Hurricane Sandy was one of the biggest storms to ever hit the U.S. Even though it was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm just before it made landfall on Monday, it still took 39 lives, caused millions of dollars of damage and knocked out power to more than 8 million people.
The storm even flooded several tunnels in the New York City subway system, leaving the underground in its worst state since it was built 108 years ago. Early estimates put the total economic toll at around $20 billion, with $7 billion to $8 billion in insured losses.
And if the past is any precedent, we can expect even more storms like Sandy in the years ahead, and North America will be the site of many of them. A recent report from reinsurance provider Munich Re looked at the period between 1980 and 2011 and found a “nearly quintupled number of weather-related loss events in North America,” while Asia saw a fourfold increase, followed by Africa (2.5), Europe (2) and South America (1.5).
“The North American continent is exposed to every type of hazardous weather peril—tropical cyclone, thunderstorm, winter storm, tornado, wildfire, drought and flood,” says the report. “One reason for this is that there is no mountain range running east to west that separates hot from cold air.”
Costs, too, are mounting. Munich Re says that North American losses topped $1 trillion during the 31-year period, with insured losses coming in at $510 billion. Hurricane Katrina caused the most damage, taking 1,322 lives and racking up $125 billion in reconstruction costs.
Time-Tested General Electric Has the Right Products for Turbulent Times
Obviously, trying to invest based solely on weather patterns is a recipe for financial ruin. But one way you can profit from an increase in stormy weather is to look to well-diversified companies that offer the goods people need to protect themselves when disaster strikes—and get back on their feet once it has passed.
General Electric is one such stock. The 125-year-old company is the fifth-largest in America by market cap. It operates through five divisions: Energy Infrastructure (which provided 31.2% of GE’s 2011 revenue), Aviation (13.4%), Healthcare (12.9%), Home & Business Solutions (6.1%), and Transportation (3.4%). Its GE Capital division, which provides the company’s customers with financing for their purchases, supplied the remaining 32.7% of 2011 revenue.
Due to its size and broad geographic and business diversification, many investors view General Electric as a bellwether for the global economy.
General Electric sells a wide range of emergency preparedness products. Its main offering in this market is its lineup of commercial and residential standby generator systems. Unlike portable generators, GE’s products are fixed and kick in automatically once the power is cut. They can also run on natural gas or propane, where portable generators have to be refueled separately with gasoline or diesel. Its systems are also designed to run quietly and efficiently.
The generator market is growing strongly as severe storms like Sandy prompt more consumers to buy backup power. That, combined with a continued rise in U.S. housing starts, should support demand over the longer term. In addition to generators, the company sells a number of other emergency-preparedness products, such as emergency lighting and home-security systems.
GE’s Energy Infrastructure division, which makes a wide range of power grid and transmission equipment, is also well-positioned to benefit as governments rebuild after natural disasters like Sandy.
The company’s sales rose 2.8% in the third quarter, to $36.3 billion from $35.4 billion a year earlier, largely due to strong gains at the Energy Infrastructure and Transportation businesses.
Net earnings jumped 50%, to $0.33 a share from $0.22. On an adjusted basis, earnings rose 13%, to $0.36 a share, matching the consensus estimate.
The stock should move higher in the coming years on rising demand for transportation and energy infrastructure, particularly as emerging markets continue to industrialize. A global economic rebound would only add to GE’s appeal.
Generac: A Pure Play on Rougher Weather
If you want to invest more directly in generator demand, look to lesser-known Generac Holdings (NYSE: GNRC). The company currently controls 70% of the home-generator market. Its products include both standby generators and portable units. It also makes commercial generators.
Generac sells its products through a network of over 4,000 dealers, which are mostly plumbers and other contractors who install the units.
The company is already benefiting from the storm. It’s currently boosting generator output and hiring extra workers to meet demand in the hardest-hit areas. The stock rose 8.7% in the run-up to Sandy.
In a note to investors on Monday, analyst Brian Drab of William Blair & Co. wrote that Generac typically sees a jump in sales after severe storms. He estimated that the company sold between $100 million and $150 million worth of residential generators after Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011.
Generac reported its third-quarter results before the market opened this morning; earnings fell 32.7% from a year ago, to $0.37 a share. If you exclude unusual items, earnings per share rose 4%, to $0.78 a share from $0.75. Sales jumped 25.6%, to $300.6 million. Home generator sales rose 17.8%, while commercial and industrial sales jumped 48.3%, mainly due to an acquisition.
The company also raised its guidance for the rest of the year due to the higher demand from Sandy. It now expects its sales to rise around 40% in 2012, up from its previous estimate of an increase of around 30%. On an adjusted basis, Generac expects to earn $2.95 to $3.00 a share, up from $2.65 to $2.70.
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