To hear some politicians tell it, unfair trade and labor practices have been killing American factory jobs and punishing the U.S. economy for years — and 2018 is finally the year we fight back.
But while that jingoistic worldview may play well to some, the realities of modern manufacturing are more complex. The job-killing boogeyman politicians should be hunting isn’t in China — it’s a homegrown robot.
As Michael Hicks and Srikant Devaraj of Ball State noted in a research report entitled “The Myth and Reality of Manufacturing in America,” productivity in the sector has exploded in the last decade or two thanks to technological innovations, with automation chief among them. That naturally has resulted in fewer jobs to generate the same overall output. For example, if productivity had remained constant from the year 2000 to 2010, U.S. manufacturers would have employed 20.9 million workers in 2010 to achieve that year’s total output, rather than just 12.1 million.
Automation isn’t limited to the manufacturing sector. A March report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimated that 14% of jobs across 32 industrial economies were “highly automatable,” with replacements coming either from robots or from artificial intelligence software that supplants white-collar desk jobs.
Now, technology assuredly has delivered plenty of positives for the global economy. Just look at the rise of high-tech employees or the fact that the most valuable companies in the S&P 500 (.SPX) are trillion-dollar tech stocks as proof that this trend isn’t necessarily a net negative.
In fact, just as shrewd investors moved out of old school bricks-and-mortar retailers and e-commerce plays like Amazon.com (AMZN), one of the most profitable trades right now could be moving out of fading manufacturers and into stocks at the forefront of the automation megatrend.
Here are seven investments that illustrate this opportunity:
Zebra Technologies Corp. (ZBRA) is a unique play on automation in that it focuses on bar codes. That may not sound like part of a robotic future, but when you look deeper you’ll see that Zebra software and tracking technologies have a host of “indoor location” applications that allow warehouses to be organized efficiently or hospitals to track patients via wristbands to prevent medication mix-ups.
Zebra is already looking to integrate those technologies with emerging automation solutions, since it’s a natural evolution for warehouses to robotically pick items or for hospitals to deliver drugs through automated means.
The company is growing fast, with a roughly 11% revenue expansion predicted this fiscal year. And after a big earnings beat in August and improved guidance, shares skyrocketed more than 17% in a single session. Zebra is currently at the top of its 52-week range, and up an impressive 70% year-to-date.
Vision technologies company Flir Systems Inc. (FLIR) may be familiar to some investors because of its tactical and law enforcement division; after police shootings of unarmed Americans began to push into the nation’s consciousness, body cameras like those created by Flir were seen as an increasingly important part of public safety.
However, body cameras are far from all Flir sells. Its high-tech 3-D sensors and infrared scanners have exciting possibilities in the automation arena, as they can be used to monitor turbines, compressors and other manufacturing gear. Its heat-sensing technologies can track crowds at malls and transportation terminals.
Sensors like these are in many ways the building blocks of all automation, so it’s no surprise Flir has been climbing to new heights. Shares popped 7% immediately after a strong July earnings report, and the stock is up more than 30% so far this year, and up more than 120% in the last three years.
Similar in many ways to Flir, Cognex Corp. (CGNX) is a leader in “machine vision” products that capture and analyze visual information. Its technology can do tasks that once required an army of low-level workers, from tracking inventory items to inspecting bottles for flaws to assisting assembly processes.
This midcap was one of 2017’s biggest names, with a run from about $30 to a high of near $70 late last year. However, shares are down about 9% so far in 2018 after January’s marketwide volatility as well as rather lackluster earnings.
But the fundamentals still look good. Sure, Cognex had trouble with lofty expectations back in the spring, but it still posted revenue growth of 22% on the quarter. That’s hardly a black eye. Analysts expect 19% sales growth in fiscal 2019.
While it’s fair to worry about short-term valuation metrics, the important thing is the durable long-term trend that’s lifting this stock.
Another fairly popular stock is Intuitive Surgical Inc. (ISRG) a medical technologies company that in many ways pioneered robotic assisted surgery and brought it into the mainstream. Its landmark da Vinci surgical system has been in production in some form since the 1990s, and more than 4,200 units have collectively performed millions of procedures.
Not only is da Vinci great for patients, since less-invasive procedures reduce infection risk and speed healing, but it’s also a boon to investors. Beyond costing around $1.5 million a pop, the regular maintenance and service of these existing devices provides Intuitive Surgical with a reliable revenue stream. It also provides cash to continue one of the most consistent buyback plans on Wall Street, including a $2 billion accelerated repurchase plan last year.
The long-term record of Intuitive Surgical is impressive, with shares up 360% in the last five years. But don’t think for a second that those returns are in the rearview mirror: the stock is up 50% year-to-date.
One of the oldest names in manufacturing technologies, the roots of Rockwell Automation Inc (ROK) go back to early 20th-century crane technologies. Its operations today span roughly 80 countries and include everything from motion-control systems for assembly lines to motor controls to safety instruments and software.
Looking at the medium term, the stock has climbed 56% since August 2015 compared with a 45% gain for the S&P 500. Though things haven’t been quite as smooth lately, with shares still slightly off their January highs, the stock has surged about 12% in the last month thanks in part to earnings that topped expectations. The company also raised its full-year guidance, and more recently authorized a new $1 billion share-repurchase plan.
Sure, some of the other names on this list are plays with more dynamic narratives. But there’s something to be said for the stability that comes with being a $23 billion leader in general automation technologies — and paying a roughly 2% dividend to boot.
A small-cap stock that has set the world on fire lately, AeroVironment Inc. (AVAV) is one of the few publicly traded companies that is nearly a pure play on drones and related technologies.
Roughly half of the company’s sales come from unmanned aircraft systems provided to the U.S. government. One reasons is a function of regulation — including a rather onerous provision that requires drone operators to keep aircraft within their sight at all times. It’s hard to fully automate crop spraying or package delivery in such a situation.
But the potential is huge — and the company’s success in this regulatory environment speaks very well to how it can scale up in the years ahead. AeroVironment is profitable and booking north of $300 million in revenue, so it’s a going concern and not some high-risk startup. There is real growth, with sales set to jump 14% this fiscal year and another 20% next year.
Investors see clearly see the potential of this stock, bidding its shares up 390% in the last 24 months, and up 150% in the last six months alone.
If you find it hard to pick a single stock from this list, take comfort in the fact that there are automation-related ETFs out there that allow a reasonably diversified play on this trend.
The largest is the Robo Global Robotics & Automation ETF (ROBO) with over $2 billion in assets. The fund consists of 93 holdings, including all six stocks I’ve flagged, and is reasonably diversified with no single holding representing more than about 3% of the portfolio.
The ROBO ETF charges a 0.95% expense ratio, or about $9.50 annually for every $1,000 invested, which is much higher than standard index funds but isn’t unreasonable given the tactical nature of this investment.
You can learn more about it on the ETF’s official website.
An alternative is the ARK Industrial Innovation ETF (ARKQ) which targets investments that rely on trends such as self-driving cars, 3-D printing and robotics. All of these innovations are key to automation in addition to being important technological trends in and of themselves.
This ETF is a bit cheaper at 0.75% in expenses, or $7.50 annually on every $1,000 invested, and also contains many of the names on this list. However, blue-chip names like Amazon.com and even General Motors (GM) bleed into the list to dilute some of the innovative potential. But for some investors, perhaps having part of the fund anchored in familiar names is appealing.
You can learn more about it on the ETF’s official website.
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