Christian DeHaemer launched a newsletter called Technology & Opportunity about a year and a half ago, piquing investors’ interest with the idea that you can “Ride the Robot Revolution” and make massive gains, just like getting in early on the computer revolution by buying Apple, Microsoft or Dell 30 years ago.
And now it looks like DeHaemer has passed this newsletter on to Jason Stutman, who is promoting the same basic idea — that robotics will be the next millionaire-maker trend. This time they’re using Bill Gates’ face and implying that buying into robotics companies now is like buying into the computer companies a few decades ago.
And, as luck would have it, they have essentially changed nothing else in the ad since they started running it late in the Fall of 2013. The same arguments about robotics taking over hospitals, factory floors, and replacing workers with cheap machines everywhere you can imagine… the same arguments about extraordinary wealth to come from this trend for the early and patient investor… and the same exact three stocks teased as their favorites.
So I went back through and double-checked those companies for you — one has done extraordinarily well in the last few weeks, largely because of the attention of activist investor Daniel Loeb; one has done terribly because it’s related to offshore oil, one has been incredibly, boringly flat. If you had put $1,000 into each of the three back in November, 2013 when they first started teasing them, your $3,000 would have turned into $3,057 as of today (if you had put that $3,000 into a broad S&P 500 index fund, it would be $3,537 today).
That doesn’t mean that these companies are or were bad ideas, necessarily, it just means that the folks who put out Technology and Opportunity do not have a crystal ball to predict exactly where a stock will go — no matter what their ad letters say or imply when they trot out their examples of 70-200% gains in the course of a few months or a year.
So when you see lines like, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see its share price soar mega-fold in the coming months”… take em’ with a grain of salt — the big picture here is about the huge gains made from economy-changing developments like the emergence of personal computers over the last 35 years, which created both fantastic winners and huge losers (DEC, Gateway, Sun Microsystems are a few examples) along the way and, even in the case of eventual titans like Microsoft or Apple, certainly did not go up or beat the market every year. Presumably there are few investors who bought only Microsoft, Apple and Dell among the computer hardware and software pioneers and held those three stocks for 20-30 years, including through huge drops in 2000, 2007, 2008, 2012, etc., to make millions…
But anyway, the folks at Angel publishing think their three robotics stocks are an opportunity akin to Microsoft and Apple a few decades ago. Here’s a taste of the ad to get your juices flowing:
“Remember, early investors in Microsoft had a chance to make a stunning 82,000%. Investors in Apple had a chance to make 32,000%. And investors in Dell had a chance to make 53,000%.
“Early investors in robots will see the same opportunity.
“NOW is the time to get on board. We’ve reached a tipping point, and there is no turning back.
“The three companies I’m going to tell you about in a moment are absolute home runs waiting to happen.”
The big picture spiel on robots seems to be that we’re finally at a “tipping point” where the technology that has enabled industrial robots (like the million-dollar welding robots that worked on your car in the factory, or the Intuitive Surgical Da Vinci system for laparoscopic surgery) and “novelty” robots (like the vacuuming Roomba) are converging, with real, capable robots that can do human jobs with little supervision becoming cost-effective for small businesses.
“The Tipping Point has Been Reached!
“Tipping Point #1: Amazing Artificial Intelligence
“That’s right, robots are getting smarter.
“For example, IBM created a robot named ‘Watson’ ….
“In order to demonstrate his prowess, IBM put ‘Watson’ on television’s Jeopardy! against former champions Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings… Using a robotic finger to press his buzzer, Watson beat the champs for a $1 million prize….
“Watson is now reviewing case histories at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, learning to make diagnoses and treatment recommendations….”
“Tipping Point #2: Stunning Technological Advances
“Thanks to stunning technological advances, the things robots are now able to do are amazing.
“For example, researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have developed a new sensor that is sensitive to the level of one gram. This gives today’s robots a very gentle ‘touch’ and makes them versatile and incredibly nimble.
“In addition, scientists at Stanford University have developed artificial skin that gives robots the ability to ‘feel’ objects as light as a butterfly….
“Google has developed robot cars that are now officially legal in California. Armed with video camera, radar sensors, a GPS, a laser range-finder, and a computer system… the fleet of 12 cars (mostly Toyota Priuses) have already logged over 700,000 miles of driverless travel on California’s highways.
“Tipping Point #3: Dramatically Declining Costs
“As technology improves, the cost of robots has declined….
“Consider the new sensor developed by Harvard University… Not only is the sensor better than previous sensors, but it is also ten times cheaper than anything on the market.”
So what, then, are these stocks that can make you rich as you “ride the robot revolution?”
Let’s take a look at the clues:
“Robot Stock #1
“Ride the Robot Revolution for 50X Your Money
[by the way, back in 2013 they said we could ride it for “15X your money”… so they’ve gotten a bit more aggressive]
“The company I’m recommending today has developed a robot that will help solve the doctor shortage, saving lives in the process. And using this robot, doctors can visit patients from anywhere in the world.
“The robot stands five feet tall and has a large computer screen for a face. The robot is armed with patients’ digital medical records, a state-of-the art navigation system, and a full arsenal of medical equipment, including a digital stethoscope, otoscopes (used to look in ears), and an ultrasound imaging system.
“When a doctor wants to visit a patient, he doesn’t even need to set foot in the hospital. Simply by pushing a button on his iPad, the doctor can send the hospital-based robot to the patient’s room.
“Because the robot has dozens of sensors, it can navigate busy hospital corridors on its own, completely autonomously!
“A two-way video allows the doctor and the patient to see and speak with each other, and with a zoom feature, the doctor can read the patient’s chart and even check his eyes for dilated pupils.
“The company just received FDA approval for their hospital robots.
“And get this: They are the ONLY company to have the approval of the FDA, giving them a virtual monopoly on this technology.”
Well, that’s enough for any self-respecting Thinkolator to process — but just to be sure, we get a few more clues:
“Hospital robots are only one small aspect of this company. In addition, they have developed security robots that are already saving lives on streets and battlefields around the world….
“Robots Provide Frontline Defense
“These robots perform bomb disposal and other dangerous missions for troops and first responders.
“In fact, a fleet of their robots was deployed during the Boston Marathon bombings manhunt.
“They were also on the scene during the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in Japan, where intense levels of radiation had made it too dangerous for human rescue workers to operate.
“More than 5,000 have been delivered to military and civil defense forces worldwide, and they have been used extensively by U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This company just received a multi-million-dollar contract to provide security robots to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup….
“… they’ve developed a squadron of “home robots” that could make housework a thing of the past.
“For example, they have developed robots that vacuum, wash floors, clean pools, and more.”
OK, so that makes it pretty clear: this first pick of DeHaemer’s for the “robot revolution” is probably the first robotics stock that most investors would think of: iRobot (IRBT)
Which does indeed make that Roomba robot, along with mopping robots and pool-cleaning robots and the freaky-looking gutter-cleaning robot … though really, if you have to climb up a damn ladder to put it up there what’s the point of a robot? I want a robot that can climb up there itself, otherwise hiring a fearless teenager seems a better way to go on the gutter-cleaning front.
But I digress. The consumer part of iRobot is probably what most of us are familiar with, given the near-ubiquitous Roomba vacuum, and that’s a decent business for them — though I assume they’re under some pressure because there’s a lot more competition in the low-end “robot” vacuums and pool cleaners and such these days. The company is growing, often slowly, but they seem to be positioning for growth beyond the home over the next several years.
Right now it looks like the home-based robots, mostly the Roomba, generate about 75% of their revenue, with the “telepresence” robots like the hospital one described and some “collaboration” robots that are essentially mobile videoconferencing tools being an emerging business (under the names Ava and RP-VITA) and the military and security robots (like the PackBot for bomb disposal, or FirstLook for surveillance) generating most of the rest of the current revenue. Within the home-based stuff, iRobot has been putting a fair amount of energy into its patent fights as they try to keep competitors from overwhelming the market with “me too” robot vacuums that look and perform almost identically … even as they keep pushing development of “next stage” robotic servants in the home, including the newish robot mop and their latest brushless Roomba.
I looked at IRBT a bit back when it first IPO’d in 2006 and didn’t decide to buy it, but I was tempted — the idea of being in early on a developing industry is compelling, even if you think robot vacuums are silly. Do note that I also thought camera phones were a moronic idea that would never catch on, and now I use the camera on my phone probably more than I use it to talk to people … so what do I know? I think a Roomba would throw a hobo stick over its shoulder and hit the road after a day of dog hair and legos here at Castle Gumshoe, but I also know some folks treat these little robot vacuums almost like pets and they’ve grown far more capable over the years.
The telepresence stuff is really quite early on, though iRobot has been developing the technology for several years — the hospital piece of it is a result of iRobot’s collaboration with (and investment in) InTouch Health, which basically builds the doctor telepresence stuff on top of iRobot’s platform, and it seems to be doing well in getting more hospitals signed up but is probably a few years from making a big difference on revenues.
IRBT used to get a much bigger boost from the defense and security business, which was close to half of revenue back in 2010 and 2011 but is now more like 20% of revenue, even a bit less — and the budget austerity and military cutbacks and government shutdown haven’t helped. It’s not easy to guess what the stock will look like a year from now, with low-end products cutting into margins and high-end products coming out to help on the other end (the top-of-the-line Roomba is $700 these days), but they are clearly the home “robotic small appliance” leader both in the US and globally, and they’ve grown nicely. And really, if you went back a few generations we would have called today’s washing machines “robots,” too.
If you want to fall in love with iRobot shares you probably do need to foresee some more breakout growth either in home robotics, with Roombas and their cousins getting more of the market (they have about 13% of the vacuum market in the US), or in one of their other segments, because the stock is still just plain expensive. Analysts see them growing earnings at more than 10% per year into the future now, which is pretty good — but they also were predicting at least 10% growth a few years ago and the company has averaged earnings growth in the very low single digits for five years now. If I were seeing insider buying, or a huge surge of potential growth, I’d be happy to buy at prices like this, and the company does some very cool things in an emerging industry … but personally, my first reaction is still “too expensive” — the same reaction I had when looking at it in November of 2013.
I could be wrong, of course, that’s me after just an hour of scanning through their recent reports and presentations and some analyst commentary … if it’s your money you’re investing, you would, of course, do better to think for yourself. The good stuff? They have beaten estimates for four quarters in a row, and analysts are predicting a breakout year next year of 20%+ earnings growth… but analysts estimates have softened a bit in the last few months, too, and you’re still paying 20X 2016 earnings, or about 25X current year earnings. IRBT is boosting its buyback plan this year, and they do have a lot of cash — so that’s a strong positive, that they can generate earnings per share growth by buying back shares… and if you back out their $200 million or so in net cash you do get a more reasonable PE ratio (that would bring the share price down to roughly $25, EPS is estimated at about $1.30 this year and $1.70 next year). So it might be that there’s finally room for optimism with iRobot, but I continue to find it a tad pricey and I think they’re continuing to be challenged by lower-cost competitors… I’d have to put myself in a very patient mindset to be comfortable buying iRobot, and I haven’t done that yet.
“Robot Stock #2
“Underwater Robots Tap Ocean’s Black Gold Riches
“As you may know, an underwater robot named ‘Argo’ was responsible for discovering the wreckage of the Titanic back in 1985, at a depth of nearly 12,000 feet.
“What you may not realize, however, is that modern underwater robots offer an unprecedented profit opportunity… an opportunity that could make you rich in the months and years ahead.”
Now, in the world of robots we tend to get into some semantic disputes and arguments about the autonomy of robots …
… the Argo is a deepsea towed video camera, it didn’t “discover” the Titanic any more than Galileo’s telescope discovered the rings of Saturn but was a (unique and valuable) tool that was used by scientists and explorers to locate something, and it did help to illuminate and search a previously inaccessible part of the universe.
And likewise, the da Vinci from Intuitive Surgical (ISRG) doesn’t perform surgery, it simply translates a surgeon’s movements into a smaller plane with great precision…. etc., etc.
But moving on, which underwater robot company is he touting? Some more clues — he’s pitching the fact that deepwater oil exploration is still booming, and robots are making it more feasible to reach these offshore oil reservoirs:
“The Pressure Could Crush a Dump Truck
“According to Newsweek Magazine, temperatures exceed 450 degrees at that depth. And the 20,000 pounds of pressure per square inch is enough to crush a dump truck.
“Traditional drilling methods simply don’t work.
“Fortunately, I’ve uncovered a company that has a solution…
“In fact, they have created a fleet of underwater robots called Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs).
“ROVs are unoccupied, highly maneuverable, and operated by a person aboard a vessel.”
I tend not to think of something that has a driver or a pilot as a “robot,” but that’s probably just a mental hiccup of mine — there are lots of machines called “robots” that are fully controlled by humans and aren’t autonomous or even semi-autonomous in any real way, including the much-discussed flying drones that are increasingly entering civilian airspace. That doesn’t mean they’re not similar and valuable and important in lots of areas — and both drones and ROVs certainly go where manned vehicles can’t and the latter have become a big part of offshore oil exploration. There’s more than one company in this space, however, so let’s read between the lines some more:
“One of this company’s ROV robots just set a record by working off the coast of India at a 10,385 feet water depth. That’s nearly two miles deep! Amazing.
“ROVs are literally the eyes, ears, and hands of their operators… and allow oil firms to drill through the ocean floor and tap some of the richest oil reserves on the planet….
“Make no mistake: As the big oil firms pursue operations in deep water, this company stands to make a fortune.
“In fact, the company set an annual earnings record in 2012… and in the first quarter of 2013, they increased earnings per share by a whopping 47%….
“The company is solid. In fact, it announced a 22% dividend increase in April 2013 followed by a 23% dividend increase one year later.
“In the coming months and years, we are likely to see this company grow exponentially. Their stock has delivered over 600% gains over the last few years and is poised to do it again….”
Answer? This is a biggie, the offshore oil giant Oceaneering International (OII), which focuses on subsea systems for oil and gas exploration and production, including blowout preventers, umbilical systems, hydraulics and pump systems, etc., and they also manufacture remote underwater vehicles and own and operate a fleet of almost 300 of these underwater “explorers.” OII owns about a third of the market for these remotely operated vehicles (ROVs), and they expect the market to continue growing — there is demand for roughly three ROVs per floating rig (floating rigs are drillships and semisubmersible rigs that operate in water too deep for a jack-up rig), and the story is that rising demand for those rigs and the prevalence of increasingly complex jobs that require more subsea support means the demand is likely to rise considerably.
OII gets about 30% of its revenue from ROVs, and another 30% from other subsea products, but ROVs are their highest margin segment and they generate more than 40% of their operating income from that segment — so if ROV demand increases, that can only be good.
And it does make logical sense that it should increase — not only are there more offshore oil fields and deepwater exploration projects, but there is also an increasing focus on safety (after the Deepwater Horizon spill, particularly) and on monitoring those complex subsea systems. So the market should provide a good tailwind as long as deepwater exploration and production continue to be growth markets (which is to say, as long as oil prices don’t fall too much) … so a lot of your sentiment about this company will probably depend on whether you think oil prices are stuck down here at $50 or going to $20, or you think they’ll be rocketing back up to the $60s and $70s in the next year or so.
What about the specific company?
Well, OII is big — $5 billion market cap big (it was $8 billion back in November 2013 when this teaser campaign was born). Back in late 2013 it was pretty expensive, they were just finishing up a year with about $3.50 per share profits and were giving guidance for about $4 a share in profits in 2014, so at $82 a share that was more than 20X expected earnings for a large company. Analysts were projecting that the next five years would bring 20% annual earnings growth, and all looked rosy despite the shares being a bit pricey.
Then we all know what happened — oil fell from $100+ to below $50. They still did earn $4 a share last year, and contracts for work don’t disappear instantly when oil prices fall… but neither do new projects get rushed into development, so those 20% growth estimates are long gone. Analysts now see Oceaneering peaking in 2014 and now going back to 2013-like numbers, with a drop of about 20% in 2015, flat earnings in 2016, and then some future growth that creates 10% annual earnings growth beyond that. Which serves, if nothing else, to remind us that analysts are guessing, and they didn’t (and don’t) know what oil prices are going to do, either.
They didn’t have any debt when I first looked at OII, but they’ve changed that now with a $500 million offering late last year, on pretty decent terms, so there is some awareness that even in a relatively weak space (oil services) they supply critical services and are not likely on the verge of disappearing. They also do pay a dividend, and as teased it has been raised in the Spring every year since 2011, so that’s a good sign — the current yield is about 2%. There are competitors in the space, including Helix Energy Solutions (HLX), Subsea 7 (SUBC in Oslo, SUBCY or ACGYF on the pink sheets), and others who either operate ROVs or offer similarly broad subsea system engineering and development services. All of those stocks have come down fairly dramatically, though OII has been a bit less volatile than its competitors.
Here’s what I wrote 16 months ago when this teaser campaign started:
“Don’t let the great balance sheet and the solid earnings fool you into thinking the stock is an inevitable winner, history indicates that they’re quite likely to collapse if oil prices collapse (it dropped from $40 to $10 during the last oil collapse during the financial crisis) … so if you like the stock do note that it will be oil-price-sensitive — the chart over the last seven years is, by way of example, extremely similar to Seadrill’s (SDRL), a highly leveraged deepwater driller that I own and write about fairly often. Doesn’t make them bad, but diversification in a portfolio requires paying attention to sectors that move together… this is a company that’s sort of a ‘robot stock’ in a conceptual way, but it moves like an oil services stock.”
I don’t own Seadrill anymore, by the way, though I do own some LEAP options on SDRL. Oceaneering Int’l is showing some good signs of being an opportunistic industry leader, since they spent $200+ million just last month to buy C&C Technologies to expand their offshore service offerings — it’s encouraging to see a company in a downtrodden sector acquiring competitors… as long, of course, as they’re not being recklessly optimistic in the face of declining oil prices (are they? I’ll tell you in a couple years).
So what’s the next one?
“Robot Stock #3
“How the “Robot Factory” Could Triple Your Money
“As I mentioned, world robot demand is surging.
“And nowhere is this demand increase more prevalent than in the industrial robot sector….
“In 2011, industrial robot sales increased 38% to 166,028 units, by far the highest level ever recorded for one year. The pace continued in 2012, with 22,598 robots sold in the United States alone. And things are just getting started…”
And then DeHaemer makes it sound extra secretive and cool …
“… there is one industrial robot company that stands head and shoulders above the rest…
“This company is the world leader in industrial robots.
“The great part is no one has ever heard of them.
“That’s because they are highly secretive. They hold their cards close to the vest….
“The company is like a futuristic city. It covers 1.5 million square meters, including 12 research and development centers. And there are robots everywhere. In fact, the company uses 2,000 robots in their own production process.
“That’s right: Robots making more robots!
“The incredible thing is because they use robots, the company runs its operations day and night. Their factories often run unsupervised for 30 days at a time.
“Says a company vice president: ‘Not only is it lights out, but we turn off the air conditioning and heat, too.'”
Can we perhaps have a few specific clues to feed to the Mighty, Mighty Thinkolator?
“… the company is sitting on $7.9 billion in cash and has ZERO debt. [it was $9.5 billion in cash back in 2013]
“It has $5.5 billion in revenue with a whopping 28% profit margin. Pretty amazing.
[in 2013 that line was, ‘They have $6.3 billion in revenue with a whopping 25% profit margin.’]
“The company is so cutting edge that in 2012, Forbes added it to its list of ‘World’s Most Innovative Companies.’
“Already, their customer base reads like a who’s who of manufacturers: General Electric, Rolls Royce, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, NASA, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon.
“Again, because of their secretive nature, Wall Street has all but ignored this company.”
I had never researched this one before, but what they were (and are) teasing is the Japanese industrial robot (and machine tool control) company Fanuc (FANUY). They are Japanese (which has probably a larger reason for the lack of Wall Street attention than is their secretive nature, though secretive they are), and they’ve been around for about 40 years and are one of the big global firms in industrial robotics, specializing in the sale of precision computer controllers for machine tools that morphed into being robots over the years, and growing with the industry into a large maker and seller of all kinds of factory floor robots — welders, pickers, etc.
Competitors in the space are giants like Siemens (SI) and ABB (ABB), neither of which is close to being a “pure play” on robots, and you can throw in some smaller players as well like the German KUKA (KU2 in Germany, KUKAF on the pink sheets) , and there are probably others I’m not aware of. There’s also the biggest US-based publicly-traded industrial robotics company, Adept Technology (ADEP), but that one has given up almost all of its gains from late 2013-2014 after a couple weak quarters, and is back to being a tiny little $75 million company.
FANUC does have a factory in Japan that others have described as being like a robot-run city, there’s a nice description of it in this Bloomberg Business Week article from a few years back. That same article also explains their strong market position and their monopolistic margins.
The stock is largely traded in Japan, but you can trade it in the US if you’re patient — the unsponsored ADR is at pink sheets ticker FANUY where six ADR shares equals one share in Japan, and there’s also the non-ADR 1:1 pink sheet ticker FANUF — FANUY has much better volume so is probably an easier trade with better likelihood of getting a fair price when you buy (and, more importantly, when you want to sell). If you can trade in Japan, that’s where pretty much all the volume is and where the fairest price will be, the ticker there is 6954.
And the story has changed dramatically in just the last couple months for FANUC — they’re not being ignored by Wall Street anymore, and are becoming more shareholder friendly and communicative and announcing the return of more capital to shareholders. This is largely in response to the pressure put on the firm by Daniel Loeb, who runs the Third Point activist hedge funds, though the company says they’re also responding to a national imperative to be more shareholder-focused. That’s been a big problem for investors in Japan, the cultural defense of management and the resistance to rewarding or listening to outside shareholders, and perhaps it’s changing now — but such changes have been predicted in the past, too.
I don’t know how it will turn out, but they company has done very well with the weak Yen (part of their secretive and insular side means that all of their manufacturing is in cheap-currency Japan, so their exports to the US and China, in particular, have been more lucrative than usual), and it’s probably good that they’re thinking about shareholders now — whether it’s good enough to make the company suddenly worth $10+ billion more than it had been worth a few months ago (the market cap is now about $44 billion) is another question entirely. Business has been picking up in dollar terms in the last couple quarters, but that’s the first time in many years that it’s looked like FANUC is growing. I haven’t really gotten a handle on FANUC and their prospects, and I’ve not done much more than just skim their financials and read a few of the recent press reports (they’re getting covered frequently by the Wall Street Journal now, so the time for “secrets” is long gone), but it’s a strong company with a leading market niche. My gut reaction is to look at Siemens (SIEGY) before FANUC, just because FANUC has run up so much with this new attention, but Siemens is much larger and certainly isn’t a pure-play robotics company.
Interested? Most of these “robot-focused” stocks aren’t cheap based on either current earnings or analyst-predicted growth rates… but cheap isn’t the only thing to look for in a stock, and most of them are showing at least some growth and have a decent market share in an industry that could “surprise to the upside” (as the Wall Street folks like to say) if their underlying industry grows (consumer robotic appliances, military robots, deepwater oil, or auto and other precision manufacturing). There’s something to be said for getting in fairly early in the robotics revolution if you believe it will evolve and grow quickly as the personal computer did — but do note that it’s not necessarily easy to identify the winners or those “inflection points” when things are about to ramp up in speed … industrial robots have been evolving since the first one was put in use on a GM factory floor about 50 years ago, so whether right now is a particularly key time in their development I don’t really know.
And yes, although every industry has its transition points and its huge winners, every industry also has many companies who were absorbed or chewed up and spat out by the relentless changes in the marketplace — so even if robotics is early in its eventual development, and even if these three companies are the ones to watch right now as the Technology and Opportunity folks seem to think, they may well not be the names we look back on in 30 years as the great investments.
After all, how many companies competed with Microsoft, Dell and Apple and seemed, at times, to be much, much stronger and more enticing in the 1980s, 1990s or at other times during the rise of the personal computer? Wikipedia has a nice compilation, incomplete though I’m sure it is, of defunct computer hardware companies from the last few decades … some of those, I’m sure, would have been fine investments as they were acquired over the years, but others simply disappeared, it’s worth a quick reality check whenever you’re sure that the one company you’ve chosen is the harbinger of a new technological era.
That’s about all I can tell you about robots … Does that make you want to buy any of these stocks (or their competitors)? Let us know with a comment below.
Disclosures: I don’t own any of those robotics stocks, but of stocks mentioned above I do own shares of Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL), and of Dan Loeb’s reinsurer Third Point Re (TPRE), and LEAP call options on Seadrill (SDRL). I won’t trade any of the stocks noted above for at least three days, per my trading rules.