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Shootout: Smith & Wesson vs. Sturm Ruger

Today, I want to pit two Magic Formula Investing® (MFI) gun stocks against one another: Smith & Wesson (SWHC) and Sturm Ruger (RGR). What is behind the gun stocks' appearance in MFI? Do they look like attractive investments at current prices? Which of the two is better? Let's put them under the scope.

Boom, Boom, Boom

Like it or not, firearms are woven tightly into American history and culture. The founding fathers found gun ownership so important that they protected it in the second amendment to the U.S. constitution. Some of the world's most famous guns and gunmakers, from the Colt Single Action to the Remington 870 to the M16, have come from America. At about 40% personal ownership and over 300 million guns, the U.S. easily has the most armed citizenship in the world.

Recently, the gun industry has enjoyed record demand, with 3 distinct gun "booms" in the U.S. over the past 5 years. The first came in 2008, when the election of Barack Obama sparked fears of increased gun control and even a potential repeal of the second amendment. The second was in 2012, when his re-election became apparent. And the third, ongoing to this day, came after the horrifying school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, sparked new momentum for gun control laws.

The tangible evidence is staggering. Background checks are up a staggering 4-fold since 1999. Since 2007, Ruger has grown sales 243% while Smith & Wesson is up 127%. Both firms are running flat-out, struggling to produce enough guns to meet demand.

Without a doubt, it has been a good time to be a gun maker.

Dueling Stocks

So we know the industry conditions are good, but which of the two stocks is more attractive?

The companies themselves are very similar. Ruger makes essentially all of its dough from firearms, and although S&W is also a big maker of handcuffs, 96% of sales are from guns. Both firms compete mainly in pistols, revolvers, and rifles. Ruger doesn't compete in black powder guns or "modern sporting rifles", where S&W does with its Thompson Center and M&P Sport lines, respectively.

From a quality standpoint, there is a clear winner - Ruger. While both have enjoyed the boom, Ruger has operated better. We already quoted growth figures, where Ruger has double the revenue growth since 2007. During that period, Ruger has successfully gotten in front of the trends, a notable one being lightweight compact revolvers, something Smith & Wesson was behind the curve on. Ruger has a better balance sheet, with $46 million in cash and zero debt, vs. $62 million cash / $44 million debt for S&W. Ruger's operating margins have been in the 16-23% range during the boom, while S&W's have been about half that. Return on invested capital for Ruger has averaged 63%; for Smith & Wesson, 19%. S&W also went through a debacle of buying security supply company Universal Safety Response in 2009, only to turn around and divest it in 2011! Clearly, Ruger has been a better operator.

From a value standpoint, though, the opposite is true. Smith & Wesson is a much cheaper stock, with a 9.3 P/E ratio and a 19% pre-tax earnings yield, vs. 13.0 and 12.6% for Ruger, respectively. New management at S&W is making real progress in operations, posting a 20.7% operating margin in the past 12 months, only a few points behind Ruger's 23%. One point in Ruger's favor is the dividend - that company pays a substantial 3.8% yield, compared to no dividend for Smith & Wesson.

Pull the Trigger?

If someone held a gun to my head and told me to pick one of the two for investment, my choice would be Smith & Wesson, at least at current prices. Ruger may be the better company, but S&W is the better investment. A cheap valuation is the best determinant of investment success, and SWHC is considerably cheaper. Also, S&W has the longer history (160 years) and better known brands, no small advantages in a market where the collector is a major factor. Finally, S&W simply has more room to improve, and new management is already getting the company back on track and catching up to Ruger's operating standard.

All this said, I'm still not convinced that current gun demand is sustainable over the long term. In coming up with valuations for these stocks, it is prudent to scale back to 2010-11 volumes when estimating future cash flows. Doing this, I come up with a target around $12 for S&W, and about $49 for Ruger, further supporting the case for Smith & Wesson. In any case, a 25% margin-of-safety on SWHC is a bit tight for what seems like a market in a bubble. Neither of these gun stocks looks interesting enough to enter our Top Buys list right now.

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