Saturday, July 08, 2006

Blue Gold

Over the past couple of years, sporadic articles have appeared in BusinessWeek and the Wall Street Journal about water. The sector certainly seems to be under the radar and yet water related indices such as the Bloomberg World Water Index of 11 utilities has returned 35% annually since 2003, far outpacing the S&P 500 and even various oil and gas indices.

A little bit of digging unearths a plethora of information about gloomy forecasts of a water shortage over the next couple of decades as well as neglected water infrastructure in various countries. From the United Nations to the OECD to the Environmental Protection Agency, there is no shortage of opinion on global water issues.

Big money is certainly getting onboard and has been gearing up to take advantage of the opportunities. The Gabelli Fund recently organized its first Water Infrastructure Conference and is one of the largest shareholders of Watts Water Technologies (NYSE: WTS). Then there is General Electric (NYSE: GE) which has water purification and treatment businesses and expects the opportunity to grow significantly going forward.

We have had the water sector on our radar for some time. Various stocks have pulled back from recent highs and appear to be trading at reasonable valuations. ITT Industries (NYSE: ITT) and Pentair (NYSE: PNR) are a couple of examples. There is also the PowerShares Water Resources ETF (AMEX: PHO) if you don’t want to pick and choose.

We finally pulled the trigger on a mini-conglomerate which recently decided to spin off it water infrastructure business through an IPO. Walter Industries (NYSE: WLT) which has also been the target of various activist hedge funds has been on a wild ride recently.

We first took a position at around $65 and then again at $44 during the recent market decline. The remaining shares of Mueller Water Products (NYSE: MWA) should be distributed to Walter shareholders in short order. Walter currently owns about 75% of the Mueller. A bunch of Wall Street firms initiated coverage of Mueller couple of days ago. Let’s take $20 as a price target. At that price, Walter’s stake in Mueller accounts for $38 of its stock price which is trading at about $55. In other words, you are getting Walter’s natural resources (coal and gas), homebuilding and financing businesses for about $17 a share. Let’s say the homebuilding and financing businesses are worth about a couple of dollars. This leaves $15 for the natural resource business. Assuming a coal segment comparable P/E of 14, this part of the business would only have to earn $0.93 to justify this price. This is way too conservative even if coal and gas prices decline significantly. Plus, the company has locked in the price for its coal through next year at above $100 per metric ton. And I expect demand for Walter’s high quality metallurgical coal used by the steel industry to be sustained for some time.

I think Walter Industries is worth at least $75. So get in on the Blue Gold rush by buying Walter shares and waiting for the full spin-off of Mueller.

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