Much like Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA) is seen as a bellwether for the global economy, Florida-based homebuilder Lennar Corporation (NYSE: LEN) is often looked to for an indication of the health of the U.S. housing market.
That’s why there were lots of eyes on the company’s latest results, which it reported yesterday. And on the whole, the numbers looked pretty good.
Lennar Corporation “Has Started the Builders’ New Year on a Strong Note”
In the fourth quarter of 2011, Lennar’s sales rose 11% to $952.7 million. Net earnings fell slightly, to $30.3 million, or $0.16 a share, from $32.3 million, or $0.17 a share, in the fourth quarter of 2010.
Investors were especially focused on two key figures in the company’s report, however: its gross margin on home sales rose to 21.6%, excluding valuation adjustments and, more importantly for real-estate-market watchers, new orders jumped 20% from a year ago, to 3,027 homes.
Analysts at Ticonderoga Securities were quick to pick up on that. In a research note quoted in an article on MarketWatch.com, Ticonderoga said, “Lennar has started the builders’ new year on a strong note. We believe the excellent order flow—better than any Street estimate—will get this equity moving. It will also likely get the rest of the group moving as positive order anticipation grows.”
Stuart Miller, the CEO of Lennar Corporation, was also bullish about the market’s prospects: “As we come to the end of 2011 and head into 2012, we have seen the market start to stabilize, driven by a combination of low home prices and low interest rates, making the decision to purchase a new home more attractive compared to the heated rental market.”
Lennar Corporation: A Real Estate Survivor
Just before the company returned to profitability in 2010 (its latest results marked its seventh straight quarter in the black), Investing Daily editor Jim Fink took a close look at Lennar Corporation. His conclusion? There is more to the company’s progress than just industry factors: “I think Lennar’s success is primarily based on its ability to cut costs (e.g., reducing the number of floor plans it offers) and purchase new home lots at bargain basement prices.”
Fink also praised the company’s efforts to diversify its business: “Lennar Corporation has diversified beyond homebuilding into distressed real estate investing. Its Rialto Capital Management division trades mortgage loans and mortgage-backed securities. If you know what you are doing, trading this toxic stuff can be very profitable.”
In the latest quarter, Rialto made a big contribution to Lennar’s overall sales gain. The division’s revenue more than doubled, to $46.5 million from $19.7 million a year ago.
Despite the good news, at least one analyst was recommending that investors hold off on buying homebuilding stocks, including Lennar Corporation, until the situation becomes more clear—especially in light of the tear that the sector has been on of late. Quoted in an article on TheStreet.com, Goldman Sachs analyst Joshua Pollard wrote: “With homebuilding stocks outperforming the market by 3,500 basis points in the last three months, we would wait for a pullback or a clearer picture that housing is healing quicker than it currently is.”
Nonetheless, Lennar shares rose 7.2% on the day, closing at $22.25. Shares of many other homebuilders posted strong gains, as well.
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