How Bad Are Things in the Garbage and Waste Management Sector? (WM, RSG, WCN, BIN, ECOL, VLO)

The garbage and waste management sector is supposed to be a futurist’s delight. There are generally large barriers to entry for new players and most geographies are controlled by regional monopolies or controlled by only a few larger players. Making new landfills is also very unpopular, but everyone has to throw away garbage and waste and what cannot be used for recycling has to go into the existing landfill structures.

So, why are things so bad in the garbage and waste management sector? It is almost scary if you reviewed the earnings report from last week’s reports from Waste Management Inc. (NYSE: WM), Republic Services Inc. (NYSE: RSG) and Waste Connections Inc. (NYSE: WCN). Even Progressive Waste Solutions Ltd. (NYSE: BIN) had a bad report. In case you forgot, Bill Gates has been a huge investor in this sector with a 15% or higher stake in Republic Services Inc. (NYSE: RSG) via his personal investment entity called Cascade Investment.

Last week, particularly Friday, was just brutal on the shares of these companies due to such poor earnings from the waste management sector leaders. A contrarian take against the grain would be that this sector just got a lot cheaper for those investors who have a very long-term outlook. We want to see which companies are now a bargain and which ones may still deserve some caution.

Waste Management Inc. (NYSE: WM) took it on the chin last week as booked revenue of $3.30 billion and, while that was above the consensus of about $3.2 billion, the non-GAAP earnings of $0.38 EPS was shy of the $0.41 EPS estimate as GAAP earnings shrank by 5% from a year earlier. The company also reported a drop in the gross margin, operating margin and net margin. The $15-plus billion garbage company was down by more than 3% when the other reports were taken into consideration, with shares trading just above $34 and very close to the Thomson Reuters consensus price target of $34.40. This was just a $36 stock on Wednesday and the 52-week range is $27.75 to $39.69.

Republic Services Inc. (NYSE: RSG) reported weaker-than-expected first-quarter results as revenue increased 0.9% to $1.98 billion, but earnings per share fell by 7.8% to $0.38 EPS based on lower recycled commodity prices and higher fuel costs. The $10 billion waste company was said to have lost a large national account due to competitive pricing that will cost about $25 million in 2012 sales and it noted a loss of one or two municipal disposal contracts. The company is holding on to its pricing structure and it did manage to raise volume and said that they are seeing positive C&D activity and special waste volume. Republic was down over 11.5% at one point Friday morning at $27.50 and the 52-week range is $24.72 to $33.10.

Waste Connections Inc. (NYSE: WCN) turned in sales growth of more than 13% to $376 million, which was just above estimates, and it claimed increased pricing strength and that its C&D waste volume offset commodities and fuel prices. Still, its EBITDA margin was lower at 30.5% based on lower recycled commodity values and also on higher expenses due to its County Waste acquisition in 2011. The company’s franchise market model is allowing for pricing power and supposedly keeping customer churn lower. Waste Connection shares were down more than 1% on Friday again with shares above $32 and its 52-week range is $29.06 to $35.95. This was probably the only bright spot, but with a $3.5 billion market cap its stock trend was dictated by problems at the larger peers.

U.S. investors often forget about Progressive Waste Solutions Ltd. (NYSE: BIN) because it is based in Canada, but it has a $2.5 billion market cap. Keep in mind that this is the old BFI Canada, and it offers waste services in Canada and in the United States. A weak report from this company last week took a lot of wind out of its sails as well: $0.19 EPS versus $0.24 EPS expected, but revenues rose 3.6% to $438.3 million versus $434.3 million expected. The company reaffirmed its 2012 outlook. Shares were down more than 6% at $21.40 on Friday against a 52-week range of $18.35 to $25.56. The consensus target from Thomson Reuters is closer to $25 over the next year.

Gabelli issued a report on Friday calling a Waste Connection private market value of $31 for 2012 and $34 in 2013. What is interesting is that Thomson Reuters has a consensus target objective of just over $38 for the next 12 months. Gabelli also maintained its Buy stance on Republic Services and Thomson Reuters had a consensus target of $34.60 before considering the double-digit percentage drop on Friday morning.

Raymond James downgraded Republic Services to Market Perform from Outperform based upon the report. We would not be surprised at all if there are more analyst downgrades due to how the whole sector was soft. These reports from last week may set a sour tone for the smaller US Ecology Inc. (NASDAQ: ECOL) as it is set to report its first quarter earnings on Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Its market cap is only $390 million.

Based upon the new share price drops, the dividends of each are looking better: a 3.9% yield for Waste Management Inc. (NYSE: WM), a 2.8% yield for Republic Services Inc. (NYSE: RSG) but only 1.1% for Waste Connections Inc. (NYSE: WCN). Progressive Waste Solutions Ltd. (NYSE: BIN) now has a 2.5% dividend yield.

Things are bad enough in the sector that Enerkem Inc., a Canadian biofuel company backed by Waste Management Inc. (NYSE: WM) and Valero Energy Corporation (NYSE: VLO), even withdrew its registration statement with the SEC that would have allowed it to raise almost $140 million in an initial public offering. Enerkem develops refineries that convert trash into gases that get reprocessed to be turned into ethanol and other chemicals. The outfit cited market conditions in the filing. This is sector-specific market conditions, because, in case you had not noticed, the market has managed to hold up well in earnings season. These “market conditions” are also against the backdrop of what has been a super-premium IPO market.

It may take a bit for the dust to settle here because this was widespread disruption. That being said, we would start to look at a contrarian outlook now that the sector is on sale for those investors who invest with a multiyear horizon. Republic Services Inc. (NYSE: RSG) took it on the chin the worst of the lot, and it is not easy to bet against Bill Gates for too long in his post-software investments.


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