The ICE Man Cometh, and the NYSE Can Hardly Wait

Marc Courtenay

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Many shareholders of NYSE Euronext were thrilled when IntercontinentalExchange made a takeover bid on Dec. 21, 2012, for cash and stock totaling $8.2 billion that was later accepted by NYX.

Since that point, NYX shares hit a zenith of $38.75; the company continues to pay a $1.20 per year dividend and shares of ICE stay nicely frozen, just $5 below their 52-week high of $158.18. Yet some have screamed monopoly and have insinuated that the merger of the two exchange giants would be a violation of certain antitrust regulations. The loudest objections may be coming from Europe.

The European Commission said on Tuesday that it will review plans by ICE to acquire NYX after national regulators chose not to object to the EU taking the leadership of the investigation.

A spokesperson for the EU's Brussels-based antitrust authority, Antoine Colombani, announced that the EU now has jurisdiction over the deal. Of interest is the fact that neither ICE nor NYX has formally notified the EU about ICE's intentions to take over NYX.

Last month, ICE claimed that it sought an EU review of its acquisition to avoid separate probes in the U.K., Spain and Portugal. The fact that the EU is taking the lead on the antitrust implications of the deal may expedite the process and preclude EU member nations from objecting or interfering.

NYX shareholders have long awaited a stimulus to lift the share price after EU regulators blocked Deutsche Bourse's attempted acquisition of the NYSE in 2012. The EU's decision to block the purchase then was based on concerns that a dearth of competition in derivatives and clearing would result if the merger were allowed.

What is this company I affectionately refer to as "The Iceman," which calls to mind the classic play The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O'Neill? ICE operates regulated global markets and clearinghouses primarily in the U.S., the U.K. Canada, and Brazil.

Founded in 2000 and headquartered in Atlanta, it provides futures exchange, over-the-counter market, derivatives clearinghouse and post-trade services for trading and clearing a range of contracts.

The contracts are based on such commodities as crude and refined oil, natural gas, power, coal, emissions, sugar, cotton, coffee, cocoa, canola, frozen concentrated orange juice, credit default swaps, currencies and equity indices.

The company's markets provide participants with a means for trading and managing risks associated with price volatility and securing physical delivery of certain contracts, as well as enabling asset allocation or diversification. It also provides various trading-related services, including pre- and post-trade risk management, connectivity, electronic trade confirmation, market data and clearing services to enable integration of front, back, and middle-office trading, as well as processing and risk management capabilities.

ICE, whose customers include corporations, manufacturers, utilities, commodity producers and refiners, financial institutions, institutional and individual investors and government entities will report earnings before the market opens May 1. The average analyst consensus EPS estimate for the latest quarter is around $1.97, down nearly 2.5% from the year-ago quarter.

Sales growth and revenue are estimated to come in at around $347.8 million, which would be almost a 5% decrease from the year-ago quarter. You can learn more about the company and read its latest letter to shareholders that claims, "... With an entrepreneurial culture, we focus on serving our customers through innovation while seeking to deliver best in class growth and returns for our shareholders."

Below is a five-year chart that illustrates the efficacy of that statement.

ICE data by YCharts

After the crash of late 2008 and early 2009, ICE turned on the afterburners when it came to its trailing 12-month EBITDA. ICE doesn't pay a dividend, but it offers an attractive five-year expected price-to-earnings-to-growth ratio of 1.43. If the NYX deal goes through, there should be plenty of growth going forward when it comes to EPS and revenue.

At the end of 2012, ICE had a powerful trailing 12-month operating margin of almost 63% and an impressive profit margin of more than 40%. By the end of 2012, its total cash was $1.61 billion, more than its total debt of $1.13 billion.

NYX's five-year chart is less impressive -- more in line with a share price that couldn't take off until it became a takeover target.

NYX data by YCharts

The trailing 12-month EBITDA earnings line seems to be closely related with the stock's price movement. The leadership history of the NYSE has been checkered at best over the past eight years. At least it continued to pay a dividend with a hard-to-sustain payout ratio of 86%.

NYX investors who purchased shares before ICE came along are keeping their fingers crossed about the final approval and sealing of the deal during the second half of this year. If the regulatory and approval process breaks down (which isn't anticipated), NYX shares may do the same.

NYSE Euronext reports earnings Tuesday before the market open. The analyst community is looking for an average quarterly year-over-year EPS increase of about 21%. Sales growth and revenue are expected to be up slightly (1.1%) from the same quarter last year.

Those who are interested in owning ICE shares may want to wait until its earnings are out and its conference call airs, which will be 8:30 a.m. EDT on May 1. The premise for owning shares after the earnings report and company news is released is based on the hope that the acquisition of NYX will go through during the second half of the year.

If that were delayed or blocked, ICE shares could be impacted. Either way, ICE has a solid future. Any unforeseen economic setbacks or a change in the economic climate could have the same effect on ICE and its shareholders.

At the time of publication, the author had no positions in stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.