They're making more than sofas and dining room tables at the furniture factories in Virginia these days. They're also making stockholders happy.
During the eight weeks between Jan. 4 and Friday, the shares of five publicly held Virginia furniture manufacturers and one major furniture retailer moved up by an average of 26.6 percent. The move has been one of the quiet highlights of the January-February bull market.
Wallace W. Epperson Jr. of Wheat, First Securities in Richmond, widely regarded as an authority on the furniture industry, attributed the recent surge in stock prices to a climate in which lower interest rates are encouraging people to buy homes and then to buy furniture to fill up those homes.
After some bad years in the early 1980s, the furniture industry recovered in early 1983 and sales improved through 1983 and early 1984. Then business leveled off during the rest of 1984. But it now appears, Epperson said, that furniture sales will strengthen through 1985. The reasons, he said, are the influence of favorable interest rates, a stronger-than-expected demand for housing and a consumer shift away from top-priority purchases, such as cars, to furniture and similar items.
Thus, Epperson said, he expects furniture industry stocks to continue to move upward in anticipation of stronger company earnings during the second half of 1985 and the first half of 1986. He, too, is looking for improved earnings on almost all of the furniture companies he covers.
May O'Leary, research analyst at Scott & Stringfellow in Richmond, said that "if interest rates stabilize or go down more, we will see sustained growth in the furniture business." On that basis, she said, "the outlook is good for furniture stocks."
Since January, the biggest price move has been by Rowe Furniture Corp., which has its headquarters in Arlington and a factory in Salem, Va. Its stock moved from $6.63 to $10.50, a 58.4 percent boost. At the other end of the scale was giant Bassett Furniture of Bassett, Va., which rose only 4.2 percent to $36.50.
Bassett, unlike most of the other Virginia companies, is far off its five-year high, apparently because of the company's battle against both foreign and domestic competition. Basset specializes in furniture in the low-to-medium price range.
Between Rowe and Bassett is the huge Lane Co. of Altavista, Va., which recently set new highs eight weeks in a row. Lane's stock has climbed from $39 to $50.75, up 30.1 percent.
The smaller American Furniture of Martinsville, Va., moved up 23.6 percent from $9.50 to $11.75; Pulaski Furniture Co., of Pulaski, Va., posted a 7.3 percent rise as its stock moved up from $23.75 to $25.50.
Heilig Meyers Co. of Richmond, a furniture retailer with 116 stores in five states, has seen its stock leap by 33.9 percent, from $18.38 to $24.63. In recent months, Heilig Meyers has appeared frequently on the list of new 52-week highs. Because so many retailers have either gone private or been absorbed, Epperson said, Heilig Meyers has become the "premier player in retail furniture" for investors.
Among the earnings-per-share increases Epperson foresees between 1984 and 1985 are: American, up from $1.23 last year to between $1.65 and $1.75 for 1985; Bassett up from $3.67 last year to $4; Lane up from $4.47 to $5 in 1985; Rowe up from $1.48 last year to between $1.65 and $1.75 in 1985; Heilig Meyers from $1.60 in 1984 to $1.85 in 1985 and then $2.15 in 1986. He predicts Pulaski earnings will stay basically flat at $2.80 until the company digests the cost of a recent acquisition.
Analyst Guy W. Ford at Investment Corp. of Virginia, who follows American Furniture and Rowe Furniture, said that because the number of retail stores dropped sharply in recent years, "the retailers have the cards" when dealing with manufacturers on prices. This puts manufacturers' profit margins under pressure, he said. But, he noted, the Virginia companies have strong, even debt-free, balance sheets. "Many of them are cash machines," he said.
There may be another stock offering from Perpetual American Bank but it won't be for a least a year and perhaps longer, President Thomas J. Owen told stockholders last week. "There will come a time undoubtedly when the company will need more capital," he said.
"We would like to generate as much capital internally as we possibly can because that prevents any furthur dilution of the stockholder's equity. So I would hope for the next 24 months, at least, we might be able to avoid that, but those circumstances may change as well. Things look very good now for us for holding for at least 12 months," he said.
If you liked what the stock market did in January, you'll love what it's going to do in the summer and the fall when the Dow Jones Industrial Average goes to 1,450 or 1,500. That was the prediction last week by Bob Farrell, the chief market strategist for Merrill Lynch, who spoke to a luncheon of the Washington Society of Investment Analysts. If interest rates hold at the present level, Farrell said that 1985 will be "a bull year." He expects new DJIA records will be set in the latter part of the year, again, depending on interest rates.
He advised investors to keep a long-term focus on companies that benefit by lower inflation, including utilities, financial firms, blue chips that are being restructured, and aggressive growth companies where earnings are strong. "Growth and predictability of earnings should get a premium in 1985," he said. "You buy quality, whether it's large or small. Think long-term and not trading-oriented." He suggested reducing holdings in small growth companies with "broken earnings" as they rebound.
"The dollar, I think, is going to have a sharp reaction and commodities will rebound, setting up worries about renewed inflation," he said. "I think that will be temporary, but it could affect stock performance in the next six months. I think I also expect rising price-to-earnings ratios in quality favorites as the . . . bull market unfolds."
Federal Realty Investment Trust of Chevy Chase will offer $35 million in convertible subordinated debentures due in the year 2010. Federal Realty President Steven J. Guttman said his firm plans to use the proceeds for property acquisitions and renovations. Federal Realty specializes in taking older shopping centers, rehabilitating them and trying to increase their value as commercial properties. It has projects in the Washington and Philadelphia areas, among other places.
Short notes: Ethyl Corp. of Richmond will split its stock 2 for 1 on April 15 for stockholders of record on March 15. . . . Fairfax County continues to attract top ratings for its general obligation bonds -- an Aaa rating from Moody's Investors Service and an AAA from Standard & Poor's Corp. . . . B. F. Saul Real Estate Investment Trust, which recently offered stockholders with fewer than 100 shares $18 each for their shares, has bought back about 40 percent of the outstanding odd-lots. That's about 15,000 to 16,000 shares, the firm reports.