The Motley Fool folks have been sending around a promo email that teases a “Project Purple” stock that they think will “dominate the hundred-screen future” — it’s all about the proliferation of screens in our lives, and the incredible advances made by one “secret” company.
And yes, I know that some of you will have guessed the name just from that headline — this isn’t a shocker, and it’s a company you’ve probably heard of (we’ve certainly written about it many times, and it’s been teased by a handful of newsletters in the past).
But let’s keep that delicious suspense going for just a wee bit longer, shall we? The pitch is about a fortune that’s waiting for you in a small town in rural New York (not far from where your friendly neighborhood Gumshoe grew up, actually) — we’re told that …
“This sleepy border town is home to 11,183 people, two museums, and one unbelievable secret….
“Right this very moment, in a small town in rural New York, the CEO of one little-known American company is keeping a key in the back pocket of his trousers.
“That key opens the door to his company’s Research and Development laboratory.
“And once that door is open, nothing you own will ever be the same….”
Oooh, just makes you feel all tingly, don’t it? Here’s more:
“From Ford and Apple to Samsung and Sony, earth’s biggest companies are already gearing up for it–and the $14.4 trillion market that it’s about to create.
“But don’t take my word for it…
“Just head to the United States Patent Office and check for US 20130044215…
“Or US 20130044042…
“Or US 20030018703…
“You’ll quickly find that those patent applications are proof that the way we live — the way we interact with the physical world around us — is about to undergo a radical transformation.
“And that the action you take today could have a transformative effect on your personal wealth.”
So what is the story behind this company? And what’s about to happen? Here’s a wee bit more:
“The Harvard Business Review can’t stop talking about it… ‘the phenomenon is global… [but still] in its earliest phases’
“CEOs across the globe are holed up in boardrooms, trying to reshape their billion-dollar businesses around it.
“It’s an unstoppable technological shift that started with those gadgets at your kitchen table…
“But by the time it’s over, it will have spread to your garage… and your kitchen… and your office… and even your bedroom!
“I’m not joking. This megatrend will open up an entirely new world.
“A world where your refrigerator tells you the weekend weather forecast…
“Where your shower curtain reminds you about that early meeting…
“And your car changes colors with the season…
“It stands to truly transform nearly every aspect of modern life.
“And for a few investors who act before Sept. 7, it could create mountains of cold, hard cash.
“Sales of mobile phones, tablets, and other ‘smart’ devices are expected to double over the next five years — from a little over 1 billion units sold in 2012 to approximately 2.2 billion by 2017. Tech research firm IDC thinks that all those gadgets will account for more than $814 billion in sales.”
So yes, this is another teaser about the “smartification” of everything — except, apparently, ourselves, as each little device seems to make us a little dumber. Not that I can resist them — but it used to be I could remember the weather forecast for more than 30 seconds … now, I have to re-check my smartphone 20 times a day just to see what it’s like outside. Even if I’m already outside.
And what’s the company that the Motley Fool folks say is on track to provide another 1,000% gain (as it’s already done once in “recent” years, we’re told)? It’s not a smart phone or smart fridge maker, but a supplier to the “screens” industry. And we won’t make you sign up for their Stock Advisor newsletter to get your answer.
It is, of course, Corning (GLW), the former Corning Glass Works. Which is headquartered, no surprise, in Corning, New York — a small company town that does boast two impressive museums, both of which have some connection to the company. Worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.
And not at all secret — they are a dominant company in the global advanced glass and ceramics businesses, and they had a tremendous run in the dot-com boom that was fueled by their fiber-optic cable business … and then a bust as the fiber business suddenly died (it’s coming back now, but slowly — Google is actually using a lot of that “dark fiber” that was buried and installed but never used, and Corning is actually selling a decent amount of cable again). That crash led GLW shares down to below $2 a share, so it would have been possible to get roughly 10X returns if you had bought at the bottom … but it was a very sharp and pointy bottom on the chart, they bounced back pretty quickly (though not fully, of course — the dot com boom had them over $100 for a brief while, the shares have mostly been in the mid-teens to low-$20s over the past five years).
That bounceback was thanks to the next big trend in consumer electronics after the dot com boom — HDTV. HDTV brought us flat screen televisions, LCDs and Plasmas, and those required a huge new supply of high quality glass. In comes Corning to lead the way in producing LCD glass for the multitudes as almost every television in the developed world became obsolete and was replaced.
But then we got a glut of LCD glass — more producers built up capacity to sell glass for those huge flat screens, new factories and companies were formed, and then … blah. The capacity was built up for what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime TV replacement cycle, since 3D television hasn’t really caught on yet, and investors (and manufacturers) gradually realized that people weren’t going to replace their new flat screen HDTVs every two or three years. Televisions pre-HDTV had been on a 8-10 year replacement cycle, kind of similar to appliances like dishwashers or refrigerators, and no one quite knew what the new cycle would be.
Now Corning is saying that indications are that the cycle will be 6-8 years, with incremental improvements and larger sizes bringing folks who bought their TV back in 2007 to replace it now, etc. etc. So perhaps things will stabilize now — but it’s been a rough few years as Corning has faced the pricing pressures brought on by all the new capacity that was brought on to supply glass to the TV manufacturers. That pricing pressure has certainly continued to bring the retail prices down — so even as glass demand grows with the TV screens getting larger, the margins are clearly tightening for suppliers when you can get a pretty high-end 50-inch TV for $500 (a similar TV would have cost you $2,000 in 2009).
The story for Corning in recent years has been Gorilla Glass — the high-strength glass they developed decades ago but didn’t have a use for … until Steve Jobs came calling for a new strong, scratch-resistant and pocket-ready glass for the phone Apple was developing (and yes, “Project Purple” was Apple’s internal code name for what became the iPhone). Gorilla Glass and it’s competitors are now in all the smartphones and tablets you can probably think of, but Corning wasn’t particularly successful in trying to get TV makers to upgrade to Gorilla for their televisions — no one wanted to pay extra for a stronger TV screen. You don’t touch them or scratch them much, and replacement costs continue to fall so protecting against the odd chance of shattering the screen with a thrown shoe wasn’t worth the money.
So Gorilla Glass has been doing well, but glass is sold by area — so big spikes in sales of 50-inch TVs have a much bigger impact on Corning’s top line sales number than do spikes in sales of 4-inch smart phones. It’s unlikely that Gorilla Glass or mobile displays will bring in more than 10-20% of income for Corning in the next few years, I think, even though it’s likely to grow much faster than the TV/display glass business — mobile and devices and the proliferation of small screens will help, but they also serve to distract us from the fact that Corning does best when there’s increasing demand for increasingly large and technically challenging LCD screens. If we get to the point that we all feel we need 120-inch TV screens on our walls in a few years, Corning will be delighted.
The company isn’t just a Gorilla Glass story, of course — that’s just what caught the attention of most investors in recent years as a growth story to replace the rapid revenue growth that they enjoyed from the HDTV replacement cycle now that the LCD glass business seems to be mature. They also have continued to improve the clarity of glass for TVs with their Lotus Glass, gotten thinner with Eagle Glass, etc., but those haven’t made headlines like the gorilla … what seems to be next in line, thanks largely to the enduring connection to Apple, is Willow Glass.
Willow Glass is a thin, flexible glass that can be produced in rolls and enables curved surfaces — so some folks have been speculating that it will be a big hit in wearable computing, perhaps including the rumored iWatch from Apple that may be coming out this year or next. Willow Glass probably won’t actually be ready for prime time by then, since it’s been a pretty revolutionary change for manufacturers and designers to incorporate into new products, and there are other competitors with flexible or curved class capabilities, but it does seem to be the next “hot story” product even though I think we’re a ways off from knowing whether Willow will make any waves in Corning’s income statement.
And how do the financials look? Well, stable and slow growth seems to be the expectation — Corning has traded at a substantial discount to the overall S&P500 for three or four years and earnings have been dropping for about three years. Analysts are expecting a resumption of earnings growth now, so GLW trades at about 13X trailing earnings and 10X next year’s expected earnings, with a decent 10% or so growth rate expected that gives them a Price/Earnings/Growth (PEG) ratio of almost exactly one. Interestingly, GLW also trades at almost exactly book value (and has for a couple years now).
Corning has not been a “dividend growth” darling in the past and hasn’t necessarily pushed for that designation like so many “old tech” names like Xerox, Intel, Cisco and Microsoft seem to be doing of late, but now that their business is a bit more mature and their cash position is solid it appears they’re taking that path — the dividend has doubled since 2011, and I expect they’ll probably continue to raise the payout.
So … is it a world-changing stock that you have to own? I find it hard to make that argument. It is a great and extremely innovative company, and if we’re finally resolving the problems of the LCD glass supply glut then they can resume earnings growth, but Corning’s innovative advances don’t necessarily turn into rapid revenue or earnings growth as quickly as the headlines sometimes intimate, it takes time for new technologies to get adopted and build a market (and design the products to use these new, more advanced materials). Corning is a large company, with a market cap of about $20 billion, and it’s likely to continue to do well but I think it’s actually priced pretty well right now — I said last Fall that I’d be surprised if it got over $15 anytime real soon and it did get briefly up to about $16 this Spring, but it’s right around $15 now and, given the growth prospects and the weak earnings in recent years, seems pretty fair.
I don’t know whether Corning products will play any substantial role in the TechCrunch Disrupt SF conference on September 7, which the Foolies tease as a catalyst point by which you “have to own” the stock … but usually news from those conferences relates to, as you would guess, disruptive startups that have revolutionary new products — whatever happens at that conference in any Corning-related way, if anything, is likely to be swamped by news of the next iPhone or iPad or iWatch rumor, since Apple’s next products are widely expected to be coming out in September.
If I owned GLW I’d probably hold it, but I don’t have a compelling argument about whether the next 20% move in GLW will be up or down — if it’s fundamentals we’re talking about, it all really depends on margins and revenue growth in the LCD display business… but GLW has also been a really volatile and story-driven stock despite it’s large size, so some kind of snazzy Willow Glass-enabled iHeadband or iKneeBrace that lets you watch The Bachelorette while you bicycle might give the the stock a boost, too. If you’ve got a GLW opinion, feel free to shout it out with a comment below.
Disclosure: I do own shares of Apple, Xerox and Intel, which are mentioned above. I don’t own any other stock mentioned, and won’t trade any stock covered for at least three days per Stock Gumshoe’s trading rules.