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  Everyone loves a comeback — here are 13

BENJ GALLANDER and BEN STADELMANN

Monday, May 11, 2009

There's nothing like a spring rally to perk up shell-shocked investors. Since the lows in early March, the TSX is up a lovely 32.6 percent and the S&P 500 36 percent. But outside of the big indexes, amongst companies that already had their share of problems before the recession hit, the comebacks have been far, far more dramatic.

On our Stock Watch List, that tank of contrarian candidates that we prowl for prospects, we see an astounding number of stocks that have doubled, tripled, quadrupled — well, you get the idea. Here are a baker's dozen of phoenixes that have not just risen but soared from the ashes.

Angiotech Pharmaceuticals
Low $0.11 — November 25, current $0.84, gain 663 percent
This Vancouver-based biotech makes coatings for heart stents. Despite warnings that a drop in revenue could lead to shareholder dilution, a $25 million royalty cheque from one its licensing partners has bought a lifeline.

Avis Budget Group
Low $0.34 — March 3, current $3.75, gain 1002 percent
Revenue at the car rental company was off by 17 percent in the last quarter, resulting in a large loss, but that still beat analysts' more pessimistic estimates.

Borders Group
Low $0.34 — December 24, current $2.32, 582 percent
Last fall, the bookseller was slammed by fears that books were about to follow newspapers on the road to oblivion. Reports of death were premature.

Cott Corporation
Low $0.74 — December 6, current $4.62, gain 524 percent
We've followed this one carefully for a while, but our hand was stayed by skepticism over the soft-drink manufacturer's ability to replace sales from Walmart. Others apparently are much more optimistic, buoyed by the recent quarterly results.

CPI Corp.
Low $1.00 — November 21, current $10.16, gain 916 percent
This portrait-studio chain was a successful, profitable company until it took over a rival in 2007 and became dangerously overextended.

Magellan Aerospace
Low $0.22 — March 9, current $1.78, gain 709 percent
Magellan's travails were the subject of a column in this space in December 2007. Despite an auditor's "going concern" warning, a credit amendment was arranged last week to keep the company on life support.

Nashua
Low $0.78 — March 31, current $6.50, gain 733 percent
Old boring Nashua, subject of a column in October 2007, has suddenly become very exciting due to a takeover bid from Cenveo.

Photronics
Low $0.33, November 26, current $2.16, gain 554 percent
The entire semiconductor industry fell off a cliff last fall. In that complex food chain, Photronics manufactures photomasks, the quartz plates which contain microscopic images of electronic circuits, used to make microchips.

Rite Aid
Low $0.20, March 6, current $0.90, gain 349 percent
We've watched this drug retailer for years, ever since its brush with bankruptcy in 2002.

Select Comfort
Low $0.19 — December 19, current $1.05, gain 381 percent
Beds are a fairly big ticket item for consumers and the timing of purchases is largely discretionary.

Sunrise Senior Living
Low $0.27 — November 21, current $2.57, gain 825 percent
This provider of living arrangements for retirees nearly was retired itself, but managed to renegotiate debt.

Suntech Power Holdings
Low $5.09 — March 2, current $16.42, gain 218 percent
Though market sentiment about the future of renewable energy zigs and zags, this Chinese manufacturer of solar panels has a bright long-term outlook.

Tarrant Apparel Group
Low $0.21 — October 3, current $0.68, gain 223 percent
We wrote about this California-based rag merchant last July as a takeover play. Skepticism reigned about whether a tabled offer to take the company private at $0.85 a share would go through or not. It remains on track.

A few observations. None of these stocks are in financial services or home builders, the epicentre of the market meltdown. Though they all undoubtedly are impacted by the recession, investors sold these companies in a panic as if they were preparing bankruptcy filings.

It takes time for the effects of a contraction to percolate through an economy, and corporations do have alternatives to exhaust before throwing in the towel and hearing "Here come de judge." As frightening as the financial news has been the past few months, it isn't reasonable to assume that people are going to suddenly stop reading books, drinking pop or filling their prescriptions.

There has been a lot of commentary recently that in a bear market rally the key thing is to take a quick 15-20 percent gain and run. We beg to differ. Playing badly beat-up stocks requires more mathematical imagination. Though most investors understand that a stock that decreases by 50 percent must rise by 100 percent to get back to even, they don't fully appreciate this concept when it gets stretched.

Take a stock like Select Comfort that traded for years in the $10-$25 range. Its low of $0.19 represents a 98 percent reduction from the bottom part of its range. Sure, a rise of nearly 400 percent is spectacular, but its still only at one tenth of a very modest version of its former self. Looking for pint-size profits in this type of scenario is ridiculous.

We're not smart enough to have bought all these stocks, and frankly, some of them were simply too scary for us to push the buy button. However, we are happy to have Nashua in the Contra portfolio, we both own Tarrant outside, and one Contra Guy had a grand time with Borders, Photronics and Select Comfort. For those lamenting their unwillingness to buy when blood was running in the streets, fear not. In our view, the bear has more growl left, and there will be more buy opportunities like these when people are dumping in despair.


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