With six days left in the first half of 1990, a lot of stock investors are getting their pencils out and tallying up whether they made any money.
Given that this column regularly discusses stock ideas with analysts, money managers and market gurus coast to coast, it seems only fair to relate some of the hits and misses that were printed here.This is not meant to be an endorsement of short-term trading tactics. That a stock is up or down sharply in the space of a few months may mean very little in the long run. And considering the market's shaky outlook, buying any stock today with a time horizon of less than two years is a high-risk move - because it may take at least that long to make a good return.
The real value in reviewing stocks' short-term moves is in checking to see if the "story" behind individual stocks has changed - in other words, to make sure that the reasons for owning them still are valid, whether the stocks are up or down.
So here is a look at some of the stock winners and losers from the first half, and what the experts say about those stories now. For comparison, the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index is up 1.4 percent year to date and up 11 percent from its winter low.
-ENGINEERING-CONSTRUCTION (Market Beat topic on Feb. 7): Fluor Corp., based in Irvine, Calif., was a hot stock in 1989, and it has not slowed much this year. Since Feb. 7, Fluor has jumped another 17 percent, after a 57 percent gain last year. Mark Cremonie, research chief at Chicago-based Capital Supervisors, was a Fluor fan in February and still is. But he admits he is a little worried now.
Fluor is reaping all sorts of new contracts to build manufacturing plants worldwide. But in the quarter ended April 30, operating earnings were basically flat while revenue soared. Fluor's problem: high costs involved in ramping up for all the new business. Wall Street quickly forgave Fluor, figuring there is tremendous profit potential there. But Cremonie warns that earnings will have to get back on track this quarter. "If this turns out not to be a short-term thing, someone else is going to get an opportunity to get my stock," he says.
-HIGH TECH (Feb. 9): Many die-hard technology stock fans were pounding the table for these issues in January and February, arguing that Wall Street was only beginning to realize that the stocks were unfairly depressed. The bulls were right: High-tech has been the market leader this year, led by such stocks as computer disk drive maker Conner Peripherals and desktop computer software producer Autodesk - up 60 percent and 22 percent, respectively, since Feb. 9.
Has the long-term story changed? The bulls do not think so. One big reason for their optimism is the rising demand for American computers and software overseas. The optimists see a new cycle of strong computer sales unfolding worldwide, after the slowdown of the late 1980s.
The problem with tech stocks, though, is the same as always: Wall Street expects good earnings results every quarter. That is tough for the companies to deliver in this fast-changing field. And when a company disappoints, its stock gets murdered. Witness what happened to disk drive maker Seagate Technology and to software firm Oracle Systems in the spring.
The only answer for individual investors: If you cannot afford a well-diversified portfolio in this promising but volatile industry, stick with mutual funds. The average high-tech stock mutual fund is up 14 percent year to date, best of all fund categories, and triple the average stock fund's 4.3 percent gain.
-OIL SERVICES (Feb. 23): The price of a barrel of oil has plunged 28 percent this year to $15.65. Yet investors who bought into oil services stocks as late as the end of February still have made money for the year. Baker Hughes, for example, is up 8 percent since Feb. 23. Ocean-eering International is up 19 percent.
Why haven't the stocks collapsed? Because many big investors continue to believe that energy is going to be a growth field in the 1990s, despite the current glut of oil. And after the shakeout of the 1980s, "there just aren't that many companies around" to provide drilling and other services, says Jerry Mill, manager of the Financial Programs Energy mutual fund in Denver.
"It's a waiting game now," says Mill, who holds Baker and Oceaneer-ing in his portfolio. He believes the oil services stocks will take off again later this year, when investors start focusing on the winter heating season. "When fall comes, these stocks are going to do very well," he says.
-GROWTH STOCKS (discussed in several columns, winter and spring): Buying "growth" slowly became fashionable again this year on Wall Street. Investors forgot about takeovers and asset values and started looking for the basics - companies whose earnings were growing at an above-average pace. The hunt still is on.
The beneficiaries of this shift in thinking are a diverse lot. They include Syncor International, based in Chatsworth, Calif., the largest maker of radiopharmaceuticals - drugs used with nuclear imaging cameras to view body organs. Bateman Eichler, Hill Richards Inc. analyst Rae Alperstein estimates that Syncor earned 30 cents a share in the year ended May 31 and sees 50 percent earnings growth this year. Growth-hungry investors have bid the stock up 35 percent since early March, to $9.25.
Meanwhile, Boeing Co. also has become a premier growth stock once again, thanks to its gigantic backlog of jet orders. And toymaker Mattel has picked up new fans on the expectation that the company will show consistent growth over the next few years, helped by old favorites (Bar-bie) and new lines (the Simpsons).
Investors who fear that growth stock investing will fall out of fashion soon just need to ask themselves one question: What is going to replace growth? Takeovers are not coming back soon, and asset values do not mean much when assets cannot easily be sold. The driving force on Wall Street in the early 1990s has got to be earnings growth, because there simply is not anything else.
-REAL ESTATE-FINANCE: Savings and loan stocks, home-builders and financial services companies all look cheap, on paper. But the analysts who touted these stocks in the first half of the year have mostly worn egg. As long as worries persist about rising interest rates and the health of the banking system, real estate and finance stocks are not likely to return to health soon.
Barbara Allen, a Kidder, Peabody & Co. analyst, still rates Kaufman & Broad Home Corp. stock a "buy." She thought it was undervalued at $13.625 in mid-April. At $12 now, it may be more undervalued. But "the only people buying these stocks now are the long-term value players," Allen concedes.