Can These Companies Package up Tidy E-tail Profits?

John-Erik is a member of The Motley Fool Blog Network -- entries represent the personal opinion of the blogger and are not formally edited.

E-commerce sales were up by 15% in 2012, a year with overall GDP growth of under 2%. What's more, year-over-year growth in online commerce has been in the double digits in each quarter since mid-2010, according to comScore. And that trend looks to be accelerating out of the recession.

This is the third in a series of posts that takes a look at opportunities in the growing e-tail trend. In the first, I took a look at Amazon, the fast-growing e-tail juggernaut. In the second, I looked at the two companies that delivery all those packages that people are ordering online: United Parcel Service (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX).

UPS and FedEx offer less risky ways to play the e-tail megatrend than investing in Amazon. Both foresee steady growth in revenues, but offer dividends: FedEx at 1% and UPS just below 3%. But both also have headwinds ahead of them. FedEx is just starting to execute a major restructuring in an effort to make itself a leaner, more efficient delivery company. But that reorganization will come at a cost of around $650 million, something sure to pressure the company’s earnings and margins in the near term. For UPS, those headwinds come in the form of pension obligations (of which it just paid a sum of $3 billion), union negotiations, and the reported loss of market share to its chief competitor.

In this post, my focus will shift to the companies that make the packaging materials needed for all those orders Amazon is filling and UPS and FedEx are delivering. There are a number of companies that operate in this sector, and some promising opportunities for investors.

Do the packaging producers offer an even better opportunity than the shippers or Amazon, the e-tail king? Let’s take a look.

Packaging’s patriarch

Bemis (NYSE: BMS) is a packaging products company with a 155-year history and a track record of staying on the cutting edge of the industry. It has grown its revenues by an average of better than 10% a year since 2009. Earnings have grown at an average clip of about 9% over that time.

But 2012 was not a particularly stellar year for Bemis. Revenues were down over 2011 by about 3%, even though earnings were up. Bemis blamed that on letting go some of the less profitable packaging it had previously provided.

The company is also in the midst of consolidating the 78 plants it operates globally. It figures that consolidation will save about $45 million in 2013. That’s a considerable sum for a company that posted $173 million in income in 2012.  So, in Bemis we see a more efficient packaging producer with a long track record of innovation focused on higher-margin products. All of that looks good. And the company expects to earn between $2.30 and $2.45 per share this year, giving it a reasonable forward-PE of around 16.

The trouble with Bemis as a play on e-tail is that e-commerce makes up only a very small amount of Bemis’s overall business. Indeed, 85% of the company’s sales comes from food packaging. Pharmaceuticals make up another significant piece of the pie. So, while Bemis would benefit if people buy more of these products it makes packaging for, it won’t necessarily matter how those purchases are made, in a store or online.

Admit it, you love to pop those bubbles

Our second packaging company to consider is Sealed Air Corp. (NYSE: SEE). You probably know Sealed Air as the maker of Bubble Wrap.  Like Bemis, Sealed Air manufactures packaging for a variety of applications, and its single biggest area of business is food packaging. But where Bemis’s food business rings in at 85%, Sealed Air’s makes up less than half of the pie.

What’s more, the company’s incoming CEO says Sealed Air is “making good inroads in our e-commerce business.” It likes the prospects for its inflatable void-fill cushions and more advanced bubble cushions. Sales for its protective packaging business were up 4.4% in North America over the prior year, something company officials credited to “expanded market presence and strength in e-commerce.”

The stock has been on a tear. Sealed Air is up 17% since it reported earnings three weeks ago that beat Wall Street estimates. The stock is also up more than 50% over the past six months, a bubbly story, to say the least, for SEE investors.

But caution may be warranted here. Sealed Air’s revenue for the last quarter was largely flat over the fourth quarter of 2011, and its expectations for 2013 are not for significant growth. Revenue expectations are flat to marginally higher. Given that the recent run-up leaves Sealed Air with a forward PE of more than 20, there’s not enough cushion built into this stock right now for me to be a buyer.

Packaging powerhouse

That brings us to our final packaging play on the e-tail megatrend: International Paper (NYSE: IP). IP is America’s leading supplier of corrugated packaging and paperboard. The company has achieved slow but steady growth. Revenues were up by about 6.4%, on average, over the past three years. It carries an unattractive price-to-earnings multiple of near 27. But analysts expect the company to earn $3.68 a share in 2013, well beyond 2012’s $2-per-share earnings. That would put the forward-PE around 12.5.

IP expects demand for corrugated packaging in the U.S. to grow, but only by a little more than 1% per year over the next five years. But IP successfully increased prices in its containerboard and box businesses last year. It expects to reap the benefit of that in 2013, it says.  In 2012, the company shed $2 billion in debt while improving revenues by more than 10%  last quarter, year-over-year. It also increased its dividend by 14%. It now pays around 2.65%.

IP says it will continue to improve its already strong cash flow, which should give it the ability to continue raising that dividend for shareholders.

Let’s wrap it up

With revenues expected to march upward at what’s best a slow and steady pace, none of these packaging producers looks like a compelling growth story. But Bemis and International Paper still look like solid investments, each with a long history of execution and innovation, as well as solid -- and steadily growing -- dividends.

But while these companies give investors an opportunity to get a piece of the e-tail pie, none of the three offers much more than a sliver. If you like one of these picks, e-tail notwithstanding, by all means investigate further. If it’s the e-tail trend you’re looking to capitalize on, however, there may be better opportunities to be had.




John-Erik Koslosky has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends FedEx and United Parcel Service. The Motley Fool owns shares of Sealed Air. 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. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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