In 1919, a young army colonel embarked on a convoy from one end of the United States to the other. It took 62 days, at an average of six miles an hour, to get from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, Calif.
Along the way, nine vehicles were lost. A total of 21 men were injured and left behind. More than half the roads were dirt. The slow pace and unsafe conditions had a huge effect on Col. Dwight Eisenhower. More than 30 years later, Eisenhower, then president, pushed for the creation of a national highway system.
While this key piece of infrastructure was designed for military use, it enabled easy transportation for millions. It cemented the automobile as the premiere form of American transportation. It made commuting between towns, and even the growth of the suburbs, possible.
In the 1990s, a similar development occurred with the Internet, also known as the information superhighway.
One key player created the infrastructure necessary to accommodate growing Internet traffic. At one point, this company sported a market cap of more than half a trillion dollars. For a brief time, it was the world’s largest company. Markets assigned a value of more than $20 million per employee.
Like many other internet companies, it fell sharply as the bubble burst. Unlike many, it remained tremendously profitable. In the past decade, it’s gotten financially stronger and continues to deliver.
As one of today’s most unloved companies, Cisco Systems (CSCO) looks like an astute purchase for any value-oriented investor. Why? Because it’s a major global player and sports a fortress-like balance sheet that would make Warren Buffett envious.
Free cash flow has more than doubled from 4.1 billion to 9.2 billion in the past 10 years. In that time, management has reduced the number of shares outstanding by 22 percent, from 7.4 billion to 5.84 billion. The company paid its first dividend on April 20, 2011.
Meanwhile, Cisco trades at a price-earnings ratio, or PE, of 13.3, substantially below its average of 20.4. Back out the company’s net cash position of $25 billion and the metrics look even more alluring: less than eight times forward earnings.
If you wanted to grab Cisco’s market share, you’d need more than the $96 billion it’s currently going for. While its brand is not on the scale of McDonald’s or Coke, Cisco has built a reputation for quality that other industry players lack.
Cisco’s networking technology enables everything from basic web-browsing to internet video conferencing. It’s literally the concrete of the information superhighway.
Nevertheless, shares are a staggering 84 percent off the company’s all-time high in 2000. Typically, when a company falls that much, it’s headed for bankruptcy. Clearly, something’s amiss in the market’s view of Cisco.
Cisco is barely off its 52-week low. But what I find interesting is that the stock logged a modest gain during last week’s tumultuous trading and commodity price collapse.
The best fortunes in investing are made buying what the market hates.
Right now, the market hates Cisco.
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