysts. More uses are being tested involving hydrogen peroxide production, LED displays, and carbon nanotubes. These potential breakthrough, while difficult to value directly, should be treated like having a free call option on an exciting and potentially lucrative future investment.

Current financial status and valuation: Headwaters has had a rough several months, with the rise in oil prices leading to a phasing out of tax credits benefiting some of Headwaters synthetic fuel catalysts. Headwaters has gone from $40 to near $20 back to $25 in the last few months as analysts have cut short term earnings estimates. Having become interested in this stock the first time it traded down through $25, I will admit to becoming bullish too soon and trying to “catch the falling knife”. The stock has begun to swing back up on some positive news, and buying now will mean that, although you missed the first 20% of the move, there could still be plenty of profit ahead.

For a company capitalized at just over $1 billion to have a trailing twelve month free cash flow of $150 million is amazing. HW does have about $500 million in debt, but I'm not too concerned about that because of the large cash flows which can be used to pay that down. They have cut total outstanding debt by 30% since the end of 2004, and the SEC filings say that Headwaters is prohibited from paying a dividend until it has no outstanding long-term liabilities. As long as Headwaters continues to pull in so much cash, their debt position should be no problem. Taking into all the above factors, if the company can eke out a moderate growth in the high single digit range over the next few years, a conservative exit multiple off that free cash flow makes HW undervalued by 35% - or about $35 per share. When you think of the huge potential gains down the road from the many growth areas the company has, its easy to see how this could be a $40 or even $50 stock sometime in the next year or two. is a free stock market simulator and forum. The author has no financial position in any stocks mentioned.

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