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First Quarter in Stocks: Market Sees Bear's Shadow

Volatility in Asia, subprime woes take market for a ride.

John Coumarianos, 03/27/2007

Morningstar's 100 stock analysts cover 1,800 companies. Their full analyst reports are available through Morningstar Principia Stocks Advanced and Morningstar Advisor Workstation Office Edition.

T.S. Eliot once wrote that April is the cruelest month, but March hasn't been a picnic for investors. After the markets surged to start the year, Americans awoke on the morning of Feb. 27 to discover that, while they were sleeping, many Asian markets had plummeted roughly 9%. This precipitated a downturn in the U.S. markets, which was quickly exacerbated by a spate of bankruptcies among mortgage lenders specializing in so-called subprime loans. Stocks have since rallied off their lows, with the Morningstar U.S. Market Index recovering to a 2.3% gain for the year through March 22, though it's still in the red for the trailing four weeks.

As often happens when stocks sink, investors piled into bonds, raising their prices and sending the yield on the 10-year Treasury down to 4.6% through March 22 from its nearly 4.9% peak in late January. (Because bonds offer a fixed coupon, their yield--the coupon rate divided by the price of the bond--shrinks as bond prices rise.) The Lehman Brothers Aggregate Bond Index has returned 1.70% for the year, with nearly half of that gain coming in the past four weeks. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan also contributed to the bond rally by wondering out loud about the possibility for a recession. Current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, for his part, hasn't clearly telegraphed whether he fears recession and will lower interest rates or whether he fears inflation and will raise them. Although bond rallies generally reflect pessimism and the anticipation of lower rates, not everyone fears that the subprime debacle will spur recession. Additionally, employment remains robust, and energy prices appear stable for the moment.

If some traders were spooked out of equities, merger and acquisition activity continued with buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Texas Pacific making a play for Texas utility TXU TXU. Also, British bank Barclays BCS has set its sights on Netherlands-based ABN Amro ABN. Morningstar analyst Ganesh Rathnam thinks the merger would benefit ABN's shareholders much more than Barclays', since ABN has little value that Barclays could unlock. Moreover, Barclays would be harming its shareholders by paying with its stock, which Rathnam thinks is undervalued.

Notable financiers and investors also kept active. Carl Icahn purchased shares of telecommunications handset giant Motorola MOT in an effort to persuade management to repurchase stock. Finally, Warren Buffett published an eagerly read annual shareholder letter on March 1, which disclosed that his company, Berkshire Hathaway BRK.B, had purchased shares of diversified health-care concern Johnson & Johnson JNJ and Korean steel company Posco PKX. J&J is currently on Morningstar's 5-star stock list and boasts a wide moat for its sustainable competitive advantages based on its size and diversified product lineup. Posco is one of the few steel companies garnering a narrow moat from Morningstar analysts, though we view it as overvalued currently.

Surveying the Sectors and Industries
Industrial materials and utilities led the way in the first quarter, adding 7.8% and 6.2%, respectively, for the trailing 13 weeks through March 22. Steel companies U.S. Steel X and the newly combined Arcelor Mittal MT surged 31.5% and 25%, respectively, as investors anticipate continued strong global demand, especially from developing countries. Analyst Scott Burns has significantly raised his fair value estimate of U.S. Steel, forecasting greater earnings from the company's tubular business and lowering the business's cost of capital because of its improved balance sheet. Burns calls Arcelor Mittal the king of the steel world and has awarded the business a narrow moat for competitive advantages derived from its dominant market share in nearly all geographic regions of the world. Unfortunately, its shares don't come cheap right now, according to Burns.

Software and energy brought up the rear, falling 0.04% and 1.33%, respectively, for the trailing 13 weeks through March 22. Security software maker Symantec SYMC declined 18.5% on fears of competition. Nevertheless, analyst Rick Summer thinks threats in the consumer security market are overstated and praises the company's sales distribution. Summer also likes Symantec's ability to bundle storage solutions with security software. Symantec currently trades below Summer's fair value estimate.PAGEBREAK

In energy, Chinese oil and gas companies posted the worst returns. PetroChina PTR skidded 16% for the trailing 13 weeks through March 22. Morningstar analysts expect lower commodity prices to crimp the company's cash flows in coming years, and currently, the business looks roughly fairly valued. Drill bit maker Smith International SII rose nearly 14%. Morningstar analysts have awarded the business a narrow moat, though it is trading well above their fair value estimate.

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