One company has been called the "most hated" in the world for a number of years. It was even declared "the most evil corporation of the year" in 2011 by NaturalNews.com -- beating out BP (NYSE: BP ) , which had just spilled millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (and which I profiled just last week).
#-ad_banner-#Even so, a couple of billionaires are less concerned with this company's image than in its growth potential. Stephen Mandel's Lone Pine Capital owns 5.8 million shares of Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) , and George Soros ' Soros Fund Management owns 1.2 million shares.
Soros' fund more than doubled its position during the fourth quarter of last year. And Lone Pine has been an owner of Monsanto for a few years now, continuing to own the stock despite the rise of negative publicity.
Monsanto has been something of an industry scapegoat over the past couple of years, while other seed companies, such as DuPont (NYSE: DD ) and Bayer, have gone relatively unnoticed.
It has been painted in a negative light by protesters, environmental activists and documentaries. A vow by Chipotle (NYSE: CMG ) to drop all GMO (genetically modified organism) products hasn't helped, either.
Investing in research and development has been Monsanto's focus for a number of years. Developing products for high-yielding crops and feeding a large part of the world has been a great strategy for shareholders. However, the strict focus on R&D spending has come at a cost to Monsanto's corporate image.
Yet there's another side to the GMO argument. Monsanto is looking to increase its marketing efforts to better educate consumers about its products and GMOs.
Toward the end of last year, Monsanto strengthened its relationship with one of the largest PR firms in the U.S. It's also beefed up its own PR staff and launched a website. Some of the focal points will be Monsanto's benefits to farms and the job market, and sustainable agriculture.
What A PR Campaign Could Mean For Investors
So what could a positive PR campaign do for the company? Its revenue has continued to grow despite the negative publicity. On the other hand, investors who consider themselves "socially responsible" might begin to open up their portfolio to Monsanto as they learn more about its products.
|Despite the expected decline of corn acreage in the Americas for 2014, Monsanto has a stronghold on the cotton and soy markets, which should more than offset the losses from corn.|
Wall Street shares Mandel and Soros' favorable opinion of Monsanto. Analysts have a resounding "buy" rating on the stock, with a mean price target that's close to $130.
Shares have proved resilient even with the company's poor public image. In the three years since Monsanto was called the most evil corporation of 2011, shares are up over 60% and have outperformed the S&P 500 by 10 percentage points.
The company has seen revenue grow at an annualized rate of 12% over the past three years. Revenue should continue to climb, which should help drive the share price higher. But assuming Monsanto is even moderately successful in its PR campaign, it could see some multiple expansion. MON currently trades at a discount to its historical average.
Favorable Long-Term Trends
Food remains a global necessity, and with a growing global population, the importance of the seeds that Monsanto produces is only increasing. Fortunately for Monsanto, it already has a presence in some of the fastest-growing markets, such as Africa and Asia, giving it a first-mover advantage.
As the amount of available land dwindles, the need for higher-yield seeds increases. That's where Monsanto's development of next-generation seeds comes into play. Developing countries like South America are also seeing an increase in the demand for higher-priced seeds as incomes rise. These new seeds sell at higher than average prices and generate higher margins.
All in all, Monsanto appears to be the best play in the changing agriculture business, with the best offerings of seeds in corn and soy. Despite the expected decline of corn acreage in the Americas for 2014, Monsanto has a stronghold on the cotton and soy markets, which should more than offset the losses from corn.
Going into 2014, Monsanto had a record number of projects in its pipeline. This comes after it launched five new products in fiscal 2013. In addition, it added Climate Corp. to its portfolio at the end of 2013. Monsanto plans to use Climate Corp. technology to help farmers increase their yields.
Risks to Consider: If grain prices decline, so will the incentive to increase yields and the demand for Monsanto's seeds. Monsanto also has a lot of exposure to corn corps, so any large shift from acreage away from corn would be a negative for the company. Monsanto is also heavily exposed to government policies. Any change in how GMOs are used could have a profound impact on Monsanto.
Action to Take --> Buy Monsanto with upside to $150. With a historical average price-to-earnings multiple of 25 on expected fiscal 2015 earnings of $6 a share, there's upside of 35% in just over a year's time. In the meantime, you'll collect a dividend payment that's been on the rise the past four years and currently yields 1.5%.