A Leap of Faith: Waste Management

This article is part of our Leap of Faith series, in which Foolish writers each pick a stock to take a chance on for the long term.

Only buy something that you'd be perfectly happy to hold if the market shut down for 10 years. 
-- Warren Buffett, sayer of smart things

When you think about taking a leap of faith in the investing arena, you might imagine taking a wild chance on a speculative stock, or relying on faith that things will turn out well despite the company's not having a proven track record or compelling competitive advantages. There's a much smarter way to take a leap of faith, though.

Think about the people or organizations in which you have the most faith. They're the ones that have generally not let you down, the reliable ones that you know well and trust, because of their proven characteristics. Apply that same kind of thinking to your investments, too. As Warren Buffett, who knows a thing or two about investing, suggests, seek companies that you trust will be making money for you in 10 years.

Ch-ch-ch-changes
Time has not been kind to many businesses. Ever since Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) opened its virtual doors in 1995, bookstores and other retailers have had an increasingly tough time. That was 17 years ago, and Amazon is still growing briskly, with its revenue growth actually increasing over the past five years. It would have been hard to imagine books themselves being threatened a decade ago, but e-books have been selling well. Even credit cards may be threatened now, as we may soon be paying for lots of things with our smartphones.

Not so long ago, no one imagined that companies such as General Motors, Kmart, and Eastman Kodak would file for bankruptcy protection, or that names such as Pan-Am and Woolworth's would essentially disappear. But the No. 1 name in traditional film and cameras ended up sideswiped by the digital era. Though it has valuable patents and the hope of some income from lawsuits, it recently sported a market cap of just $90 million.

We're better off with sturdier businesses, ones that seem to face little change. (Buffett likes to offer the example of Coca-Cola, as he can't imagine that a decade from now billions of people won't still be quaffing its carbonated fare.)

An inevitable business
Here's a company I could take a leap of faith on: Waste Management (NYS: WM) . The primary basis for my faith is in its business: garbage.

No matter how much our world changes in the coming years, I can't imagine that we'll end up generating much less garbage. Meanwhile, recycling efforts will likely keep growing over time. In the garbage and recycling departments, Waste Management is a titan.

Here are some attractive characteristics offered by its own management at a Goldman Sachs conference in November:

"A significant portion of revenue has annuity-like characteristics." That's music to the ears of many investors. Some businesses have to work hard for every dollar of revenue, while others luxuriate in recurring revenue, such as royalties or renewals of service contracts, or membership fees.

"Cash flow is strong and predictable." This is a big boon for a business, as it enables managers to plan effectively and make smart cash-deployment decisions. It can be hard to plan for expansions or acquisitions if you're not sure how much money is coming in. That's not a big problem for this company.

Relative strength
Waste Management looks attractive when compared to its peers as well:

Company P/E Ratio 5-Year Estimated Growth Rate Dividend Yield
Waste Management  17.3 10% 3.8%
Republic Services   (NYS: RSG) 19.1 10% 3%
Waste Connections 22.1 12% 1.1%
Veolia Environment (NYS: VE) 32.1 7.9% 12.1%

Data: Yahoo! Finance.

It may not have the hefty dividend yield of Veolia Environment, but its P/E ratio is orbiting closer to earth -- and its dividend sports an average annual growth rate of 9%. (Veolia's growth rate is 9.5%.) Its revenue growth rate is also strong, with its P/E ratio the lowest of the bunch.

The future
Waste Management's future looks bright. As our economy inevitably recovers, businesses will be producing more goods and services -- and waste, benefiting Waste Management. Some 40% of Waste Management's collections come from businesses, and another 32% from residences.

The company's strategy is laid out clearly for investors, as it aims to raise its prices by up to a percentage point more than the inflation rate, reduce its costs, and extract as much value as possible from the waste it processes (recycling more and converting some into energy).

Its recycling efforts are particularly notable, as it's North America's largest recycler. Waste Management notes that in general, recycling and conversion technologies boost its profit margins and return on invested capital. Thus, it's promising to see it involved in many initiatives, such as converting landfill gases to energy or fuel and recycling roof shingles. Right now it generates enough energy from waste to power a million homes annually. It aims to double that by 2020. It also aims to nearly triple the tons of recyclable commodities it processes by 2020.

It's a dirty business in a dirty world, but Waste Management is cleaning things up. It looks like its business is here to stay for the foreseeable future, with ample growth prospects. Long-term investors in Waste Management might clean up, too -- and even if that doesn't happen for a while, the company pays a solid dividend to those who wait. Learn more about its promise and risks and see if you want to take a leap of faith on it.

To back up my words, I've given Waste Management a green thumb on My CAPS page. Follow it and the rest of my picks.

See what other stocks are getting our Foolish writers to swing for the fences; click back to the series intro for links to the entire series.

At the time this article was published Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter @SelenaMaranjian, owns shares of Coca-Cola, Amazon.com, and Veolia Environment, but she holds no other position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Coca-Cola, Amazon.com, and Waste Management. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Waste Management, General Motors, Coca-Cola, Amazon.com, Veolia Environment, The Goldman Sachs Group, and Republic Services. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a write covered strangle position in Waste Management. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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