WRK is up about 12% in the last month. Where is its bargain price?

Many of the principles behind different investing methods can be summarized by cute little sound bites that make them easier to remember and work with. One of the first ones I learned more than two decades ago has become a primary reference point for helping me think about the likelihood a stock will move the way I want: “the trend is your friend.”

For bullish traders, this saying means that if you can find a stock that is already going up, it is likely to keep going up – especially if the stock has broken above previous highs. It can also be applied to stocks in downward trends for the same kinds of traders, because downward trends generally act as warning flags for momentum-based, trend-driven investors to stay away for the time being or consider bearish trading strategies.

All of the logic I just outlined gets turned on its head a bit when you start talking about principles that drive other, longer-term investing methods and approaches. The longer my investing career has lasted, the more I’ve gravitated to value-driven strategies. Being a value investor doesn’t automatically dismiss the idea of using trends, but it is a bit counter-intuitive to some at first, because it doesn’t shy away from stocks in downward trends. 

I’ve learned that the downward trends most people shy away from often provide the basis for many of the best value-based investments I’ve made. That’s because even as the market tends to overprice good news and its positive expectations into stocks, it also often over-punishes bad news or less-than-rosy expectations. In the negative case, that means downward trends often push stock prices further below the “fair” values a deeper analysis of the company reveals. If the company’s core fundamental strength is still in place, the downward trend can often simply be attributed to current market action. That implies the market will eventually recognize the stock’s deeply discounted status as well. 

Value-driven analysis provides investors like me an opportunity to identify where those opportunities may lie before the rest of the market starts to jump onboard. Even better in my view are the cases where the stock has been following a downward trend, but begins to show strong technical signs of a reversal of that trend to bullish conditions. The early stages of that reversal can be thought of as the “sweet spot” for people like me that try to combine value-driven discipline with technical techniques.

The caveat for any long-term investing method, however, lies in the fundamental data. If the company’s fundamentals are showing deterioration, over time or across multiple metrics, there is a stronger case to make for another common idiom technicians love to quote: “the market is always right.” That’s why using value investing concepts to drive investment decisions can sometimes be challenging.

Westrock Company (WRK) is a stock in the Basic Materials sector that followed a downward trend from a 52-week high in May 2021 at around $61.50 last year, but saw the trend bottom in early October of this year at about $30 per share. The stock has rallied to its current price a little below $36 since then, picking up bullish momentum that could provide a useful momentum-based signal to think about buying the stock. Despite increasing input costs that have affected every sector of the economy, WRK is also a company that has weathered the economic storms of the past couple of years better than most, including many of the stocks in its sector. The question now, of course is how current conditions have impacted WRK’s value proposition. Could it offer a useful bargain-driven opportunity along with its bullish technical signs? Let’s dig in.

Fundamental and Value Profile

WestRock Company, incorporated on March 6, 2015, is a multinational provider of paper and packaging solutions for consumer and corrugated packaging markets. The Company also develops real estate in the Charleston, South Carolina region. The Company’s segments include Corrugated Packaging, Consumer Packaging, and Land and Development. The Corrugated Packaging segment consists of its containerboard mill and corrugated packaging operations, as well as its recycling operations. The Consumer Packaging segment consists of consumer mills, folding carton, beverage, merchandising displays, and partition operations. The Land and Development segment is engaged in the development and sale of real estate primarily in Charleston, South Carolina. WRK has a current market cap of $9.1 billion.

Earnings and Sales Growth: Over the past year, earnings increased more than 16%, while sales rose a little over 6%. In the last quarter, earnings were -7.14% higher, while sales decreased by about -2.12%. Over the last twelve months, Net Income was 4.44% of Revenues, and strengthened to 6.38% in the last quarter, offering a useful counter to the negative earnings pattern.

Free Cash Flow: WRK’s Free Cash Flow is healthy, at about $1.2 billion, and which translates to a healthy Free Cash Flow Yield of 12.84%. It does mark a decline over the last quarter, when Free Cash Flow was $1.3 billion, but did increase from $1.02 billion a year ago.

Debt to Equity: WRK has a debt/equity ratio of .66, which is pretty conservative. The company’s balance sheet shows limited liquidity, with cash and liquid assets of about $260.2 million in the last quarter versus long-term debt of about $7.57 billion. The company focused for most of 2020 and 2021 on debt reduction, most of which came from the 2018 acquisition of KapStone Packaging. As of the second quarter of this year, they had retired enough of that debt to reinstate stock buybacks.

Dividend: WRK pays an annual dividend of $1.10 per share, which at its current price translates to a dividend yield of about 3.04%. After cutting their dividend by 57% in 2020 to preserve cash during the early stages of the pandemic, management increased the dividend by 20% in May of 2021, again from $.96 at the start of this year, and from $1.00 prior to the latest earnings announcement. These are moves that signal management’s increasing confidence in the underlying strength of their business.

Price/Book Ratio: there are a lot of ways to measure how much a stock should be worth; but I like to work with a combination of Price/Book and Price/Cash Flow analysis. Together, these measurements provide a long-term, fair value target at around $47.50 per share. That suggests that WRK is undervalued by about 33% from its current price.

Technical Profile

Here’s a look at the stock’s latest technical chart.

Current Price Action/Trends and Pivots: The chart above displays the last year of price activity for WRK. The diagonal red line marks the stock’s drop from its yearly high, reached in May of this year at around $55, to its 52-week, October low at around $30 per share. It also provides the baseline for the Fibonacci retracement lines shown on the right side of the chart. That stock rallied to a new pivot high at around $37.50 about a week ago, marking immediate resistance at that point, with current support expected at around $34 per share. A push above $37.50 should find next resistance at about $39.50, where the 38.2% retracement line sits, while a drop below $34 should find next support around $32. An increase in selling pressure, however could easily see the stock retest its yearly lows at around $30.

Near-term Keys: WRK’s recent rally off its 52-week low could be building some useful bullish momentum to support the company’s useful value proposition; even the latest pullback from a pivot high offers a net positive, with the expectation that a bounce higher should occur somewhere between the stock’s current price and $34. I think that makes WRK a stock that is worth paying significant attention to right now. If you prefer to focus on short-term strategies, a push above $37.50 could provide an opportunity to think about buying the stock or working with call options, with $39.50 offering a reasonable, quick profit target for a bullish trade. A drop below $34 could be a reason to consider shorting the stock or buying put options, with a useful profit target at around $38 per share on a bearish trade.