In the stock market, sometimes you get what you pay for. High-priced stocks like Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) have paid off nicely for investors in the last several years, and cheap financials like Bank of America (NYSE:BAC) remain volatile and risky plays … even if financials seem to have some spring in their step to start 2012.
But not all cheap stocks are ugly investments that have been rightfully beaten down. Some low-price shares are screaming bargains that are worth your cash.
The three companies listed here aren’t penny stocks that trade on sentiment alone. They each have a market cap of over $2 billion and respectable trading volume that regularly tops 3 million shares daily. They can be risky, of course, but they aren’t the all-out gambles like many low-priced microcaps touted by pump-and-dump artists.
Here are three low-priced stocks to consider:
In July of 2011, Wendy’s (NASDAQ:WEN) completed the sale of its Arby’s Restaurant Group to a wholly owned subsidiary. The move backed out some revenue, and restructuring costs have been a short-term drag. But the sale has allowed Wendy’s to focus on its healthy chain and not get bogged down in the struggling Arby’s brand.
Wendy’s sales have continued to grow, allowing the quick-service restaurant to dethrone privately held Burger King from its status the No. 2 burger chain in the U.S. In 2011’s third quarter, same-store sales increased 1.8% at Wendy’s North America Co.-operated restaurants. The October launch of the Dave’s Hot ‘N Juicy burgers line has also allowed Wendy’s to tap into the bigger margins that come with premium menu items instead of the race to the bottom on cheap eats.
Wendy’s poses risks, of course. Food inflation is hurting the bottom line. And Wall Street is apparently already baking in growth, with an inflated price-earnings ratio of around 24 – compared with 19 for Yum! Brands (NYSE:YUM) and 17 for McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD).
However, Wendy’s has a lot to be enthusiastic about. The company estimates operating margins will rise from 7.3% to 9.1% in 2012. It’s remodeling stores. It’s updating its menu with healthy and fresh options like skin-on fries seasoned with sea salt. And it’s taking advantage of Burger King’s listlessness as private owners 3G Capital focus on cutting costs and streamlining operations instead of investing in growth.
To top it off, Wendy’s is now run by Emil Brolick — who successfully rejuvenated Yum through international expansion. If Wendy’s can squeeze out growth both at home and abroad, it will do well in 2012.
If you’re of the Warren Buffett school of thought — “buy what you know” — you may want to steer clear of semiconductor stock LSI Corp. (NYSE:LSI). It makes high-tech gear that’s used for networking and media services, among other applications
LSI is in the middle of a transformation away from data storage and into chipmaking. Back in 2010, approximately 37% of revenues came from storage and 63% from semiconductors — but the dual nature of the business gave it too many competitors. So across 2011, LSI divested its data storage operations to NetApp (NASDAQ:NTAP) so it can focus on the higher margins of being a chipmaker. It also allowed LSI to form strategic relationships with companies previously viewed as rivals in the storage segment.
The risk is that “systems” businesses related to storage contributed the most growth in years past, so LSI is making a gamble. However, many analysts expect accelerating revenues from new customers that could include NetApp, EMC (NASDAQ:EMC) and Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) across 2012. The sheer demand for semiconductors in all manner of electronics ensures industrywide growth, and LSI is positioning itself to tap into this potential.
The company has zero long-term debt, and its 2012 earnings are expected to grow 27% over 2011 numbers. One fear is the stock may be a bit overbought in the near term, with a 36% run-up since Thanksgiving. But there’s tremendous growth potential across 2012 and 2013 if LSI plays its cards right.
SandRidge Energy (NYSE:SD) is an oil and natural gas exploration company that operates mainly in West Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Back in 2008, SandRidge was one of those commodity stocks that everybody wanted a piece of. It doubled from around $30 to over $60 … and then crashed with oil prices to under $10.
SandRidge might never get back to its previous share price. But the company is actually tracking a revenue number not seen since its 2008 peak.
Specifically, SandRidge estimates some $1.4 billion in 2011 revenue and over $1.6 billion in fiscal 2012. Back in 2008, SD came up a little short of $1.2 billion in revenue.
As for profits, that’s a bit trickier. The company has had some rough losses in the intervening years and should finish about breakeven when it reports full-year 2011 numbers. Revenue is nice, but it’s the earnings that matter.
SandRidge also warned in November that its full-year production for 2011 was going to decline due to trouble with operations in the Gulf of Mexico. RBC Capital Markets downgraded the stock from outperform to sector perform a few weeks ago as a result.
But RBC’s target is $10 a share — 25% higher than current valuations at $8. Also, though Gulf production hit a snag, it’s important to note that West Texas and other mid-continental operations actually grew in Q3 and should see continued improvement.
And let’s not forget that oil prices are once again around $100 and baseline energy demand isn’t going down anytime soon.
SandRidge is a risky growth play, like so many other energy exploration and service companies. But this cheap stock has the potential to break out in 2012.
Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com. Write him at editor@investorplace??.com, follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP and become a fan of InvestorPlace on Facebook. Jeff Reeves holds a position in Alcoa, but no other publicly traded stocks.