A Rock Solid Play In Construction Aggregates

By Aaron Levitt | November 01, 2011 AAA

As infrastructure improvements across the globe continue to gain steam in a variety of nations, the opportunities for the private sector continues to grow. Investors have already, flocked to funds like Brookfield Global Listed Infrastructure (NYSE:INF) and First Trust NASDAQ Clean Edge SM (Nasdaq:GRID) in spades, as a way to play the theme. However, the majority of funds in the sector either focus on the owner, or operators, of infrastructure assets or the companies that do the heavy lifting. With the theme covering a wide variety of topics, there are plenty of ways for investors to profit from the boom. One such, often ignored, sub-sector offers a rock-solid bet on the great build-out.

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Big Money in Crushed Rock
Despite its boring nature, one of the best ways to play the global infrastructure build-out could be the aggregate and materials sector. These bits of crushed limestone, gravel and sand are vital components in a variety of projects. New bridges, concrete structures, road ways and water treatment facilities all require massive amounts of these materials. As the building boom has taken shape over the last few years, the market for these aggregates has grown by 7.26% annually. Many analysts predict that the trend will continue as emerging nations undergo their initial build-outs, and the developed world begins rebuilding dilapidated structures. Researchers at Freedonia estimate that worldwide demand for these materials will expand by 2.9% annually, and global cement demand will rise 4.1% annually through 2013. A report by World Market Intelligence highlights similar predictions with the value of construction aggregates consumed globally, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 10.68% through 2015. Both research groups report that the Asia-Pacific region will be the real driver for this increased demand, as spending for building construction in the region will outpace the rest of the world. (For additional reading on infrastructure assets, check out Build Your Portfolio With Infrastructure Investments.)

With growth prospects aside, investors may be interested in the sector as a value play. The recent market rout and threat of a new recession, in the developed world, has sent stocks in the sector downwards. The proxy for the overall materials sector, the Materials Select Sector SPDR (ARCA:XLB) can be had for a price-earnings ratio of 10. Private construction contracts shrank over the last few months as demand for new shopping malls, office buildings and other commercial buildings have fallen. However, recent pledges by President Obama and House Republicans to seek funds for supporting highway and infrastructure programs, and the global build-out still occurring rapidly, the sector is a long-term value.

Adding Those Aggregates
For investors, the construction aggregate sector could be an interesting bet on the growth in infrastructure spending. While many of the major basic material exchange-traded funds (ETFs) like Vanguard Materials ETF (ARCA:VAW) include a hefty dose of the aggregate producers, there isn't a pure sector fund yet. However, there are plenty of ways to add exposure. (For more on how ETFs are built, read An Inside Look At ETF Construction.)

For those looking at beaten down stocks, Vulcan Materials (NYSE:VMC) could be worth a look. The company is the largest producer of aggregates in the U.S. with 172 stone quarries, 43 sand and gravel plants, 81 sales yards, 37 asphalt plants and 118 ready-mixed concrete facilities. The company drastically cut its dividend in the last quarter, which will save the firm $124 million per year, and could be a great overall move for long-term investors. Similarly, both Martin Marietta Materials (NYSE:MLM) and Texas Industries (NYSE:TXI) have traded downwards in sympathy.

While demand is still far from peak levels, recent data suggests the cement industry could be ready for a rebound. Suffering from the dual curse of being an Irish firm and being a cyclical construction stock, somehow CRH (NYSE:CRH) manages to be a global cement powerhouse that currently yields 2%. In addition, CEMEX (NYSE:CX) finally reported a good quarter and better than expected earnings, but still remains a bargain at its current price.

The Bottom Line
As the infrastructure boom continues to spread worldwide, the construction aggregate firms are poised to profit. Demand for these essential building blocks has grown exponentially over the last few years, and will continue to do so in the near future. The previous firms along with United States Lime & Minerals, (Nasdaq:USLM) make ideal selections to play the recovery.

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At the time of writing, Aaron Levitt did not own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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