Seems like I’m seeing a lot more of David Gardner over the last month than I had for ages — he’s the growth-focused half of the Motley Fool brothers, and this time around the pitch is for his “aggressive growth” newsletter Rule Breakers. This letter has brought us a lot of interesting ideas in the past, including Akamai (AKAM), Baidu (BIDU), Universal Display (PANL) and Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), and also plenty of lesser performers — as you’d usually expect with an advisory focused on breakthrough growth stocks with expensive-looking valuations, when they pick the wrong stock the pick can look very bad very fast, as with folks like Harris & Harris (TINY) or Sigma Designs (SIGM).
As with most aggressive growth newsletters, subscribers plan for the small number of huge winners to outpace the large number of losers — and, if you’re a subscriber who can’t buy all 40+ stocks in their list, you hope that you pick the best ones. So is the pick that Dave Gardner is pitching today going to be a breakthrough gainer (or a “Spiffy Pop,” as they like to call ‘em), or will it be a dud?
Let’s figure out who it is first, shall we?
Here’s the intro to the letter:
“Your credit card may soon be worthless. Here’s why …
“The Three Little Letters Your Credit Card Company Doesn’t Want You to Know About…
“Soon, you’ll be seeing them everywhere you go. That’s because they’re about to make the plastic in your wallet obsolete — and set off the biggest gold rush we’ve seen since the dot-com days.
“Google, Apple, Nokia, and Microsoft are all desperately battling to stake their claim — but YOU could get rich by simply snapping up shares of the little-known company behind this credit-card-killing technology before everyone else does.
“Everything you need to start cashing in is revealed below…”
The letter does a good job of describing the hugely profitable development of credit cards, from the days when Diner’s Club paved the way to a new way of transacting business to the point where it’s now a multi-trillion dollar industry.
And as with all of Gardner’s “Rule Breakers,” the stock has already shot up (that’s one of his qualifications — the stock has to already be on the move, and has to be considered “overvalued” by the cognoscenti, among other triggers, before he likes it) …
“… over just the past nine months — as the smart money has begun quietly pouring into this stock — its shares have shot up as much as 245%…”
So what’s the big idea here? We’re being told that there’s an upstart payment technology that’s threatening credit cards, and it’s called near field communications (NFC) … here’s how they put it in the ad:
“But now three little letters are threatening to put an end to the party — and make early investors countless millions…
“Granted, you may not be familiar with the term ‘NFC’ yet — but mark my words, the technology behind these three letters is about take the world by storm…
“In fact, Barry McCarthy, President of Mobile Commerce at First Data, says that it will soon be ‘the way to pay, ultimately eliminating your dependence upon credit and debit cards, checks — and even cash.’
“And a recent article on CNNMoney.com says the arrival of this technology has started an all out ‘gold rush on the next e-commerce frontier.’ From the look of things, that’s no exaggeration, either….”
The idea is not just that there are wireless payment systems available — we’ve seen these kinds of “smart cards” and payment keyfobs in lots of applications, and they’re becoming fairly widespread if not all that widely used (I have a little RFID chip in one of my credit cards, for example, so when I remember I can wave it over the pay terminal at McDonald’s instead of swiping the magnetic strip … of course, I never remember).
No, the idea is that this NFC capability will be built into more and more smartphones — we get a long spiel about how all the names you know are developing or already providing this capability hard-wired into their phones, including Research in Motion, Nokia, Google, Microsoft, and, of course, Apple. We also get an official-looking chart that projects sales of these NFC-capable phones to hit 93,166 this year, and then climb steadily to over half a million by 2015.
The projections go on, as in this excerpt:
“But make no mistake, this isn’t just some fad or pie-in-the sky idea… it’s the future of money — and it’s going to spark the biggest payment revolution we’ve seen since Frank McNamara unleashed credit cards on the world.
“You don’t have to take my word for it, though…
“According to Forrester Research, over 12% of people in the U.S. and 6% of people in Europe have already paid for something using a mobile device… and The Wall Street Journal reports that $32 billion worth of purchases were made using mobile devices last year alone. But get this…
“Experts at Generator Research predict that number will jump to a whopping $633 BILLION by 2014 — and that some 490 million people around the globe will be using this technology within two to three years.”
So how do we invest in this? We know that most of the phone companies and all of the credit card companies are working on these technologies and networks — so what’s Gardner’s pick?
Hardware — which in this case means “chips” … here are the clues:
“only a handful of highly specialized companies have the state-of-the-art skills, artful know-how, and exclusive patents needed to build the complex components that allow NFC technology to function in the first place.
“And the company I’m about to introduce you to stands head and shoulders above all the rest…
“In fact, not only is this company the clear leader in this explosive new industry (analysts conservatively estimate it could control as much as 70% of the market — not to mention it’s the exclusive provider of all NFC components for Nokia-based smartphones)…
“But it actually helped to invent this world-changing technology — making it far and way the most trusted and highly regarded company in its field.”
And let me issue a friendly, “thank you” to the Foolies for supplying some nice, numeric clues as well — that always helps the Thinkolator operate without overheating too much …
“Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Ericsson, Dell, HP, Cisco, and even Apple are already all top clients — yet no single client accounts for more than 10% of sales (meaning it has a highly diversified and therefore very-stable revenue stream).
“Speaking of which, last year this company saw its NFC-based revenues shoot up an impressive 41% (especially good news when you consider that this is the highest-margin segment of its business) — while overall revenues climbed a solid 25%…
“And in their most recent quarterly conference call, management noted that over the past year, both gross and operating margins have improved significantly…
“They also reported that the company has been able to more than double its free cash flow, while reducing its debt by nearly $575 million — leaving it in the best financial shape in its history.”
And one more little batch of clues, just to get you riled up?
“Of course, given that this high-flying company operates in this exciting new field of technology, you might assume its just some sort of born-in-a-garage Silicon Valley startup with no real track record of proven business know-how. But that couldn’t be further from the truth…
“In fact, this company actually operated as a division within one of the most well-known electronic companies in the world for over 50 years before being taken over by one of the world’s leading private equity firms and then spun out as a stand-alone company…
“Today it holds nearly 14,000 patents, employs some 28,000 people, and has operations in more than 25 countries — yet it’s still virtually unheard of.”
So who is it? Well the Thinkolator didn’t have to chug too hard at all to tell us that this is … NXP Semiconductor (NXPI)
NXPI was spun out of Philips a while back (that’s the “well known electronics company”), and was loaded up with debt by a leveraged buyout firm then taken back to the public markets fairly recently, but it does have a long operating history.
So although the balance sheet doesn’t look so great — it’s going to take them years to pay down that debt, and the debt is almost as high as their market capitalization even after the stock’s huge run — but the only reason it doesn’t look so great is that we’re not used to looking at semiconductor companies with big debt loads. We get used to seeing folks like Intel or ST Microelectronics with large cash hoards and no debt, which is kind of what you expect from what is usually a high margin business — especially since so many semi companies don’t even operate their own capital-intensive foundrys but are “fabless” and just design and market the chips.
The debt level of $4.6 billion for a company with a market cap of $6.8 billion would be refreshingly unleveraged in many other industries, so everything is relative — the only other big semiconductor company I can think of offhand that has a bit debt load is Freescale Semiconductor, another leveraged buyout company, but they won’t be coming public for a few more days. NXPI seems to be perfectly capable of paying the debt burden, particularly if they’re able to continue growing their NFC chip business — they are indeed the current leader in that segment, and it makes up the lion’s share of their earnings.
NXPI was a weak IPO when it was taken public by their private equity backers last year — it priced below the expected range of $18-20 or so to trade around $14 when it opened, then fell quickly to nearly $10 before it began to climb. The climb was pretty dramatic, hitting $35 or so largely because of the excitement over this NFC chip business and on solid growth numbers, but the stock has fallen back a bit to the $27 range — perhaps that’s why the ad says that Gardner is “convinced there’s never been a better time to snap up shares.”
The other overhang from the IPO is that their former parent, Philips, and the buyout leaders KKR and Bain Capital each own a big chunk of the stock — I don’t know what their lockup period is like, or if they’ve done any additional selling yet, but KKR and Bain between them hold 36% of the stock, and I assume that we should expect them to want to gradually get out of the shares or lighten those holdings, which might pressure the stock if they get into any kind of hurry to sell.
So … this is a relatively large company, with a market cap of about $6 billion, and if you look at an Enterprise Value/EBITDA valuation (to account for the debt) it’s trading at about twice the valuation of INTC or STM, and a bit above Texas Instruments (TI), but it’s hard to compare all these different types of companies in a direct way given their various specialties. EV/EBITDA is about 10 for NXPI, and analysts are projecting something in the neighborhood of $2.40 per share in earnings this year and $3.20 next year, so the valuation is certainly reasonable for that level of growth.
It’s clear that NXPI chose a good year to go public, though they might have done better if they waited a few months — last year was when their margins turned up significantly, and when they started generating free cash flow and real earnings. I expect the reason the stock isn’t higher still is that they’re leveraging themselves to this NFC chip business for future growth, and there will be more competition in that field, and that they’re still tarred by that large debt load so more cautious investors who are comparing NXPI to other semiconductor companies, almost all of which carry net cash on their books, might want to make sure NXPI can actually generate the cash to cover those interest payments. It sure looks like they can, if the analysts are at all right about their earnings and if the prognosticators are right about the mass adoption of NFC payments in the years to come, but, of course, nothing is guaranteed.
And no, this won’t destroy the credit card companies — in fact, my bet would probably be that what we’ll end up with is credit card-branded dominant FCN payment networks (Visa, MC, etc.) who are in partnership with telecom companies and whichever hardware companies have the power to demand a cut (like Apple, maybe Google). That’s just my guess, the business is certainly in both flux and growth mode, so I have no idea how it will really shake out, or if, indeed, people will actually grow to like and demand this seemingly “inevitable” payment technology (to be fair, it’s been called “inevitable for more than ten years now, though perhaps the technology is now catching up to the futurists) — it’s an infinitesimally small business right now compared to credit cards, but certainly lots of smart folks expect dramatic growth.
Given the state of flux in the business now, perhaps it makes sense, as Gardner seems to be pitching, to look at the biggest chipmaker in the field as the lowest common denominator — they might not always control such a big market share, but they’re starting with a strong share in the early days, so there’s a bit less uncertainty than their might be for some other players … and heck, the CEO has even said that if someone offers them a huge premium they’ll sell the company again, so perhaps we can hope that they’re not run by idiots.
And compared to other stock ideas that have come from our favorite “Rule Breaker” in recent months, it’s not expensive (OK, it is expensive on trailing earnings, but not on forecasted earnings — so you have to have some faith that the analysts are on track), so we’re talking about a PEG ratio (again, assuming the analysts are right) of well below 1, bargain territory which belies the newly public, highly indebted, new market uncertainty that should be part of any assessment of the stock.
If you’re looking for other chip companies with a NFC product, many are developing for this market but Qualcomm (QCOM) seems to be the other large player in the field — and though NXPI is certainly not a “pure play” on NFC, it certainly looks like one compared to QCOM.
If you’ve got an opinion about paying for your gas with your cell phone, or have a bone to pick with NXPI’s projection that their FCN unit sales will double in each of the next two years, let us know with a comment below. I’m finding myself to be actually a little bit skeptical about the broad potential of the NFC payments “revolution” in the near term, but I might just be a bit too stodgy — and it’s probably true that even a minor level of adoption by consumers could increase hardware demand considerably, since the growth is starting from such a low level.
And if you’ve been a Rule Breakers subscriber in the past, we’d all love to hear what you thought — just click here to submit a brief review for your fellow investors over at Stock Gumshoe Reviews (Rule Breakers is currently the top-ranked Fool newsletter by our readers, but that’s based on a very small sample). Thanks!