Every time I start evaluating a stock as a potential investment, one of the first questions I have to answer for myself isn’t just about what the stock is doing right now; it’s about what price I think the stock should be at to represent an excellent value. As a committed value hunter, it really isn’t enough for me to say that a stock has great fundamental strength, or that its trend is moving the way I want it to right now. I also need to find a compelling reason to believe the stock should be worth significantly more down the road than it is today.
Of course, fundamental strength and a stock’s current trend do play a role in that evaluation – but not in exactly the way most investors think. Over the years, I’ve often heard people equate value investing with contrarian investing, and maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve come to appreciate the approach as much as I do. One of the basic ideas of contrarian investing suggests that the best investment opportunities lie in the areas that the market isn’t paying attention to right now; you’re going against the grain of the rest of the market and its trends. That’s one of the reasons that downward trends don’t concern me as much as they would if I were focusing primarily on shorter-term methods like swing or momentum trading.
The truth is that for me, downward trends represent one of the easiest ways to start spotting good value opportunities. That’s a primary reason that just about any time I write about a stock, you’ll usually see that it’s been following a downward trend for a significant portion of time. Sometimes, downward trends are driven by significant problems within a company’s business, problems that threaten the company’s well-being and ability to survive in an increasingly competitive world. Sometimes, however, those trends are driven more by external macroeconomic factors, or simply by negative investor sentiment that ignores the underlying strength of the stock’s business. Those are the opportunities that I look for, because those downward trends really just mean that the stock’s current price could be a bargain compared to where it should be.
Prudential Financial, Inc. (PRU) is an interesting study in value analysis. Like most stocks in the Financial sector this year, the stock has struggled to form any significant upward momentum; after peaking at around $127 in late January, the stock has dropped back significantly, touching an eight-month downward trend low at around $93 in the beginning of July. That’s a decline of almost 27%, which puts the stock squarely in its own bear market territory. Lately, however the stock has been stabilizing a bit and even looks like it is starting to build some bullish momentum. That, along with the stock’s mostly solid fundamental profile creates an interesting value proposition.
Fundamental and Value Profile
Prudential Financial, Inc., is a financial services company. The Company, through its subsidiaries, offers a range of financial products and services, which includes life insurance, annuities, retirement-related services, mutual funds and investment management. The Company’s operations consists of four divisions, which together encompass seven segments. The U.S. Retirement Solutions and Investment Management division consists of Individual Annuities, Retirement and Asset Management segments. The U.S. Individual Life and Group Insurance division consists of Individual Life and Group Insurance segments. The International Insurance division consists of International Insurance segment. The Closed Block division consists of Closed Block segment. The Company has operations in the United States, Asia, Europe and Latin America. PRU has a current market cap of about $41 billion.
- Earnings and Sales Growth: Over the last twelve months, earnings grew by a little over 44%, while revenue decreased almost 3%. That isn’t a great indication, but it is actually better than the results most companies in the insurance industry have reported, where earnings fell over the same period.
- Free Cash Flow: PRU’s free cash flow is very strong, at more than $15.4 billion. This number has more than doubled over the last year, when Free Cash Flow hit a bottom at around $6 billion.
- Dividend: PRU’s annual divided is $3.60 per share, which translates to a yield of 3.65% at the stock’s current price.
- Price/Book Ratio: there are a lot of ways to measure how much a stock should be worth; but one of the simplest methods that I like uses the stock’s Book Value, which for PRU is $116.53 and translates to a Price/Book ratio of .84 at the stock’s current price. The stock’s historical average Price/Book ratio is .98, suggesting the stock is almost 17% undervalued, with a long-term target price around $114 per share. The picture gets more interesting when you factor in the stock Price/Cash Flow ratio, which is currently running about 28.5% below its historical average. That increases the stock’s long-term target price to about $126.50, which puts the stock within spitting distance of the all-time peak it hit in January at around $127 per share.
Here’s a look at the stock’s latest technical chart.
- Current Price Action/Trends and Pivots: The red diagonal line measures the length of the stock’s upward trend until January of this year; it also provides the basis for the Fibonacci retracement lines shown on the right side of the chart. The stock’s downward trend from January to this point is easy to spot, and its stabilization range between support around $96 and resistance around $102 is well-illustrated by its price activity over the last few weeks within the 38.2% and 50% retracement lines. This a good early indication the stock’s current downward trend could be about to reverse; the longer that range holds, the more likely a strong move back to the upside becomes. In the same sense, a break at any point above the $102 level, accompanied by strong buying volume would provide a visual confirmation that the stock is actually in the early stages of a new upward trend. A break below support at $96, however should put investors on notice that the downward trend remains in force, with a push below $92 acting as a signal that trend should extend into an even longer timeframe.
- Near-term Keys: If you like the stock’s value proposition at its current price, and are willing to hold the stock for the long-term, you could do much worse than to buy a high-dividend paying stock at the kind of discount PRU is offering right now. If you’re looking for a way to work with shorter-term strategies, you would need to wait for a break above $102 to buy the stock or start working with call options, or a drop below $92 to short the stock or start using put options.