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After Earnings: What’s Next for Intel?

I joined CNBC’s Bernie Lo on Asia Squawk Box to talk about Intel’s (INTC) prospects after a weaker-than-expected first quarter outlook:

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Intel sold off after hours on a modestly weak first quarter outlook, but fourth quarter results were actually very good. Revenues were in line with analyst expectations, and earnings per share actually beat expectations by a wide margin. The Street was expecting 66 cents per share for the quarter, and Intel delivered 74 cents. For the quarter, earnings were up 45%, and for the full year earnings were up 22%. All told, 2014 was a great year.

What spooked the market was the sanguine outlook for PC processors. The PC group, which makes up about 60% of Intel’s revenues, saw sales increase by 3% in the fourth quarter and 4% over the course of 2014. But the outlook for the first quarter was a little less optimistic than hoped.

It was my view going into the release–and the view of most Intel bulls–that strong corporate spending would lead to decent, if not quite spectacular, growth in the PC group. Companies have avoided computer upgrades for years, preferring to cut costs by squeezing an extra year or two out of existing machines. But with the existing stock of PCs aging and the employment picture looking up, companies will eventually have no choice but to spend a little more on their employees’ machines.

It’s also worth noting that we have a new version of Microsoft (MSFT) Windows coming out later this year that should unlock some pent-up demand. Windows 8 was a miserable failure. It was jarring, hard to learn, and its dual environments (traditional PC and modern “metro”) made no sense. Windows 10 eliminate most of the aspects of Windows 8 that users hated while also adding some nice “Apple-like” enhancements. PCs will never enjoy the growth they did in the pre-smartphone era, but I expect the second half of 2015 to be solid.

Meanwhile, Intel’s server business is on fire. Data center revenues were up 25% on the quarter and 18% for all of 2014. With big data analytics stronger than ever, Intel’s growth here should continue to impress.

Mobile is still an insignificant source of revenue, despite the ton of cash Intel has thrown at it. As I explained to Bernie, I would view Intel’ mobile presence as a “call option.” There is a good chance that, like most options, it expires worthless, but there is a small but significant chance it pays off in a big way.

Regardless, I still like Intel at current prices. The large surge of capital spending we saw a few years ago has subsided, which makes a lot more cash available for dividends and share repurchases. Intel spent $10.8 billion repurchasing 332 million shares of stock in 2014. And over the past 12 years, Intel has reduced its share count by nearly a third.

After a long two-and-a-half-year hiatus in which its dividend didn’t grow, Intel also announced late last year that it would be raising its dividend again. Intel took a break from raising its dividend to push more of its cash into capital spending. Well, those investments have now been made, and Intel will likely have a lot more cash on hand going forward. Intel raised its divided at a 18% annual clip over the past decade. That might be hard to repeat, but I certainly expect dividend growth that will outpace the broader market.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management and the author of the Sizemore Insights blog.

Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

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At Current Prices, Tobacco is No-Go

Back in December, I recommended that readerswatch their ash when investing in tobacco stocks.  In their hunt for yield in a seemingly yield-less world, investors had bid the price of most tobacco stocks to levels that no longer made sense.

Tobacco is a no-growth business and an industry in terminal decline.  As a case in point, American teenagers are more likely to use illegal drugs that to light up a cigarette.

In the circular logic of the stock market, the lack of growth is part of what has made tobacco stocks such fantastic investments in recent years.  Management doesn’t have to reinvest in the business or to fund an expensive marketing budget.  And there are no white elephant projects or unrealistic management spin.  They understand the economics of their business, and they do the only things that make sense: they pay out gargantuan dividends and aggressively buy back their shares.

But the key here is investor expectations.  Investors had low expectations for the sector and were unwilling to pay up for earnings. Ultimately, the success of any investment depends on the price you pay, and tobacco investors were able to enjoy monster returns precisely because the stocks were cheap.

Well, they’re not anymore.  Not by a long shot.  By Wall Street Journal estimates, the forward P/E on the S&P 500 is 13.5.  Philip Morris International (NYSE:$PM) is significantly more expensive than that, and Altria (NYSE:$MO) and Lorillard (NYSE:$LO) are essentially at the same valuation.

Company

Ticker

Forward P/E

Dividend Yield

Payout Ratio

1-Yr Div. Gr. Rate

Philip Morris International

PM

15.5

3.90%

63%

10%

Altria

MO

13.5

5.10%

83%

7%

Lorillard

LO

13.4

5.20%

71%

19%

Intel

INTC

9.9

4.20%

41%

7%

Microsoft

MSFT

8.6

3.30%

45%

15%

Cisco Systems

CSCO

10

2.70%

23%

75%

 

This should not be.  Tobacco stocks should not be more expensive than the rest of the market.

Yes, all pay significantly more in dividends than the S&P 500, which pays a pitiful 2.0%.  But look at the payout ratios.  All pay out the majority of their earnings as dividends, whereas the payout ratio of the S&P 500 is less than 30%.

Meanwhile, take a look at the technology stocks at the bottom of the chart.  Intel (Nasdaq:$INTC), Microsoft (Nasdaq:$MSFT) and Cisco Systems (Nasdaq:$CSCO) all trade for 10 times or less expected earnings, and all have modest dividend payouts with plenty of room for growth.  They pay a little less in dividends than tobacco stocks…but not that much less.  And their dividend growth rates are comparable (with the exception of Cisco, whose growth rate is off the charts).

Last month I joked that chipmaker Intel was my favorite “tobacco stock,” arguing that Intel had quite a bit in common with the likes of an Altria and its peers:

As the Big Tobacco has proven for decades, companies in declining industries can make excellent investments under the right conditions.  If you have a dominant market position (think back to Warren Buffett’s “moats”), a conservative balance sheet, and have ample cash flow for share repurchases and dividends, you can do quite well by your investors even in a shrinking market. It’s worked for Big Tobacco investors, and it will work for Intel investors as well.

The same could be said for Microsoft and Cisco.  Tech is the new tobacco.

To be fair, tobacco companies have certain advantages that “tobacco companies” like Intel lack.  A chemically-addicted clientele, for starters, as well as an unrivaled ability to raise prices virtually at will.  Whenever a progressive-minded (or cash-strapped) city decides to hike the taxes on cigarettes, the taxes flow right through to the customer.  Not too many companies have that ability.

But that said, I’m betting that Big Tech is a better investment than Big Tobacco.  Investors are expecting no growth from Big Tech.  So, if actual results prove to be even marginally better than disastrous, investors should enjoy a decade or more of solid gains.

Microsoft and Intel in particular may or may not ever figure out the mobile market.  But that’s ok.  Given that a zero percent probability is currently priced into shares, mobile success can be thought of as an embedded call option that could end up paying off in a big way.  And if that option is never exercised, you’re still getting the existing businesses at “tobacco” prices.

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Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

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My Favorite Tobacco Stock is…Intel?

Yes, you read that correctly.  My favorite “tobacco stock” is Intel Corp (Nasdaq:$INTC).

Lest you think I’ve lost my mind, I am aware that Intel does not sell or market cigarettes or other tobacco products. Intel is the world’s premier designer and manufacturer of computer processors.

But while Intel is not a tobacco company, it most certainly is a tobacco stock, or at least it shares many of their characteristics.

This requires a little explaining.  If you’ve read some of my past posts, you are probably familiar with my reasons for liking tobacco stocks over the long haul, even if I recommend avoiding them at current prices (see The Price of Sin and Time to Stop Bogarting Cigarette Stocks).  Because of the social stigma associated with vice investments like tobacco, alcohol and firearms, many institutional investors shun them, either by choice or by socially-responsible investment mandate.  This causes sin stocks to be priced as perpetual value stocks, with the low valuations and fat dividends that this entails.

Well, I admit, in this particular respect Intel has nothing in common with tobacco stocks (even if it is priced like one at the moment).  It’s hard to find a scale by which Intel would be considered socially irresponsible. But let’s take a look at some of the other characteristics that make tobacco stocks—and Intel—interesting.

Tobacco companies have gargantuan barriers to new competition—what Warren Buffett might call an unassailable moat.   Given the legal and political risk and the size and scale needed to deal with both, it would be next to impossible to start a new tobacco company now.  You would need infinitely deep pockets and decades’ worth of political connections. As a result, Big Tobacco has become an entrenched oligopoly in which a handful of players—such as Altria (NYSE: $MO), Reynolds American (NYSE:$RAI) and Lorillard (NYSE:$LO)—completely dominate.

But even if you could start a new tobacco company, why would you?  It’s not exactly a business with a bright future.  In the developed world, tobacco is a business in steady but terminal decline.

This brings me back to Intel.  I’m actually in the minority among investors at the moment in that I see a bright future for Intel.  No, they haven’t figured out mobile yet, but they will.  As mobile devices become more and more sophisticated, they will need the power than only Intel can provide.  And there is also the server business, which accounts for roughly a quarter of Intel’s revenues.  Ironically, while Intel has yet to really break into mobile, its server business has benefitted handsomely as the mobile revolution has created greater demand for cloud services.

Yet this is not how the market views Intel right now.  No, Intel is a company resigned to gentle decline, as its core PC market inevitably shrinks.  From the way Intel bears talk, PC users are disappearing from polite company faster than smokers, forced to type on their physical keyboards in alleys behind buildings or in doorways.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume they’re right.  Intel would still be a buy at current prices.

As the Big Tobacco has proven for decades, companies in declining industries can make excellent investments under the right conditions.  If you have a dominant market position (think back to Warren Buffett’s “moats”), a conservative balance sheet, and have ample cash flow for share repurchases and dividends, you can do quite well by your investors even in a shrinking market. It’s worked for Big Tobacco investors, and it will work for Intel investors as well.

At just 9 times earnings, Intel is priced significantly cheaper than any major tobacco stock, and its dividend is competitive at 4.3%.  I might add that Intel’s dividend has risen by over 40% in the past two years and that its dividend still only accounts for 37% of (depressed) earnings.

Buy Intel and reinvest your dividends.  If I am right, Intel will regain its place among America’s most reputable growth stocks.  But even if I’m wrong, Intel is positioned to offer “tobacco like” returns for the foreseeable future.

Note: The “Intel is a tobacco stock” concept was conceived during a podcast interview with InvestorPlace Editor Jeff Reeves in which we each discussed our picks in the 10 Best Stocks of 2013 contest.  Jeff’s choice was Intel; mine was German luxury carmaker Daimler (OTC:DDAIF).

Disclosures: Sizemore Capital is long INTC and DDAIF

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Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

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Listen to Charles Sizemore and Jeff Reeves Discuss Their Favorite Stocks for 2013 on The Slant

With the 2012 InvestorPlace Best Stocks contest completed, the contestants are gearing up for 2013.   Listen to Charles Sizemore and Jeff Reeves discuss their 2013 picks and offer their outlook on the year ahead.

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Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

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Warren Buffett Buying the Sizemore Investment Letter’s Picks

Lest I be accused of hero worship, I’ll spare readers another Warren Buffett lovefest article.  Yes, Buffett is a living legend, and yes, he is arguably the best investor of all time.  But these facts are nothing new, and there have already been more articles than I can count written about the man and his methods over the years.  Buffett has been elevated to something akin to a demigod in the minds of many value investors, and the art of investing like Buffett is a subject that has been thoroughly beaten to death by the financial press.

With all of this as a caveat, I’ll let readers in on a little secret:  I do like to keep tabs on what Buffett is buying or selling.

It is never a good idea to blindly ape the trades of another investor—even one with a track record like Buffett’s.  Due to the time lag in reporting with the SEC, an investor you follow may very well have sold the position you are copying by the time you buy it.  And what makes sense in that investor’s portfolio might make no sense at all in yours.

Still, given Buffett’s penchant for long investment time horizons, he’s a little easier to follow than most.  And, again, his track record over the years make him a man worth watching.

Imagine my pleasure this afternoon when I saw Berkshire Hathaway’s updated portfolio holdings for the third quarter of 2011 (see Warren Buffett’s portfolio).  Three out of Buffett’s five new additions were Sizemore Investment Letter recommendations.

Buffett initiated positions in SIL recommendations DirecTV ($DTV), Intel ($INTC), and Visa ($V).  His other two additions were pharmacy chain CVS ($CVS) and defense contractor General Dynamics ($GD).

While I was not invited to Buffett and partner Charlie Munger’s strategy sessions before these purchases were made (I’m sure my invitation was lost in the mail), I have a pretty good idea of what Buffett sees in DirecTV, Intel, and Visa.  Each is a leader in its respective industry, and all three benefit from durable, long-term macro trends.

Let’s start with DirecTV, the world’s largest provider of paid satellite television.  Given that TV-over-internet options like Netflix ($NFLX) and Hulu are increasingly crowding the turf of traditional paid TV—and given that the paid TV market in the United States is already saturated—Buffett’s choice here might raise a few eyebrows.

I can assume that Mr. Buffett’s rationale was the same as my own:  DirecTV is a direct play on rising living standards in the fast-growing markets of Latin America, where it already has 11.1 million subscribers (vs. 19.8 million in the United States).  Latin American revenues were up 46 percent in the 3rd quarter, due primarily to subscriber growth.  But even in the United States—where everyone already has paid TV service in one form or another—revenues were up 8 percent.  Not bad, given the precarious financial situation of the average American.  DirecTV is also very reasonably priced at just 10 times expected earnings.

Moving on to Intel, my only question to Buffett is “What took you so long?”

Intel absolutely dominates the market for computer processor chips.  But this very strength is what has caused investors to shun Intel.  You see, the PC is dead.  Smart phones and the iPad killed it.  And given that Intel is still quite weak in the mobile market, the company is resigned to be a slow-growth behemoth.  Who wants to own a dinosaur like Intel?

That story would seem to make sense at first.  The problem is that it’s simply not true.

The PC is far from dead.  Smart phones and tablet computers are growing at a much faster rate, of course.  And the PC market does depend more heavily on the corporate and enterprise market, which is not in the best of shape in this economy.  But tablets and smart phones do not replace a computer for most users.  And in most emerging markets, PCs are still very much a growth industry.

Intel’s revenues and earnings are growing at 28 percent and 17 percent year over year, respectively.  And that is in near recessionary conditions.  Meanwhile, the stock trades at just 9 times expected earnings and yields 3.4 percent.  At current prices, I consider Intel a safer investment than most AAA-rated bonds.

Finally, we come to Visa.  Visa and rival MasterCard ($MA)—also a Berkshire holding—have become somewhat trendy of late, but it wasn’t like that for most of the year.  Regulatory uncertainty cast a pall over credit card stocks, as did fears of a consumer slowdown.  Yet investors who were, in Buffett’s words, greedy when others were fearful did quite well in Visa and MasterCard.  Both are among the best-performing stocks of 2011.

Visa and MasterCard benefit from two powerful macro trends—the transition to a global cashless society and the rise of the emerging-market middle class.  As electronic payments become a larger share of commerce, credit and debit cards—as well as newer payment methods such as PayPal—will increasingly replace cash and checks.  And while this process is well on its way in the United States and other developed markets, it is only just beginning in most emerging markets.  This is a trend that will be with us for a while.

Visa trades for 14 times expected earnings, which is a bargain for a company with Visa’s brand, financial strength and growth prospects.

DirecTV, Intel, and Visa are all long-term holdings of the Sizemore Investment Letter.  And while Buffett’s reasons for purchasing may have been very different from our own, we’re glad to see the Sage of Omaha sharing our enthusiasm.

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Disclaimer: This material is provided for informational purposes only, as of the date hereof, and is subject to change without notice. This material may not be suitable for all investors and is not intended to be an offer, or the solicitation of any offer, to buy or sell any securities nor is it intended to be investment advice. You should speak to a financial advisor before attempting to implement any of the strategies discussed in this material. There is risk in any investment in traded securities, and all investment strategies discussed in this material have the possibility of loss. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The author of the material or a related party will often have an interest in the securities discussed. Please see Full Disclaimer for a full disclaimer.

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