Consistent with being based in the spiritual home of value investing, the two leaders in share-price gains in Nebraska so far this year are in established industries satisfying basic needs whose shares were battered by temporary conditions or one-time events.
Omaha-based Valmont Industries, a maker of mechanized irrigation equipment for farmers and fabricated metal products such as utility poles, has turned in the best performance so far this year among Nebraska-based companies, with a share-price gain of 26 percent through Thursday. Following Valmont is railroad operator Union Pacific, also based in Omaha, with a 23 percent gain.
Both are rebounding from earlier share-price declines, the kind of comebacks favored by value investors in the mold of Warren Buffett, whose Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway is the model for buying when other investors bid down the price of otherwise solid stocks based on overreactions to temporary conditions or one-time events.
Overall, the list of the 12 largest Nebraska-based publicly traded companies, those with a market value of at least around $1 billion, contained seven that outperformed the Standard & Poor’s 500 through three quarters this year. The broad market index returned about 5.2 percent through Thursday, with only one day left in the third quarter.
“With the exception of Berkshire Hathaway, most of these stocks currently trade well below their all-time highs, even as the S&P 500 trades within a couple of percentage points of its all-time high level,” said Ted Bridges, principal at Omaha wealth adviser Bridges Investment Management, which has about $1.8 billion under supervision. “After some had a rough 2015, they have bounced back nicely in this year, such as Valmont, Union Pacific, Cabela’s and Nelnet.”
At Valmont, six-month 2016 revenue was down 9 percent. But profit rose 11 percent, on cost-cuts at the company’s operations, which include dozens of manufacturing and assembly plants worldwide.
Regardless of short-term results — results perhaps based on the current round of low crop prices and lessened farmer cash flow prospects — Valmont shares appear to reflect a bullish long-term view on global agricultural productivity.
Investor newspaper Barron’s reports that the company commands a 40 percent share of the mechanized irrigation market, the spider-like machines that pivot sprinklers around farm acreage. And Valmont told investors in its 2015 annual report that only 2.5 percent of the worldwide water supply is fresh, and that only 30 percent of that total is available for use by people, ergo, a hungry world will need more irrigation equipment to make land productive,
“The largest user of that freshwater is agriculture,” Valmont noted.
Union Pacific is in a similarly old-school business, operator of the second-largest U.S. railroad by ton-miles. Shares of the Omaha-based company were beaten down for most of last year, after a string of shipping-volume declines by customers, including coal mines. But profitability never wavered, and the company took quick action to reduce costs by furloughing workers and mothballing locomotives.
Volumes are still down, off almost 10 percent so far this year compared with last, consistent with the results at the six other large freight railroads operating in the United States. Coal shipments are down 26 percent so far this year compared with a year ago.
But when it comes to railroads, they aren’t building any more of them, even if power plants cut back on coal in favor of cleaner and cheaper natural gas.
“With Union Pacific there was a sharp overreaction in the loss of coal shipments,” said Russ Kaplan, head man at Omaha investment adviser Russ Kaplan Investments. “Since then the stock went below $90 a share, but is on its way to $100 a share.”
One transportation company whose shares are at about break-even so far this year is Werner Enterprises, the Omaha-based trucking firm. Industry-wide, demand is sluggish, truck capacity is up and rates are low.
“The challenges of too much industry capacity relative to a slow-growth economy, coupled with increasing equipment costs and driver shortages, have created a difficult operating market for truckload carriers, including Werner, in 2016,” said John Steele, the company’s chief financial officer, in a statement to The World-Herald.
And as for Berkshire Hathaway, the value-investing icon, its shares have gained about 9 percent so far this year. If everything holds through December, it will make the fourth out of five years that Berkshire shares will have beaten the S&P 500. Over the long term, however, Berkshire shares have more than doubled the performance of the index: Since 1965, Berkshire has returned about 21 percent, the index about 10 percent. But it is getting harder to trounce by that much.
“Berkshire’s return over the past five years has been closely approximating the total return of the S&P 500, as its large size makes it more difficult to outperform the S&P 500,” said David Kass, a business professor at the University of Maryland and Berkshire scholar and shareholder. “However, Berkshire’s superior senior management, businesses, and its current and future investments make it likely to continue outperforming the S&P 500 over time.”
As for local laggards, Kearney-based Buckle Inc. has fallen 23 percent so far this year as the teen retailer sector nationally has been battered, with more young shoppers turning to so-called fast fashion, such as that found at H&M and the like.
The company’s chief executive said in August that it had begun lowering price points and was adding merchandise to the mix that might be more attractive to shoppers.
A Wall Street analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets said earlier this summer that some of the chain’s woes might be related to the retailer’s heavy presence in regions that have been hard-hit by the fall in gas prices.
Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns The Omaha World-Herald.