Inside Wall Street: 2 buyout targets

The interest in these online ad company and a supermarket chain rises as the M&A market heats up.

By Gene Marcial Mar 4, 2013 12:43PM
The search for possible merger-and-acquisition candidates has picked up steam in recent months, resulting in a frenzy of deals, including Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway's (BRK.B) surprise decision to acquire Heinz (HNZ). That has raised the energy among activist investors and buyout players to levels not seen since the late 1980s.

Not surprisingly, the resurgence of M&A deals has Wall Street looking for other likely targets, fueling renewed optimism among investors that helped propel the stock market to near all time highs. On Mar. 1, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ($INDU) reached a five- year high of 14,089.66 -- within spitting distance of its all-time high of 14,164.53, reached six years ago, on Oct. 9, 2007.

The lists of stocks that are potential buyout targets have mushroomed on Wall Street, making the task of picking out likely winners more interesting, if a bit more complicated.

Two stocks -- ValueClick (VCLK), a global online marketing and advertising company, and Harris Teeter Supermarkets (HTSI), a southeastern regional supermarket chain -- haven't gotten much press as attractive stocks, much less as enticing potential acquisition candidates. But they are undervalued, analysts say, both on their fundamental and technical attributes.

ValueClick, which enables marketers to advertise and sell their products or services online through major digital channels, has been an acquisitive company itself. It's been expanding sales and revenues by acquiring companies, including the display advertising company Dotomi and mobile advertising network Greystripe in 2011. But it is now being considered a target.

Some analysts say ValueClick appeals mostly to Internet, media and advertising companies partly. Its suite of digital marketing services and custom-designed programs helps companies raise public awareness to their products and services and generate sales through a myriad of Web and mobile applications.

An indication of its appeal is the increased activity in its stock, which traded as low as $8.60 a share in 2010. It has since more than doubled, to $19 in 2012. By Mar. 1, 2013, ValueClick had jumped to $26. The stock is worth more than $30, some pros figure.

Arrow Up Cory Docken Spots Illustration JupiterimagesHarris Teeter, which operates 204 supermarkets in the South, has been tagged as an acquisition candidate by some market watchers even before it disclosed on Feb. 13, 2013, that it was exploring strategic moves to enhance its market value -- after receiving feelers from interested groups. It has hired an investment bank to help it negotiate with parties interested in the company.

Harris Teeter, according to sources, has been approached by two private equity funds, but the company hasn't provided any details on this report. Harris Teeter stores offer an assortment of groceries and food items, as well as health and beauty products. It also operates pharmacies in some of its stores.

The reported interest in the company should support the supermarket chain's current valuation, says Joseph Agnese, analyst at S&P Capital IQ, who has upgraded his
recommendation on the stock from a "sell" to "hold." Trading at $25 a share in 2010, the stock has climbed to $43 on Mar. 1, 2013, boosted in part by the buying from some large investors betting that Harris Teeter may end up as a buyout target before long.

Some of these pros point out that the hedge funds are banking on the likelihood that among Harris Teeters' peers Whole Foods Markets (WFM) would be the most interested in acquiring the supermarket company. Whole Foods is the largest U.S. retailer of natural and organic foods, which posted sales of $11.7 billion in 2012. Its market cap if $16 billion dwarfs Harris Teeter's $2.1 billion.

Although Harris Teeter's stores aren't focused on natural and organic foods, they would provide Whole Foods additional exposure in more southern states, among them North Carolina, where Harris Teeter operates 136 stores; Virginia where it has 36 supermarkets, and South Carolina where it owns 13. Whole Foods could easily convert those stores into natural and organic food outlets.

In sum, the true value of the two companies may yet be unlocked given the renewed investor passion for buyout deals.
 

gene


Gene Marcial wrote the column "Inside Wall Street" for Business Week for 28 years and now writes for MSN Money's Top Stocks. He also wrote the book "Seven Commandments of Stock Investing," published by FT Press.

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