Is Unilever plc A Better Growth Play Than Wizz Air Holdings PLC & AA PLC?

Shares in consumer goods giant Unilever (LSE: ULVR) are currently trading within a few pence of their all-time high, at around 3,170p.

Unilever shares have risen by 140% over the last 10 years. It’s tempting to see this FTSE 100 firm as the ultimate stock, offering a perfect mix of growth, income and stability.

It’s tempting, but I believe it’s probably wrong.

Unilever’s gains have been driven by two factors. Sales and profits have risen. Since 2010, the firm’s sales have risen by 20%, while profits have climbed 16%.

However, the second reason for Unilever’s gains is that the shares have become more expensive. Today, Unilever shares trade on a trailing P/E of 22. In April 2010, Unilever had a trailing P/E of about 16.

This has happened because in the years since the financial crisis, investors have piled into stocks which offer stable returns and steady growth. Unilever is a great company, but this situation is unlikely to last forever.

Unilever shares now offer a yield of just 3%. That’s 25% less than the FTSE 100 average of 4%. In my view, Unilever is a little too expensive to be a good buy at the moment.

Where to look for growth?

One stock that has delivered solid growth since its flotation last year is budget airline Wizz Air Holdings (LSE: WIZZ), which operates in Central and Eastern Europe.

Wizz Air said today that passenger numbers have risen by 21% over the last 12 months. The airline’s load factor — the percentage of seats occupied on each flight — has risen from 86.7% to 88.2% over the same period. That’s not far off easyJet’s load factor of 91.6%.

Analysts expect Wizz Air to report earnings per share of €1.62 for the year just ended, putting the stock on a 2015/16 forecast P/E of 14.3. Can Wizz Air keep rising? I’m not sure.

Earnings per share are expected to rise by 17% in 2016/17, but the wider airline sector seems to be experiencing a gradual de-rating. I suspect we’re close to the cyclical peak for airlines. I’d hold onto Wizz Air for now, but I think it might be too late to buy.

App cuts costs but profits are down

Eleven per cent of AA (LSE: AA) breakdown call-outs are now managed via the firm’s smartphone app, rather than through its call centre. This has helped to cut costs for the breakdown organisation, but it wasn’t enough to prevent operating profit falling by 6.4% to £305m last year.

After a strong start, AA shares have fallen back to the 250p level at which they floated in 2014. To keep shareholders happy, a 9p per share dividend was declared in today’s results. However, I’m not sure that this is a prudent use of cash.

The AA’s big problem is that it has too much debt. Out of last year’s £305m operating profit, £186m was spent on interest payments. Net debt was £2,809m at the end of January, only slightly lower than last year’s total of £2,967m.

Earnings per share are expected to rise by 15% this year, but spending plans mean that debt isn’t expected to start to fall until at least 2018. I’d wait until closer to that time before considering a buy.

Indeed, I believe there are far better buying opportunities elsewhere in today's markets.

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Roland Head owns shares of Unilever. The Motley Fool UK owns shares of and has recommended Unilever. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.