Despite the Drop, Hold FMC on Acquisition, Lithium Battery Story

10/15/2014 4:00 pm EST


Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor,

Though he finds it hard to look at a 31% loss without his selling finger getting itchy, MoneyShow's Jim Jubak thinks this company's big acquisition and asset sale is reason to hold since it'll give its lithium battery unit an even higher profile.

I think I've memorized all the sayings about holding onto stocks with good long-term fundamentals during short-term corrections.

For example, there's, "In the short run the stock market in a popularity contest, but in the long run it is a weighing machine."

But despite the evidence that these sayings are on to something, I still find it tough to look at a 31% loss in FMC (FMC) since I added it to my Jubak's Picks portfolio on June 2 without feeling my selling trigger finger getting itchy. That itch sends me back to the fundamental story: Is it still intact and is it as strong (or better yet, stronger) than it was when I added that stock at a 31% higher price.

I think in the case of FMC, the answer is Yes and I'm keeping FMC in this portfolio. (I'd even suggest adding more when I can see some signs in the charts that FMC, and the market as whole, might be getting near a short-term bottom.)

If you'll remember, back on June 2, this was my logic for this buy: On March 10, the company had announced that it would split the current confusing mix of pesticides, herbicides, health and nutrition, soda ash, and lithium businesses into two companies in the first quarter of 2015, or so.

The first company, so far known as New FMC, would contain the fast growing pesticide, herbicide, and nutrition businesses leverage to expanding agricultural production in Brazil. (That's not exactly the best economy to be leveraged to in the short run, of course.) The second company, so far known as FMC Minerals, will own the soda ash and lithium units. The bulk of revenue (77%) in FMC Minerals will come from the slow growing soda ash business. (Soda ash is used to make glass and to adjust the pH in detergents.) It's a cyclical market that has averaged 2% to 3% growth over recent cycles.

But it's the lithium business that interests me most in the long run. FMC is the third largest lithium producer by revenue-behind Sociedad Quimica Y Minera De Chile (SQM) and Rockwood Holdings (ROC). The market for lithium in energy storage devices (batteries) made up about 29% of lithium sales at FMC in 2013. In June, Credit Suisse was projecting that the battery market for lithium would grow by 10% to 15% for the next few years and then accelerate with growth in the market for electric cars and for storage in wind and other sources of renewable energy. Thanks to an expansion in lithium capacity, and to an end to production problems, lithium earnings at FMC were then projected to increase by 15% to 20% in 2015 from 2014 levels.

In September, FMC took the breakup off the table with a big acquisition and asset sale. The company announced that it would buy European crop protection company Cheminova for $1.8 billion, using the proceeds from the sale of its soda ash unit. The acquisition is expected to close in early 2015 and the asset sale by mid-2015.

I think this actually results in an even more attractive alternative for investors than the breakup. Cheminova gets 38% of its sales from Europe, so that will broaden FMC's market outside of Latin America. 30% of Cheminova sales are from Latin America, so the next result will be to reduce Latin America to 46% of sales from 55% and increase sales to Europe/Middle East/Africa to 17% from 6%. The deal also brings FMC a plant in India, a country where FMC has been looking to expand.

Getting rid of the slow-growing soda ash business will also give the company's lithium unit a higher profile.

That lithium story is not only still intact but the pace of growth in the market looks to be accelerating. One of the biggest developments is a two-year test project in Tehachapi, California, by Southern California Edison that uses 600,000 lithium-ion batteries to store power from 5,000 wind turbines, for use when the wind isn't blowing. (The batteries at Tehachapi are made by LG Chem and are the same type used in General Motor's electric Volt.)

Similar projects are underway in Germany, where Wemag AG opened Europe's first commercial battery storage facility in September and in Japan, where Tohoku Electric Power plans to open a 40-megawatt pilot project in 2015.

All this growth in the battery market—plus the growth in electric car sales—could be on the verge of setting off one of those virtuous cycles where increasing sales drive falling prices, which then drive increasing sales. Citigroup, for example, is projecting that the price of batteries used for storage could fall by 50% to $230 a kilowatt-hour in the next seven to eight years.

I think I'll hold onto FMC here, scary though the volatility may be. I am, however, cutting my target price to $82 a share by March 2015 from the previous $95.

Full disclosure: I don't own shares of any of the companies mentioned in this post in my personal portfolio. When in 2010 I started the mutual fund I managed, Jubak Global Equity Fund, I liquidated all my individual stock holdings and put the money into the fund. The fund shut its doors at the end of May and my personal portfolio is now in cash. I anticipate putting those funds to work in the market over the next few months and when I do I'll disclose my positions here.

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