Offsetting gas costs

June 15, 2008|By Harriet Johnson Brackey | Harriet Johnson Brackey,South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - If $4-or-more-a-gallon gas is what we face this summer, then it's time to find a way to handle it. Here's one way to ease the pain: Invest in something that benefits from high gasoline prices.

What are the best plays on expensive oil?

"I don't think that's a real hard question," said James Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, which is a unit of Wells Fargo. "Oil stocks will do well or you can play commodities and basic materials because commodities are going up and the dollar's becoming weak."

True. Oil is the commodity that's sky high. And all the mega-oil companies are up strongly. If you've owned any of the major integrated oil companies for a while, it's probably not all that distressing to watch gasoline prices go up.

That group, according to the S&P 500 energy index, has just about tripled in value in the past five years. Some are soaring more than others. Chevron has had one-year total return of more than 24 percent. Exxon Mobil was also doing well until last week, when it posted a year-to-date decline of nearly 5 percent.

A few more affordable and interesting ideas in industries you may not have considered: Bikes, railroads and cement companies.

You can follow Warren Buffett's lead. He's bought 18 percent of Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

"What you have in railroads is a relatively efficient way to move stuff across the country, relative to trucks when diesel prices are going up," said Paul Larson, editor of Morningstar StockInvestor, a newsletter from the Chicago research firm.

That's what has made rail stocks attractive to investors who want to be "green," because trains use less energy and cause less pollution than cars and trucks.

In addition, Larson pointed out that these companies have an enduring competitive advantage: "Rights of way are very, very difficult to achieve," Larson said. "There hasn't been a new railroad built in God knows how many decades."

Cheaper than Burlington Northern is Canadian National Railway Co. Like Burlington Northern, it has been trading near its 52-week high, but its 20 percent run-up this year is smaller than Burlington Northern's nearly 36 percent gain.

If, like South Florida money manager Jeffrey Koch at Goldstein Schechter Koch, you think we'll all be pedaling more as gas gets pricier, then you can go on the hunt for a good bicycle investment.

"Bicycles, motorcycles will be more in demand than they would have been," Koch said. Not to mention helmets and bicycle attire.

A Canadian consumer products company, Dorel Industries Inc., has hit on this niche. Most of the company's products are ready-to-assemble cribs and other home furnishings, but Dorel has been building its business in bicycle manufacturing. This year, it's buying Cannondale, the high-end maker of performance bicycles. That pads out its line, which includes the Schwinn, GT and Mongoose brands. Dorel stock trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Investing in cement companies was an unusual idea from Morningstar's Larson. Transportation is a huge part of the cost of cement. So his idea is that competitors will be less willing to truck their cement to distant buyers. Because there's less competition, the cement companies will be able to charge more.

He recommends two stocks: Vulcan Industrial and Mining Corp., which recently purchased Florida Rock, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based company, and Cemex, the world's largest cement maker. Cemex is a Mexican company that bought Rinker Group, an Australian firm, last year.

Cemex has had strong gains this year, while Vulcan, which had a huge gain in 2006, is off about 6 percent this year.

Harriet Johnson Brackey writes for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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