Environmental stocks return to public favor

Andrew Leckey

November 18, 1992|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

The environment goes in and out of political and investmen favor.

It's "in" again following the election of Democrats Bill Clinton and Al Gore, based on the likelihood of more active environmental enforcement than has been the case for some time.

While environmental stocks had been stuck in the doldrums for several years, their prices started rising as soon as the chances for a win by the challengers seemed solid.

"Though Al Gore was kept quiet on the issue during the campaign, he is well-known to be the 'green' senator and active in environmental issues," says Leone Young, analyst with Smith Barney, Harris Upham & Co.

"In light of his legislative stands and his book, 'Earth in the Balance,' Gore seems likely to promote a more positive attitude toward environmental issues."

Once-burned investors who bought these stocks after President Bush billed himself as the "environmental president" four years ago are wary. This year, that same Bush was taunting Gore as the "ozone man."

"I believe President Bush was incorrectly advised that pro-environmental policies cost the economy jobs, without taking into account jobs created on the environmental side," says Vishnu Swarup, first vice president with Prudential Securities. "The Clinton win is favorable for the stocks, since it should mean more money spent on the environment here, which will encourage export of technology for cleanups abroad."

Long-term opportunities worldwide look good, but be reasonable. Once considered pure growth stocks, environmental equities have been proven to be economically sensitive in recent years.

"There seems to be a public perception that Al Gore is going to be running around in a white hat enforcing environmental legislation, which is nonsense," says Aldo Mazzaferro, analyst with C.J. Lawrence, who believes the Republicans did fine by the environmental companies and doesn't expect dramatic change.

Two positive steps taken while the Republicans have been in office, Mazzaferro points out, have been land bans to tighten restrictions on hazardous waste disposal and regulations to improve standards of landfill environmental control.

"Environmental stocks have been a horrible place to invest the past two years, and I worry the casual investor will simply attribute this to the weak economy," warns Tom Sprague, portfolio manager of the $62 million-asset Fidelity Select Environmental Services Fund, down 8 percent this year.

"Despite a likely rebound in the economy, I don't think we'll ever again see 15 to 20 percent growth rates common in the past."

Taking the pros, cons and speculation into account, there are many choices.

IMCO Recycling, largest U.S. aluminum can recycler, is a favorite stock of Young and Sprague. Clinton has pledged to increase recycling. Aluminum recycling is an excellent moneymaker and this stock is inexpensively priced.

Waste Management, the world's largest environmental firm, is recommended by Young, Swarup, Mazzaferro and Sprague, though its recent run-up in price gives some of them pause. The company operates solid-waste systems and also handles hazardous and medical waste. It's expected that its U.S. garbage and disposal business will benefit from an improvement in our economy.

This sprawling company also owns 77 percent of Chemical Waste Management, 57 percent of Wheelebrator Technologies and 56 percent of European-based Waste Management International.

Stock of Waste Management International is recommended by Swarup because it's growing at a 30 percent annual clip. Chemical Waste Management, biggest company in hazardous waste, is the largest holding in Sprague's portfolio. Though plagued by past problems, it's seeing improvement. Wheelebrator Technology, a force in waste incineration, air and water treatment and consulting, is selected by Swarup and Sprague.

Browning-Ferris Industries, second-largest solid waste firm in the United States, is suggested by Young and Swarup as a turnaround story based on an improved economy.

Mid-American Waste Systems, a small Ohio company in solid waste, sewage disposal and recycling, is a pick of Swarup because it will likely have 15 to 20 percent annual growth.

Wahlco Environmental Systems in air pollution is considered a speculative choice by Swarup. Rollins Environmental Services, a hazardous-waste incineration firm, is recommended by Mazzaferro.

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