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U.S. healthcare stocks seen maintaining momentum after strong 2018

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NEW YORK (Reuters) – One of the rare market bright spots last year, the U.S. healthcare sector remains a Wall Street darling despite a slow start to 2019.

FILE PHOTO: Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York, U.S., January 7, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

As 2019 begins, healthcare .SPXHC is the most favored of the 11 main S&P 500 sectors, according to a Reuters review of ratings from 13 large Wall Street research firms, which recommend how to weigh those groups in investment portfolios.

Healthcare shares overall rose 4.7 percent last year, one of only two S&P 500 sectors, along with utilities, to post positive returns in 2018 as the benchmark index fell 6.2 percent.

Proponents cite the healthcare sector’s reasonable valuations, strong balance sheets and dividend payments among many companies, as well as the group’s upbeat outlook for earnings, which are less susceptible to economic cycles than other businesses.

If economic growth is slowing, some investors are wary of being too invested in cyclical sectors that thrive during an upswing, but do not want to be too defensive either.

“We are trying to find things that skirt both of those two categorizations, and healthcare is a really nice diversified earnings stream,” said Noah Weisberger, managing director for U.S. portfolio strategy at Bernstein.

Such diversity stems from the variety of companies comprising the sector: manufacturers of prescription medicines, makers of medical devices, such as heart valves and knee replacements, health insurers, hospitals and providers of tools for scientific research.

From a stock perspective, that means the sector includes potential fast-growing stocks, such as biotechs that can carry more risk and more reward, or large pharmaceutical companies and others that offer steadier, slower growth.

Investment advisory firm Alan B. Lancz & Associates sold some pharmaceutical holdings late last year that had posted big gains, such as Merck & Co (MRK.N), to move into biotech stocks it believed were undervalued, said Alan Lancz, the firm’s president.

“We have maintained our overweighting, which is unusual for us with a sector that has outperformed so dramatically,” Lancz said. “But mainly there are segments within the sector that still offer opportunity.”

(GRAPHIC: Healthcare is most favored sector on Wall Street – tmsnrt.rs/2HaLYKT)

For 2019, healthcare companies in the S&P 500 are expected to increase earnings by 7.5 percent, ahead of the 6.3 percent growth estimated for S&P 500 companies overall, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Health insurer UnitedHealth Group Inc (UNH.N), the sector’s third-largest company by market value, kicks off fourth-quarter earnings season for healthcare on Tuesday.

“Healthcare is one of the few sectors with high quality, above-market growth and it’s relatively immune to the array of macro headwinds that we see out there,” said Martin Jarzebowski, sector head of healthcare for Federated Investors.

Healthcare shares could also benefit from anticipation of increased dealmaking activity after two large acquisitions of biotechs were already announced this year.

Despite healthcare’s outperformance last year, the sector is trading at the same valuation as the S&P 500 – 14.5 times earnings estimates for the next 12 months – whereas healthcare on average has held a premium over the market for the past 20 years, according to Refinitiv data.

The sector also is valued at a discount, by such price-to-earnings measures, to defensive sectors, including consumer staples .SPLRCS, which trades at 16.6 times forward earnings, and utilities .SPLRCU, which trades at 15.8 times.

(GRAPHIC: Healthcare stocks, by the numbers – tmsnrt.rs/2H7Mnxw)

According to the Reuters review of sector weightings, healthcare is followed by financials .SPSY, then technology .SPLRCT. Real estate .SPLRCR ranks as the most negatively rated group.

The healthcare sector has lagged in the early days of 2019, rising less than 1 percent against a 3 percent rise for the S&P 500.

Some investors doubt healthcare will maintain its outperformance. JP Morgan strategists downgraded the sector to “underweight” last month, pointing in part to political rhetoric possibly turning “more negative on healthcare leading up to the 2020 presidential elections.”

The healthcare sector struggled ahead of the 2016 election, with the high U.S. cost of prescription medicines a prominent issue during the presidential campaign. With renewed scrutiny on drug pricing, such concerns linger.

The sector could suffer if investors become more optimistic about economic growth and flee defensive stocks, while the popularity of healthcare as an investment could work against it if the trade becomes overly crowded.

“There is risk there,” said Walter Todd, chief investment officer at Greenwood Capital in South Carolina. But given issues affecting other sectors, he said, “when you look around the market…you arrive by default at healthcare, and so I think that’s why a lot of people are interested in the sector.”

Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; editing by Alden Bentley and Bill Berkrot

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Canadian Tire and NuPort Robotics to commercialize Canada’s first automated heavy duty trucks

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Canadian Tire Corporation and Toronto based start-up NuPort Robotics, Canada’s first autonomous trucking company, are partnering with the Ontario government to invest $3 million to undertake an automated heavy duty trucking project to test a “first-of-its-kind-in-the-world” technology. 

The breakthrough technology provides a transportation solution for the middle mile, the short-haul shuttle runs that semi-tractor trailers make between distribution centres, warehouses and terminals each day.

It is designed to enable next-generation automated trucks that are more fuel efficient, safer to operate, and provide an enhanced driver experience.

Backed by $1 million in support from the Ontario government through Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network and matched by $1 million investments from Canadian Tire and NuPort Robotics, respectively, the two-year project is applying proprietary, artificial intelligence technology from NuPort Robotics to retrofit two conventional semi-tractor trailers – which will always be attended by a driver – with high-tech sensors and controls, a touchscreen navigation system, and other advanced features such as obstacle and collision avoidance.

Caroline Mulroney, Minister of Transportation, says: “Ontario is proud to be a global leader in automated and connected vehicle technology and this innovative project is an exciting milestone toward automated vehicle tech in the trucking industry.

“Ontarians rely on goods being delivered by trucks across the province every day and projects like this are demonstrating the ways that automated truck technology could help businesses meet delivery demands more efficiently while supporting a strong supply chain in Ontario.”

Vic Fedeli, Ontario Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, says: “This project applies unique and made-in-Ontario Artificial Intelligence technology that offers increased safety and efficiency, with a reduced carbon footprint, to the goods supply chains on which we all rely.

“This is the latest example of how Ontario’s Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network acts as a catalyst, fostering partnerships between ambitious technology start-ups and industry to develop and commercialize next generation transportation technologies that strengthen our economy and benefit society.”

Raghavender Sahdev, CEO of NuPort Robotics, says: “The trucks are currently transporting goods between a Canadian Tire distribution centre in the Greater Toronto Area and nearby rail terminals within a 12.5 mile radius, and early results are promising.

“The aim of the project is to develop a system that incorporates an autopilot feature for conventional trucks with a driver, leading to the most efficient way to drive and increase safety.

“The sensors work as a ‘safety cocoon’ to cover blind spots and prevent accidents and the end result is peak fuel efficiency, meaning lower carbon emissions, and peak driving performance for an overall more optimal transportation experience.”

NuPort Robotic’s approach to autonomous trucking is unique in the industry because it focuses only on solving the middle mile challenge, using a known set of predetermined trucking routes that are repetitive and high frequency as opposed to general highway driving.

Ultimately, when implemented on fixed routes in the future, Canadian Tire will benefit from faster commercial deployments and improvements in supply chain sustainability.

Gary Fast, vice-president of transportation, Canadian Tire, says: “Canadian Tire embraces innovation and is always testing new technologies to improve our operational efficiency and safety.

“As proud Canadian companies, the safety of all stakeholders, including drivers, employees, customers, and public will be the top priority as we work together towards deployment of this technology.”

Cari Covent, vice president of intelligent automation, Canadian Tire, says: “Over the last three years, Canadian Tire has made a significant effort to solve complex business problems by using the Canadian start-up Artificial Intelligence ecosystem, and NuPort Robotics exemplifies what we look for in a start-up with a focus on innovation, automation and artificial intelligence.”

Sahdev says: “As NuPort Robotics continues to develop new technologies to overcome middle mile supply chain problems and advance autonomous trucking, I am extremely grateful for the support of the Ontario Government through AVIN and the Ontario Centre of Innovation.

“With their continued support, we are striving to position Canada as the leader in autonomous transportation.”

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Constellation Software is money in the bank, this fund manager says

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If you’re looking for a long-term hold in Canadian tech then Constellation Software (Constellation Software Stock Quote, Chart, News, Analysts, Financials TSX:CSU) should definitely be on your radar. So says Jason Del Vicario of Hillside Wealth Management who likes not only Constellation but its recent spin-off Topicus (Topicus Stock Quote, Chart, News, Analysts, Financials TSXV:TOI) which Del Vicario says could do even better than CSU over the next ten years.

Software consolidator Constellation has been running on the same game plan for years, buying small vertical market software companies providing so-called mission critical software solutions globally. Over the years CSU has completed over 500 such acquisitions, buying the top names in their respective niche verticals and then using its clout and breadth to grow the business and expand into new markets. The resulting cash flow is then plowed back into more acquisitions and the cycle repeats.

The strategy has worked wonders for Constellation, which has grown its revenue from $631 million in 2010 to almost $4 billion for 2020 while taking earnings from $4.12 per share in 2010 to $20.59 per share this past year.

Shareholders were given a special treat last month when Constellation spun out recently acquired Topicus, giving CSU owners about 1.9 Topicus shares for every Constellation share as a dividend-in-kind. Constellation bought Netherlands-based software company Total Specific Solutions BV (or TSS) in 2013 and that subsidiary recently acquired Topicus BV, a Dutch information service company focusing on sectors such as healthcare, education and finance.

Topicus was singled out by Constellation founder Mark Leonard for its ability to grow without using outside shareholder funding. Leonard said the spin-out was part of the intention since a purchase agreement was struck last year.

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Nuvei wins price target raise from National Bank

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Strong quarterly results and an even brighter outlook for 2021 are reasons to celebrate for Canadian payments company Nuvei (Nuvei Stock Quote, Chart, News, Analysts, Financials TSX:NVEI), according to National Bank Financial analyst Richard Tse. In an update to clients on Wednesday, Tse left his rating unchanged at “Outperform” while raising his price target from C$85.00 to C$100.00.

Montreal-headquartered Nuvei is a provider of payment technology solutions to merchants and partners around the world, with a platform geared for high-growth mobile commerce and e-commerce markets. Nuvei’s solutions include a fully integrated payments engine with global processing capabilities, a turnkey checkout solution and a suite of data-driven business intelligence and risk management tools and services.

The company released its fourth quarter and full year 2020 financials on Wednesday, showing Q4 revenue of $115.9 million, up 46 per cent year-over-year, and adjusted EBITDA of $51.3 million, up 61 per cent year-over-year. Total dollar value of transactions processed by merchants (‘total volume’) with Nuvei rose by 53 per cent to $13.9 billion. (All figures in US dollars except where noted otherwise.)

The 2020 year featured revenue up 53 per cent to $375.0 million and adjusted EBITDA up 87 per cent to $163.0 million, with total volume rising a full 76 per cent year-over-year to $43.2 billion.

“Our performance continues to be driven by strong momentum in the high-growth verticals we serve, as well as by our customizable, scalable and feature-rich technology platform which provides one of the industry’s most complete payment technology solutions going well beyond merchant acquiring,” said Philip Fayer, chairman and CEO, in a press release.

The company said the fourth quarter represented the strongest growth yet experienced by Nuvei, driven by wallet share expansion from current merchants along with accelerated uptake of new merchants. New e-commerce business almost tripled compared to a year earlier, Nuvei said, while the company expanded its connectivity coverage over the quarter, introduced new product innovations on its platform and continued to execute on M&A.

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