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Do recent declines make AstraZeneca plc, easyJet plc & Provident Financial plc a buy?

One of the biggest fallers in the FTSE 100 this year is AstraZeneca (LSE: AZN). Since hitting a high of 4,627p at the end of 2015, the shares have fallen by 15% to about 3,950p.

There’s been no real bad news from AstraZeneca to justify this fall, so what lies behind it? The quick answer is that earnings appear to be falling faster than expected. AstraZeneca hasn’t yet fully escaped from the cycle of falling profits caused by key products losing patent protection.

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The firm’s earnings per share were flat last year and are expected to rise this year. However, analysts are pencilling-in a fall for 2017 and have also been trimming their forecasts for the year ahead.

Investing in AstraZeneca does require some faith that the firm will deliver some new blockbuster medicines to replace older products. This may end up taking slightly longer than expected. However, earnings are now stabilising and the 4.8% dividend yield now looks pretty safe. I’d say this could be a good time to build a long-term holding.

Will sub-prime continue to beat the market?

Finance company Provident Financial (LSE: PFG) specialises in providing banking and lending services to customers with poor credit ratings. This includes highly profitable short-term loans.

Some investors will have ethical concerns with this business, but for those that don’t, Provident has proved to be very successful. Earnings per share have risen by an average of 14% since at least 2010. Gains of about 10% are expected in 2015 and 2016.

Unlike the UK’s high-street banks, Provident is extremely profitable. The group has a return on equity of more than 30%. This helps to fund a generous dividend that’s doubled since 2010, and currently provides a 4.75% forecast yield.

Provident shares have fallen by 17% so far this year. They still trade on 16 times 2016 forecast earnings, which isn’t obviously cheap. However, if current growth rates can be maintained, Provident could still be a profitable buy.

Boost to dividends signals change

The most significant news in this week’s interim results from easyJet (LSE: EZJ) was that the firm will increase its dividend payout ratio from 40% to 50% of earnings.

This suggests to me that easyJet management believes the era of rapid growth is coming to an end. After quadrupling its profits in just six years, easyJet may be reaching maturity.

Overall, I’d say this is good news for shareholders. The shares already offered a forecast yield of 4.5% for 2016. This could now rise to 4.9% and should be some comfort for shareholders who’ve seen the value of their stock fall by 14% so far this year.

It seems pretty certain that budget airlines such as easyJet are here to stay. The only question is whether they’ll be able to avoid the periodic downturns that have historically made airlines such a poor investment.

We may not know this for a few more years, but in the meantime it’s worth noting that easyJet’s results suggest the group does have the potential to make further cost savings. With the shares now trading on a 2016 forecast P/E of just 10, I reckon now may be a good time to buy.

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Roland Head has no position in any shares mentioned. The Motley Fool UK has recommended AstraZeneca. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.