A Top-Notch Materials Stock

09/21/2012 8:00 am EST

Focus: STOCKS

There are some sectors that will continue to chug along no matter what the broader economy is doing, and one of those is high-performance materials. And this company has been around long enough to learn how to succeed in any market, writes John Persinos of Personal Finance.

The first lunar footprints didn't actually come from Neil Armstrong. That distinction belongs to Hexcel (HXL).

A pioneer in the manufacture of high-performance materials, Hexcel made the composite footpads on the Apollo 11 lunar module, as well as similar components for the Mercury and Gemini space programs. Hexcel continues to dominate the composites market, and is positioned to ride the accelerating shift toward these super-tough materials in a wide range of industries.

Composites are polymer materials reinforced with carbon fiber, forming a strengthened combination that's light, flexible, and durable. The next decade will see an explosion in the use of composite materials, in a variety of applications that include cars, trains, planes, satellites, boats, bicycles, housing materials, sporting goods, and wind energy.

According to a 2012 report by Materials Technology Publications, annual global sales of composites are estimated to reach $28.2 billion by 2015 and $48.7 billion by 2020, up from $16.1 billion in 2011.

The continual push for greater fuel efficiency is boosting demand for lightweight composites to replace metal parts in automotive manufacture. The best play on the world's growing thirst for composites is Hexcel, the largest US producer of carbon fiber and by far the No. 1 producer of aerospace composite materials.

As demand increases for these sophisticated materials, many manufacturers lack the engineering experience and skills to move away from metal-based assembly lines, forcing them to turn to Hexcel.

The company's greatest opportunities for growth stem from aerospace. Hexcel is the chief composite supplier for aerospace giant Boeing (BA), which has bet the farm on its new Dreamliner 787, a composite-built passenger aircraft. Composites can offer dramatic performance benefits for aircraft, including reduced weight, improved fuel burn, and better resistance against corrosion and damage.

On July 23, Hexcel reported second-quarter 2012 revenue of $399.2 million, 12.9% higher than the $353.7 million reported for the same quarter a year ago. Second-quarter earnings were $48 million, or 47 cents in earnings per share (EPS), compared to $37.4 million or 37 cents in EPS for the year-ago quarter.

Management reaffirmed its 2012 outlook for total annual revenue to be in the range of $1.55 billion to 1.65 billion.

Hexcel sports a price-to-earnings ratio of 13, slightly below the P/E of 13.6 for its sector of industrial goods, making this composite king a good bet for investors seeking recession-resistant, long-term growth amid a still-troubled economy.

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