The Most "Wasteful" Industries

By Jonas Elmerraji | April 20, 2010 AAA
The Most

With an increased emphasis on cost controls in today's post-recession economy, it may seem surprising that corporate waste is still abundant. While excessive C-suite luxuries and wasted company supplies are a serious problem for investors, the most significant industry waste is actually a necessary part of the production process. Today, we're taking a look at how the most "wasteful" industries of 2010 could impact your finances.

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By the standard we're using today, calling a company wasteful doesn't suggest that it's any less conscientious about taking good care of shareholder dollars than the competition. Instead, it means that the significant production inputs needed to run operations are high enough that investors should be well aware of what's going on.

After all, regulatory risks, commodities price changes, and dropped government subsidies threaten to crush the profitability of these industries.

So, which sectors are teetering on the edge? Overwhelmingly, the companies that made our list are in a commodity-driven business.

The Oil Industry
The increasing price of oil shouldn't be mistaken for the increasing cost of oil. With oil demand strong in the mid-2000s, oil companies like Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM) and Chevron (NYSE:CVX) significantly expanded their E&P operations, pouring money into oil projects that were significantly more expensive. That was fine in the days of $140 oil in mid 2008 - but significantly less so in early 2009 when oil traded for less than $40 a barrel. (Find out how to invest and protect your investments in this slippery sector in Peak Oil: What To Do When The Wells Run Dry.)

Since then, oil has rebounded in a big way - back to around $85 a barrel as of this writing - but the damage of cheap oil had already been done. With scores of governments in the Middle East posting deficits and Wall Street earnings severely impacted by unprofitable oil production sites, investors are likely to be more cautious in 2010 knowing that they're victim to commodity price swings.

Ethanol Production
With heat over the rising cost of fossil fuels, investor dollars have been pouring into alternative fuel sources like ethanol, which is made from corn. But ethanol faces its own set of challenges thanks to inefficient technologies and enormous input costs. A professor at UC Berkeley calculated that one energy unit of ethanol takes six units of energy input to produce.

That's a startling statistic that's made worse by the fact that ethanol's subsidies cost American taxpayers around $4.18 per gallon. Although ethanol has beneficial practical uses in the energy sector, researchers must reduce its production costs significantly. (Interest in these new energy sources is growing. Should you buy in? Learn more in The Biofuels Debate Heats Up.)

Food Production
How pricey is your food? While that burger on the McDonalds Dollar Menu might seem like a bargain, the beef in it wasn't - in fact, beef uses 35 units of energy (in the form of petroleum, grain, and other inputs) for each unit of energy produced. Plants aren't much more economical - they require an average of 5.5 gallons of fossil fuels per acre in the form of pesticides.

According to Sustainable Table, one study suggested that around 10% of U.S. energy consumption was from the food industry. (Trim the fat from your grocery bill to reduce the impact of food cost on your budget. Learn how in 22 Ways To Fight Rising Food Prices.)

A large portion of that cost was the result of highly consolidated means of production - produce and livestock are generally harvested on "superfarms" from which they need to be transported to reach the dinner table. However, an increased focus on locally available foods could curb this trend.

Interestingly, according to the book When the River Runs Dry, a single cup of coffee actually uses 1,170 cupfuls of water after the production inputs of the sugar and coffee beans are factored into the process.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road
So, should you steer clear of these high-input industries? Not necessarily. Companies whose products require substantial inputs aren't necessarily bad investments, but they do require a bit more analysis than stocks with double-digit recurring margins.

When you're taking a look at the company's investment potential, take into account how projected commodity prices and potential policy changes could affect the stock's fundamentals - and whether it still makes financial sense if a "worst case scenario" plays out. (They're hard to predict, but commodities cycles provide valuable information for traders. Check out Cashing In On A Commodities Boom.)

While wasteful industries may be more susceptible to market conditions than other stocks, don't rule them out solely because of their situations.

Don't miss what's happening this week in the financial world. Check out Water Cooler Finance: Buffett's Bank Fraud And Financial Eruptions.)

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