Tesla a Bright Spot in Still Dim, but Improving Electric Car Industry

Photo of Nissan Leaf S courtesy of evworld.com

Photo of Nissan Leaf S courtesy of evworld.com

Anyone watching the still slow but improving progress of the electric car industry may have seen the Bloomberg Businessweek story on the “Tale of Two Electric Car Makers: Tesla Soars, Fisker Flops” (http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-05-08/a-tale-of-two-electric-car-makers-tesla-soars-fisker-flops). Tesla Motors not only produced a profit in the first quarter, as advertized, but also increased its guidance on sales for the year, from 20,000 to 21,000 cars. TSLA revenues were up 83 percent year-over-year to $562 million and the stock is soaring (see below).

While the article outlines supply chain and battery issues and other “kinks in its processes” Tesla needs to iron out, their stock is soaring and the outlook looks good. The contrast was provided by Anaheim, CA-based Fisker Automotive, which is laying off employees and hiring bankruptcy consultants, the article reports. Another electric car maker, Los Angeles-based CODA Automotive, recently filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it was “focusing its business strategy on the growing energy storage market,” according to a company filing.

For more positive electric car news, the BBC posted an article this week on the Nissan Leaf (http://www.bbc.com/autos/story/20130509-leaf-charges-into-mid-life) as it “charges through mid-life.” The Leaf, billed as “the first truly global mass-produced electric vehicle,” now includes the Leaf S, a lower cost model “designed to lower the barrier of entry to EV ownership.” One of the cost cutting moves was to move its assembly line from Japan to another Nissan factory in Smyrna, TE.

The BBC put the Leaf through its paces and managed to get 75 miles from a full charge, right about in line with Nissan estimates. Competitors mentioned in the article include the Toyota Prius PH-V and Ford C-Max Energi, both plug-in hybrids.

If anyone out there is charged up about the electric vehicle market, and knows of a small cap stock play in this market, please let us know. Meanwhile, we’ve been following a few small caps, plus Tesla to see how their stock is moving. We’ve also added a new company, Car Charging Group, to our list.

Palo Alto, CA-based Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA, http://www.teslamotors.com/) manufactures the Tesla Roadster, the Model S and other electric vehicles and electric powertrain  components. It’s way too large for our small cap blog focus, but just as a reference, the last time we looked at Tesla last February 20 it was trading at $38.90 with a market cap of $4.4 billion. As we mentioned, TSLA stock has been on a huge roll. It closed May 15 at $84.84, up $1.60 for the day. Its 52-week trading range is now $25.52-$97.12.

Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP (OTC: ZAAP.OB, http://www.zapworld.com/) makes a variety of all-electric vehicles including trucks, motorcycles, shuttle buses and sedans and was formerly known as ZAPWORLD.COM. When we last checked on Feb. 20 its stock closed at $0.08 with a market cap of $24. ZAAP closed May 15 at $0.14, up 3 cents for the day, with a market cap of $42 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.06-$0.27.

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com/) was formerly known as Maxwell Laboratories. The company manufactures ultracapacitors that are energy storage devices and power delivery systems for use in transportation, automotive, IT and industrial electronics.  MXWL closed back on Feb. 20 at $10.01 with a market cap of $292 million. It closed May 15 at $6.36, up 11 cents for the day, with a market cap of $185 million. Its 52-week trading range is now $4.90-$11.08.

Miami Beach-based Car Charging Group (OTCQB: CCGI, http://www.carcharging.com/) caught our eye with the announcement March 12 that it was acquiring EVPass, a company building destination charging networks for EV charging. CCGI  is also in the business of building charging station networks and has been busy making more acquisitions. Earlier this month, CCGI announced it had acquired 350Green LLC. CCGI closed May 15 at $1.34, up 4 cents for the day, with a market cap of $70.8 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.60-$2.

This Big, Bad, 949-Horsepower, Million Dollar-Monster Is a Hybrid

If you are a fan of electric and particularly hybrid vehicles, and more people apparently are every day, you have to like the spectacular news coming out of Ferrari and the recent report from Autodata Corp., a research firm.

Photo courtesy of automonthly.blogspot.pt

Photo courtesy of automonthly.blogspot.pt

Let’s start with Ferrari, which unveiled its La Ferrari supercar in Geneva in March. Yes, Ferrari’s “biggest and baddest” car these days is a hybrid, according to the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/business/autos/la-fi-hy-autos-hybrid-20130330,0,2070748.story). It’s a V-12, “949-horsepower, million-dollar monster” that also has two electric motors and recharges its batteries with regenerative braking and the engine’s excess torque.

Who knows how many La Ferraris will actually sell, but the good news from Autodata is that hybrids are certainly selling faster than ever. Hybrid sales in the first two months of 2013 are up 32 percent over the same period last year, according to the Times report.

While overall marketshare is still low, about 4 percent, the fact that Ferrari is now in the hybrid market underscores the fact that that hybrid technology “is being taken seriously by virtually all the automakers,” noted analysts in the Times, including Nissan which introduced a new hybrid version of the Pathfinder at the New York Auto Show in February after dropping out of the hybrid market a few years ago. Overall, hybrids deliver 40 percent better fuel economy than conventional gasoline-powered cousins of the same model.

As we have noted earlier, the Prius is now the best-selling car in California, the nation’s largest auto market, and they’re apparently reliable. Not only are they now being used as taxicabs, which take a notorious beating, but the Times story notes that Toyota reports that 90 percent of all Prius cars it sold since introducing the model are still on the road. 

The story includes a note that one large Houston Ford dealership reports that its sales of hybrids are up 400 percent from a year ago. Nationally, Ford reports it’s selling 3,000-4,000 of its C-Max hatchback hybrid, a direct competitor to the Prius V station wagon, according to the Times.

While Toyota’s hold on the hybrid market has dropped from 73 percent to 63 percent, thanks to competitors like Ford, the overall market size is much bigger, meaning “both automakers are sharing a bigger pie,” noted the Times.

Unfortunately, hybrid vehicles are difficult to link directly to small cap stocks. So we’ve taken some liberties and included companies like Tesla Motors, which makes electric vehicles and is a mid-cap, and Axion Power International, which makes a battery used in a hybrid 18-wheeler made by a private company called ePower.

Palo Alto, CA-based Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA, http://www.teslamotors.com/) manufactures the Tesla Roadster, the Model S and other electric vehicles and electric powertrain  components. The last time we looked at Tesla last on Feb. 20 it closed at $38.90 with a market cap of $4.4 billion. But it came out with promising news this week, saying car sales nearly doubled in the first quarter of 2013 compared to the fourth quarter, and expects to turn a profit. TSLA closed April 2 at $44.34, up 41 cents, with a market cap of $5.1 billion. Its 52-week range is now $25.52-$46.68.

New Castle, PA-based Axion Power International (OTC: AXPW, http://www.axionpower.com/) has developed a specialty PbC battery technology designed for micro- and mild-hybrids, as well as an advanced energy storage device. A private Pennsylvania-based company, ePower, is developing 18-wheeler hybrid trucks with the Axion PbC batteries. Axion closed April 2 at 26 cents, down 1 cent for othe day, with a market cap of $30 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.20-$0.47.

Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP (OTC: ZAAP.OB, http://www.zapworld.com/) makes a variety of all-electric vehicles including trucks, motorcycles, shuttle buses and sedans and was formerly known as ZAPWORLD.COM. Most of its business at this point is with government or military customers. When we last checked on Feb. 20 its stock closed at $0.08 with a market cap of $24 million. It closed April 2 at $0.17, up 2 cents on the day with a market cap of $51 million. Its 52-week trading range is $0.06-$0.27.

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com/) was formerly known as Maxwell Laboratories. The company manufactures ultracapacitors that are energy storage devices and power delivery systems for use in transportation, automotive, IT and industrial electronics.  MXWL closed Feb. 20 at $10.01 with a market cap of $292 million. It closed April 2 at $4.98, down 17 cents for the day, with a market cap of $145 million. Its 52-week trading range is $4.92-$18.33.

Does the ‘Car of the Future’ Have a Future? Tesla Says Yes

Does the “car of the future” have a future? That’s the question Time magazine asks as the end of its recent story on electric cars that ran under the headline “Electric-Vehicle Acid Test” (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2134523,00.html). While more and more battery-powered and hybrid vehicles are being introduced and prices continue to be slashed, sales continue to disappoint. Nonetheless, Cadillac, Fiat, Ford and Honda have announced that they will launch new all-electric vehicles this year.

Auto analysts say the biggest hurdle electric cars face is range, according to Time. Pure electric cars like the Nissan

Photo courtesy of Motortrend.com

Photo courtesy of Motortrend.com

Leaf list a range of about 80 miles before it needs a recharge, which can take hours. The Tesla Model S electric car boasts a range of 265 miles, although that’s currently the source of much debate, based on a kerfuffle kicked up by New York Times reporter John Broder’s test drive (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/automobiles/stalled-on-the-ev-highway.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0&pagewanted=print). When Broder reported that the Model S failed to live up to the range claims,  among other issues, Tesla founder Elon Musk took offense and offered other reporters a similar test drive to prove Broder was misleading readers and failed to fully recharge the batteries. Incidentally, Tesla reported its fourth quarter/year end results Feb. 20 and reconfirmed its guidance that 20,000 Model S vehicles will be sold this year and, in what was a new outlook, said the company will be profitable in the first quarter of 2013, not later in the year as they had guided investors earlier.

There’s little debate the fact that electric and hybrid vehicle prices are being slashed considerably. The lease price of the Nissan Leaf, which was about $449 per month in 2010, is now $139 monthly. Time reports that General Motors executives say the cost of next year’s Chevrolet Volt “will be thousands of dollars cheaper than last year’s.”

So how does a small cap investor play the electric and hybrid vehicle market? Here are a few randomly chosen options:

Palo Alto, CA-based Tesla Motors (Nasdaq: TSLA, http://www.teslamotors.com/) manufactures the Tesla Roadster, the Model S and other electric vehicles and electric powertrain  components. It’s too large for our focus, but just as a reference, the last time we looked at Tesla last September 19, 2012 it was trading at $31.05 with a  market cap of $3.3 billion. It closed Feb. 20 at $38.90, down $0.38 for the day with a market cap of $4.4 billion. Its 52-week trading range is now $25.52-$40.

Santa Rosa, CA-based ZAP (OTC: ZAAP.OB, http://www.zapworld.com/) makes a variety of all-electric vehicles including trucks, motorcycles, shuttle buses and sedans and was formerly known as ZAPWORLD.COM. Most of its business at this point is with government or military customers. Its stock, which traded for 20 cents last March 13, 2012 with a market cap of about $45 million, closed Feb. 20 at $0.08, no change on the day. Its market cap is now $24 million and 52-week trading range is $0.06-$0.21.

San Diego-based Maxwell Technologies Inc. (Nasdaq: MXWL, http://www.maxwell.com/) was formerly known as Maxwell Laboratories. The company manufactures ultracapacitors that are energy storage devices and power delivery systems for use in transportation, automotive, IT and industrial electronics.  MXWL closed back on March 13, 2012 at $18.69 with a market cap of $522 million. MXWL closed Feb. 20 at $10.01, down 48 cents for the day. Its market cap is now $292 million.

Mary Lisanti: Continued Corporate Earnings Growth in 2013 (When the Federal Government Resolves the Budget)

Mary Lisanti is president and portfolio manager of AH Lisanti, an investment management company currently focused on small cap growth companies. She is a 33-year veteran of small cap growth research and investing. For the first 12 years she was a small cap analyst and strategist on Wall Street. During the past 18 years, she has managed small cap portfolios at premier asset management companies. As CIO of ING Investments LLC, (1998-2003) she was responsible for building the active equity management team, and assets under management in her area grew from several hundred million to several billion dollars. Prior to ING, Mary was at Strong Capital Management as Senior Portfolio Manager for both the Small Cap Growth and Mid Cap Growth Strategies and was Managing Director and Head of the Small/Mid Cap team at Bankers Trust Company. Mary was named Fund Manager of the Year in 1996 by Barron’s. She was named #1 small cap analyst in 1989 by Institutional Investor’s All-Star Research Team. In addition, she was ranked #2 and #3 in 1987 and 1986 respectively.

Mary-headshot

I had the pleasure of talking to Mary just before the New Year’s holiday at her office near Rockefeller Center.  We had first met in the late 1980s when she was interested in a technology company that proposed the radical idea of a keyless car ignition or computer security system using a fingerprint.  Interesting how what seemed futuristic now seems almost as old hat as, well, men on the moon.

JA:  How are you feeling about the year ahead?

ML:  Undecided.  I’ll give you some positives and some negatives.  One big positive is that corporate profit growth will still be decent.  Corporations are at very high profit margins, but when you break down what’s going on, there’s no reason they shouldn’t go higher.  Virtualization – the use of cloud computing, and other aspects of today’s high tech should help them cut costs.  For that trend to stop, two things would have to happen: a long period of negative revenue growth, accompanied by fast-rising wages.  Neither of those things is happening.

That will be a positive for the market.  Corporate profits are growing 8-10% and we believe that can continue, and that is widely dispersed across the board.  Small caps can grow even more,we believe, although again there will be wide dispersion in individual results.  This will be a classic stockpicker’s market.

The biggest negative for the market is that we cannot seem to govern ourselves.  That weighs on multiples.  That’s why, four years into this recovery, multiples are still low, particularly when you take into account where interest rates are and how  GDP growth, although below trend, continues to chug along at 2% or so.  In that scenario, logic would have it that multiples would be in the range of 18-19, but they are not.  Why not? I believe it is because of our inability to govern. Politicans are behind the curve;as they usually are, in addressing our structural issues to bring the long term deficit issues under control. Will they address the longterm issues or not?  If they do so now, it will require only modest changes to entitlements and spending. The extent to which we address those issues will affect the performance of the market going forward.

It is psychologically important to multiples: if you can slow the growth in spending at least a bit, you give people more confidence.  In the Clinton years they managed to slow the rate of growth in spending, and Clinton left office with a surplus.  I believe we will spend most of 2013 arguing about entitlements and other budget issues.  Next year it will be the Democrats saying no to entitlement reform, just like this year it was Republicans saying no to taxes.  I don’t know how much it is possible to get done, because it is being done in a fishbowl and from ideological positions that don’t accommodate compromise.

If they do not get something done, I fear that US debt will get downgraded again.

JA:  And would any of the DC politicians feel responsible if that happened?

ML:  I do not believe so, no.  Politicians, in my opinion, are in the business of passing the blame.  If there were another downgrade, it would affect President Obama’s legacy, and I don’t think he wants to be the president who oversaw two debt downgrades in his time in office.  Both sides will have an incentive to compromise and hopefully they will.  The biggest risk to all of us, and to the market, is that the dollar loses a bit of its luster as the currency of last resort.

When you look at Japan and China and Europe, they are getting their act together with regard to being attractive places to invest and could even potentially be attractive as reserve currencies in a few years.  My biggest concern is that we permanently change corporate behavior: if you have a climate of uncertainty for long enough you make people afraid.  Business overall has been clear with Washington that the uncertainty is damaging.  R&D tax credits, farm and agriculture bills, accelerated depreciation – Congress has been handling these as though they were annual issues, and they’re not.  They affect multi-year planning.  When the R&D tax credit was put in place in the early 1980’s, it was in place for 4.5 years.   That would be better—it would give businesses the ability to plan longer term..

These and other things are casualties of this ideological warfare in Washington.

JA:  What do you see as strengths in 2013?

ML:  It is an enormous positive that housing is recovering, and the recovery should continue, assuming Washington does not cut the mortgage deduction..  Unemployment is declining, although it is declining too slowly.  And we have cheap sources of energy.  . A number of industry sources believe that we will be energy independent in the next decade or so, which is a huge positive for our manufacturing competitiveness.

When you look at these things, once we make it through this budget and debt-ceiling problem, things look a lot better.

Governments all over the world have been spending money to fix the problems that caused the recession, and odds are that things will not fall apart again soon.  Over the past several years, we have had a major issue every year that has “terrified” us: last year it was the potential breakup of the Euro and Greek debt default, and this year it was the budget crisis in the U.S. Beyond the budget crisis, I do not see an issue that has the potential to scare investors as much as these two issues have. We should enter a period of more “normalcy,” where macro issues take a backseat to fundamental issues, and that change should allow multiples to increase. But belief in a more stable future will come slowly.

JA:  What should we look for in 2013 when we look at investments?

ML:  As small cap growth investors, we look for earnings growth.  But one of the great positives in this market is that there are many ways to make money in the market.  When I came into the business in the late 1970s, you could make get 7-8% returns several ways.  You could make money with yields –- those companies with no earnings growth offered very high dividend yields, say about 7%; those companies with earnings growth offered more modest dividends, say 2-4% dividends and 4-5% annual growth in earnings.  Growth stocks offered  very little in the way of dividends, but you could get capital appreciation as earnings would increase 10% to 15%.annually. Then, as we moved through the great bull market of the 1980’s and 1990’s, we got to the point where dividends were out of favor and capital appreciation was the only way to make money.. Now dividends are back and once again there are multiple ways to make decent returns in the stock market, depending upon one’s tolerance for risk..That is very, very positive for the equity markets.

JA: How about sectors?  Any of special interest, or any you would avoid?

ML:  There are good companies in every sector.  I would not recommend the utilities, but there are very good opportunities in materials, energy, consumer products and services, industrials and financial services,  In most of these the small caps usually have something unique about the way they do it, or the technology they apply to it.

Tech spending is not forecast to be up much in 2013.  There will be winners and losers.  We need to keep in mind that the corporate world is moving toward Software as a Service, which allows them to stop buying perpetual licenses, and to pay as they use software.  They are going from buying licenses and maintenance contracts, and now are basically paying just for what they use.  Same with cloud computing.  So they are going from spending $20,000 on software and a server to paying $1,000 month.  So even though tech spending is forecast to be close to flat, the companies that will be winners will have SaaS and cloud computing.  These trends will hold down spending.  It’s hard to see how the semiconductor companies are going to prosper in that environment, unless it is the specialty chipmakers who are specialized in populating ever-smaller chips with ever-larger amounts of circuitry for tablets and smart phones – or those companies that are specialized in the ability to manage the signals for those tablets and phones.  But other than those two, I don’t see a lot of growth there.  And I would be careful about traditional license-oriented software companies.  .

JA: What about healthcare companies?

ML:  Interesting.  It’s hard to guess how ObamaCare will play out.  There are some longterm secular trends in healthcare that are worth keeping in mind.  Keep your eye on the value proposition: better, faster, cheaper, more automated.  One of the most interesting areas is the second generation biotechs.  Think about AIDS, for instance.  Over the last 25 years it has become a livable disease – that is, we haven’t cured it, but we can make it possible to live with it, and to do well, not just to survive for a few more months.  Now the industry is working to make cancer livable in the same way; there are whole new classes of drugs that enable people to live with cancer, and not to just be blown away by it in a short time.  Possibly we are spending the same amount of money making cancer livable as we used to, but now we’re spending it over a longer period, and not all at the end of life.  Diabetes monitoring, for instance – the closer we get to continuous glucose monitoring, the better for diagnosis and treatment; One of our investments is Dexcom (DXCM), which has a promising technology for that.  All those big diseases are interesting, and medicine is getting its arms around them too.

JA: How about healthcare IT?

ML:  It has historically been mostly about billing and insurance, but now the future is to move on to quality of care.  Since we have had health insurance as a society, the focus has been on what you might call “industrial metrics,” such as how many patients you can process.  Now the quality of the outcome is more important, and best practices are more important.  There will have to be penalties for readmissions of the same patient.  Mobile apps for monitoring things like blood pressure, glucose, heart problems and blood gases – these things are going to become standard practice over the next 5 to 10 years.

JA:  You mentioned the impact of technology on industry.

ML:  There are lots of new beginnings now, along with outmoding of old things.  Software as a service and the use of the cloud – this is the biggest piece of cost to cut.  If you can cut your IT costs you have overall better margins, and better processes too.  And industrial automation is interesting too.  The first generation of automation concentrated on, for instance, lasers to cut steel.  Now automobiles are being made with lighter materials, so new lasers are needed, lasers to cut nonsteel materials.  Aerospace is an interesting area for this.  Two things that are driving aerospace are new materials that lower weight and cost, and a continuing cutback on oil-based materials.  There is a bit of a renaissance going on in aerospace.

One of our investments is IPG Photonics (IPGP) for the new lasers needed to deal with new lighterweight materials.  Another is Polypore International (PPO), which is making the membranes needed for new electric vehicles like the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. By the end of 2013, they are expected to be supplying membranes for 24 models of cars.  That goes back to the fact that fuel efficiency standards by 2025 will be at 54.5 mpg.

Another of our investments is Aspen Technology (AZPN), which basically supplies SaaS for factories and plants.  If you are a refinery, for instance, you are required by law to take your systems down every so often for maintenance and test for a number of things such as safety and pollution.  Doing that manually is difficult; it can be done, but it is hard, and if you are global it is harder.  Aspen automates all of that, and they are in a field by themselves basically.

JA:  And energy?

ML:  The shale revolution will be a big job creator, and the move toward natural gas for vehicles is important.  Fleets will be moving to Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), and we believe the infrastructure will be built out for CNG refueling.  Federal Express, UPS and the other big fleets will be the drivers.  We are interested in Westport Innovations (WPRT) for the CNG engines.  And we are watching Clean Energy Fuels Corp (CLNE) for the CNG supply chain, but big oil will be the installer.  We also believe solar will become economical to use, with panels on the roofs, for instance, of warehouses, and power being sold back to the grid when it is not needed.  Between the increased supply of natural gas, shale energy, coal, oil and renewable, we can get to be energy independent.

JA:  How about housing?

ML:  Housing is fascinating.  What happened with housing is what happened with autos.  Now after a period of low sales, we probably need as a nation to do some catching up.  We could need 1.7 million new housing starts for a couple of years.  That would double the current rate.  The Echo-boomers (who used to be called Generation Y) are starting to buy houses; their demand for houses is growing at 5% per year, and will grow at 10% per year soon.  My personal opinion is that this housing cycle will be a long one, similar to what we saw after the housing collapse in the mid 1970’s. In the first few years, we will see a catchup in pricing, but after that we believe housing prices will probably go up a couple of percentage points per year. If they implement the rules on mortgages that are being talked about, the housing market will become a lot steadier and more stable, more like the Texas market, where they tightened the downpayment requirement and favor 30-year-fixed mortgages.  That will be positive for the housing market and for consumer confidence.

There is nothing better for consumers than to have their biggest asset become more valuable every year.  Three years ago if you hadn’t already lost your job, you were still afraid you might lose it.  Your 401(k) and your house were devaluing.  This recovery is more like the late 1970s than the 1990s.  People got burned in the mid-70s and it took a long time to feel better.  When we are operating at full potential, we should have 3-1/2% to 4% GDP growth, and that will come eventually.

JA:  And in 2013?

ML:  I think GDP this year will be 2-1/2% overall because of federal and state problems, but corporate GDP growth will be a good bit better than that, assuming there is a budget deal at some point.  The first half of the year if we watch the government argue about spending, it could be a bit of a damper on growth.  If we regain faith that the politicians will be able to compromise and come up with some answers, the market will go higher.  Having our debt downgraded shook everyone’s confidence.    So the market is at 12-13 times earnings as a result.

If we get a budget deal we could get much stronger investor confidence, but in the short term, our ability to govern ourselves is the big issue.  Once that is resolved, the market will lift.

JA:  Thanks, Mary.

For AH Lisanti:  For financial intermediary use only.  Not for use with investing public.

The information provided should not be considered a recommendation to purchase or sell any particular security.  It should not be assumed that any security transactions, holdings, or sectors discussed were or will be profitable, or that the investment recommendations or decisions we make in the future will be profitable or will equal the investment performance discussed herein.  The views expressed reflect those of the portfolio manager as of 12/31/2012.  The portfolio manager’s views are subject to change at any time based on market and other various conditions. The performance reflected herein is not representative of performance of AH Lisanti individually managed accounts or comingled vehicles that AH Lisanti advises.

 

Buzz Zaino: Royce Fund Manager Sees Strong Growth Upside for 2013, Boosted by Housing, Transportation, IT Spending

ZainoB_gBoniface A. (“Buzz”) Zaino is a portfolio manager advising several of the high-profile Royce Funds, to wit, the Royce Opportunity Fund and associated funds. By any measure a veteran of the industry, Buzz has more than 40 years of experience in the financial services industry, the last 14 with Royce. I first met him when he was managing the Value Added Funds for Trust Company of the West more than 20 years ago, but prior to that he was president of the Lehman Capital Fund and a principal of the “original” Lehman Brothers. He went to school at Fordham, and took his MBA from Columbia. In 44 years, Buzz has seen enough economic cycles to offer an MBA from the University of Zaino.

Buzz agreed to talk about his 2013 outlook from his home in Aspen which, like much of the US snow belt, has seen little of the white stuff so far this year.

JA: It seems generally agreed that the US economy is growing at a slower pace than it has coming out of previous recessionary periods. What is your outlook for 2013? Will the economy continue to grow, and if so, will it grow at the same rate, faster or slower?

BZ: The reason that the US economy has had a slow lift-off has been that coming out of recessions in the past, the Fed has lowered interest rates, and people took that opportunity to buy houses and cars. This recession was different, because the banks were not giving out money, because money was scarcer and because bank lending standards were significantly more stringent. So there was a hiatus and it took a lot longer for the economy to recover. The recovery finally started this year, 2012, and it is finally beginning to give a boost to the economy, especially as construction gets going again. That boost is going to continue, and it will help us accelerate in 2013. But the recovery was complicated by the fact that Europe went into recession. American companies tend to be worldwide in scope, and caution at the top levels helped bring inventory levels down due to the European recession. That meant that capital spending was also muted. I think that capital spending is also constrained in anticipation of the budget settlement that is still out in the future. A “normal” recovery was delayed until 2012, and then delayed again by the European recession. But those delays now give us the opportunity to accelerate as 2013 progresses.

JA: Will we get a budget?

BZ: Sooner or later, yes. We will get a budget deal out of Congress. Once we have that deal defined, we can go forward from there. That will be a positive, and will be on top of the acceleration we can expect from normal factors like housing and auto sales. We could get a nice surprise in 2013. But we’re cautious about January.

JA: Why is that?

BZ: Most managers will make their January decisions based on their December orderbooks, and we don’t think the December orderbooks will be strong enough to give them confidence, but as we go into February and March, a lot of the inventory build-up will have started to occur, so the orderbooks will look better. And the trade between China and the US is expanding again, after a period of slower growth. We think that could have an increasing effect, especially after the Lunar New Year. By the end of the first quarter, growth could be looking quite good.

JA: The harsh talk by Washington DC and Beijing won’t slow down that growth?

BZ: The China-US trade is too big a market for both sides, and politics will not interfere with it. Certainly the Chinese government’s expansion plans are not going to be held back. There are Chinese hotel companies looking for hotel properties in the US – to build or to buy. Very smart people, and I don’t think either side is going to let politics inhibit our trade relationships. Nothing is going to come of the yelling.

JA: Will the growth rate be higher going into the second quarter then?

BZ: I think we could have a weak-ish economy and market in January, like I said. Everyone will be paying higher taxes, at least with FICA deductions back in everybody’s paychecks. With orderbooks in December that may not be strong, managers and consumers could still have their hands in their pockets. If we have a warm winter like we had last year, we could have more construction starts. If we have a cold, snowy winter, those starts could be delayed, and the weak period could extend through January. We are looking very favorably at housing. Housing is still somewhat depressed, but the housing stock is aging — and mortgage money is more available than it was a year ago. And the automobile fleet is aging and will need to be updated, as will the commercial truck fleet.

JA: Do you think the growth rate will exceed 2%?

BZ: Yes, better than 2%, but maybe not in January. But after that it could be substantially more than 2%. Four to five percent would not be out of the ballpark, although 5% would be at the high end of probability. And the market would react to that. If the market is down – and cheap – they don’t want to buy, but if it goes up 15%, everybody wants to buy. If UPS starts to replace its fleet and buys trucks, all the others will update their fleets at the same time. It’s much cheaper to run your truck or your fleet on CNG (compressed natural gas) too. A town near Aspen has converted their entire bus fleet to CNG, and although they can fuel up at the bus barn, there are additional CNG stations being built. Boone Pickens and his group are encouraging these new CNG fueling stations. We’re surprised that trucking companies are not moving faster than they are toward natural gas. We have an investment in a building materials company and I asked them if they are considering CNG, and they said they had not looked into it, but they would. Conversions to CNG are not expensive. Ford and GM are now offering pickup trucks with CNG engines.

JA: Is there going to be a fiscal cliff solution?

BZ: Eventually. Whether or not it happens before December 31, there’s no way to tell. But the congress can pass a continuing resolution to postpone the cuts and tax increases while they work on it. Eventually this Mexican standoff will be resolved. And by the way, the fiscal cliff does not seem to be a big motivator for the American consumer. They need to replace things, and they are not overly concerned with the big picture as long as the economy seems to be getting healthier.

JA: What sectors are going to do better as the economy improves?

BZ: IT spending will pick up. There is a big pent-up need factor here, and it has been a relatively easy way to postpone expenditures for the last couple of years. Windows 8 is very much under-rated. It takes a while for people and corporations to decide to make a big change like the change to Windows 8, but it will be very good for PC companies. Corporations need to have the latest and fastest. Technology in corporate environments needs to be the newest and most capable. Areas like IT are why you can think of higher growth rates. After this hiatus, there is enough pent-up need to start a new momentum.

JA: How about healthcare IT?

BZ: I went to see my physician in New York, and he is one of the best, highest-rated doctors in his specialty. He was really annoyed that he was going to have to convert my file, which is a manila folder with all kinds of paper and bits of paper in it – to computer files. I thought, hey, this is 2012, get with the plan.

JA: How about housing? Any areas there where investors ought to be looking?

BZ: We have had a good run with housing companies, and we think that will continue. One area that may have real potential is mortgage insurance companies. It is a fairly narrow field, and some people infer from the papers that these companies may not be able to cover their losses. The reality is that housing prices could be moving up at a rate of nearly 1% per month in the near future, and as a result those liabilities would be decreasing. Mortgage applications for refinancing were up last week 47% year over year. That’s a meaningful number. Apparently not everyone is under water. Those areas that have dropped the most are improving the fastest in some cases. California is one of those.

JA: Any areas where you would be wary going forward?

BZ: Defense companies. We think there will be lots of cutbacks, lots of programs cancelled. Defense personnel contractors may do better as the armed services cut back their personnel. Company by company there may be some good bets in defense, but we believe the sector will be down.

JA: And in summary?

BZ: Other than defense, it is going to be a broad-based recovery. If we have a growing, recovering economy, interest rates would rise, and inflation would rise. Commercial banks will do better. They will use their asset bases to increase lending. The moderating factor will be that regulations will add some cost, but that will not be an inhibitor for the larger banks looking to expand regionally. If I were a larger bank and wanted to expand regionally, it would be attractive to me to buy a regional bank and expand my profitability without appreciably expanding my regulatory exposure.

JA: Thanks, Buzz.

Note: Buzz prefers not to name specific companies in his portfolios. The interviewer has no investments in the sectors discussed, and does not intend to initiate such investments in the next few days or weeks.

Once Promising Battery Maker A123 Systems Now Focus of Controversial Auction

Many media eyes are watching the auction of bankrupt battery-maker A123 Systems, which is currently underway in Chicago. Bids were accepted starting December 6, but the auction apparently could run into next week before a buyer is announced because of the complexity of the deal.

Some of those watching, also including politicians and military leaders, have expressed concern that the A123 lithium ion battery technology, much of it funded by the U.S. government, could wind up in foreign hands, according to

Photo courtesy of AP

Photo courtesy of AP

the Chicago Tribune (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-a123-auction-20121206,0,359683.story). The Tribune notes that A123, which was once called “one of the most promising U.S. innovators in the clean fuel auto industry,” was awarded a $250 million grant in 2009 and had drawn down about $132 million of it before bankruptcy.

While none of the companies has commented publicly since the bidding opened, four suitors, including one American company, have qualified to bid, according to the Tribune story and other reports: Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI) is the American company and NEC Corp of Japan, Siemens AG of Germany and Wanxiang Group Corp of China (the largest automotive components maker in China) are the others. The Tribune notes that Johnson Controls bills itself as “one of the last standing American companies competing in and building this U.S. advanced battery industry.” (New Castle, PA-based Axion Power International, among some others, would argue with that statement. See below)

As we noted back in August, Wanxiang made a bid to buy A123 back and thought they had a solid agreement, according to the Tribune. But apparently, due to concerns politics would be problematic, A123 never agreed to make the deal.

Other companies are apparently interested in buying parts of A123, according to the Tribune, but no names have yet been made public.

There are a few small cap battery makers that could be considered peers of A123, although most of them are not in the lithium ion battery business. They include:

Newark, NY-based Ultralife Corp. (Nasdaq: ULBI, http://www.ultralifecorp.com/) designs, manufactures and offers services for power and communications systems, including rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries as well as communications and electronic systems and accessories, and custom engineered systems. ULBI operates in two segments: Battery and Energy Products, and Communications Systems. The battery segment includes lithium 9-volt, cylindrical and various other non-rechargeable batteries, as well as rechargeable batteries. ULBI has a 52-week trading range of $2.39-$5.50 and a market cap of $46 million. It closed Dec. 7 at $2.62, down 8 cents on the day.

Salt Lake City-based Oak Ridge Micro-Energy Inc. (OTC: OKME) is a development stage company that licenses thin-film, solid state batteries for industrial, medical and government applications. The applications include wireless smart sensors, security cards, RFID tags, semiconductor memory chips and implantable medical devices. The thin-film lithium and lithium ion batteries are ideally suited for a variety of applications where a small power source is needed. OKME has a 52-week trading range of $0.06-$0.51 and a market cap of $20 million. It closed Dec. 7 at $0.20, down 3 cents for the day.

Carrollton, TX-based Universal Power Group (AMEX: UPG, http://www.upgi.com/) is a supplier and distributor of batteries and related power accessories. UPG sells, distributes and markets batteries and related power accessories under various brands and its own brands. Back in August, UPG’s market cap was $11 million and was trading for about $2.15. Its current 52-week trading range is $1.26-$2.35 but its stock has fallen. It closed Dec. 7 at $1.66, down 3 cents for the day. Its market cap is now $8.3 million.

New Castle, PA-based Axion Power International * (OTCBB: AXPW.OB, http://www.axionpower.com/) manufactures high-performance, low-cost lead-carbon (PbC) batteries for a variety of markets, including mild- and micro- hybrid vehicles, which may be the commonest form of hybrid in the US within a couple of years (and already the most common in Europe). AXPW announced in May that the U.S. Department of Energy had awarded it a $150,000 grant toward the commercialization of its PbC batteries for micro hybrids. PbC batteries are as easy to manufacture as the older lead-acid batteries, but they use activated carbon instead of half the lead and are lighter, 100% recyclable, have a higher charge acceptance and faster recharging rates, all ideal for the micro-hybrid and mild hybrid markets.  AXPW has a 52-week trading range of $0.20-$0.64. It closed Dec. 7 at $0.30, no change on the day.

*Denotes a client of Allen & Caron Inc., publisher of this blog.

Soaring Automobile Sales Attributed to Superstorm Sandy, Low Interest Rates

Soaring November automobile sales were all over the news this week. Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and BMW had their best November ever, according to the Los Angeles Times  (http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-autos-auto-sales-20121204,0,2696209.story). Volkswagen had its best November since 1973.

photo courtesy of www.boston.com

photo courtesy of http://www.boston.com

Overall, imports did better than domestic brands thanks largely to new products like the revamped Honda Accord and Nissan Pathfinder, according to the Times report. A total of 1.1 million vehicles were sold in the month, 15 percent more than a year ago. Fuel-efficient cars, hybrids and small SUVs were among the most popular vehicles and “for the first time since it started selling hybrids in the U.S. in 2000, Toyota had serious competition in the hybrid market,” the Times noted.  In only its second month of sales, Ford sold 5,000 of its new C-Max hybrid in November and 6,500 hybrids overall in the month.

Just how much to read into the sales totals is difficult to say, according to experts, because Superstorm Sandy was credited for bolstering the numbers. An estimated 250,000 vehicles were destroyed in the storm and the purchase of replacement vehicles probably skewed the monthly numbers. And, as we reported in October, low interest rates are also stimulating the auto market.

Over the long term, any increases in automobile sales should benefit small cap automobile industry-related stocks, which have been hit in recent years by the global slump in sales. Here are a few randomly chosen small caps:

Troy, MI-based Meritor Inc (NYSE: MTOR, http://www.meritor.com/) develops drivetrain mobility and braking solutions for trucks, trailers and specialty vehicles and aftermarkets in the transportation and industrial sectors. Its products are marketed globally under its Meritor brand or under the brands Euclid, Mascot, Trucktechnic and Gabriel, among others. In January 2012 Meritor sold its France-based axle operation to Renault. MTOR has a 52-week trading range of $3.83-$8.74 and a market cap of $427 million. It closed Dec. 4 at $4.42, up 11 cents on the day.

Detroit-based American Axle & Manufacturing Holdings (NYSE: AXL, http://www.aam.com/) designs and manufactures driveline and drivetrain systems and related components and chassis modules for light trucks, SUVs, passenger cars and commercial vehicles. The company’s products include axles, drive shafts, power transfer units, transfer cases, chassis and steering components, transmission parts and driveheads, among other products. AXL’s 52-week trading range is $7.93-$13.08 and its market cap is $765 million. It closed Dec. 4 at $10.22, up 10 cents for the day.

New York, NY-based Fuel Systems Solutions (Nasdaq: FSYS, http://www.fuelsystemssolutions.com/) designs and manufacturers alternative fuel components and systems for the transportation and industrial markets. Its components and systems control the flow and pressure of gaseous alternative fuels such as propane and natural gas used in internal combustion engines. The company operates in two divisions: IMPCO Operations and BRC Operations. In April 2011, IMPCO U.S. purchased NaturalDrive. FSYS’ 52-week trading range is $13.38-$29.41 and market cap is $294 million. FSYS closed Dec. 4 at $14.67, down 51 cents for the day.

Northville, MI-based Gentherm * (Nasdaq: THRM, http://www.gentherm.com/) is a global developer and marketer of thermal management technologies for a broad range of heating and cooling and temperature control applications. It’s also developing more efficient thermoelectric devices. THRM’s Climate Control Seat system, based on its proprietary thermoelectric technology, is being offered in more than 50 vehicles made by the world’s leading automobile manufacturers including Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Kia/Hyundai, Land Rover and Jaguar, among others. THRM’s 52-week trading range is $10.06-$17.74. As recently as early October it was trading for more than$13. It closed Dec. 4 at $11.48, down 42 cents on the day. Market cap is $341 million.

Southfield, MI-based Federal-Mogul Corporation (Nasdaq: FDML, http://www.federalmogul.com/) is a global supplier of powertrain and safety technologies. Its customers are OEMs of automotive, light, medium and heavy-duty commercial vehicles, agricultural, marine, rail, aerospace, off-road and industrial applications as well as the worldwide aftermarket. It operates at 169 manufacturing, distribution and technical facilites. Last July Borg-Warner sold its spark plug business to FDML. Its 52-week trading range is $6.90-$17.97 and market cap is $706 million. FDML closed Dec. 4 at $7.14, down 15 cents for the day.

* Denotes client of Allen & Caron, publisher of this blog