These stocks are vulnerable to stricter U.S. immigration and work visa rules

These otherwise fundamentally strong companies rely heavily on foreign talent and may be hurt by Trump's executive orders.

Vikram Barhat 8 February, 2017 | 6:00PM
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These are uncertain times for U.S.-based companies that recruit and rely on talent from overseas. U.S. President Donald Trump's crackdown on immigration and the proposed rules around the H-1B visa, which allows American companies to hire and sponsor highly skilled workers from overseas, could have a material impact on business operations and productivity. Delivering on his campaign promises, Trump has proposed legislation mandating that the minimum salary of H-1B visa holders be increased from US$60,000 to US$130,000.

It is widely acknowledged that new rules, aimed at restricting the inflow of foreign workers, coupled with the temporary immigration ban imposed on select countries, will impede movement of executives or other personnel required to travel to and from the U.S., which could have meaningful implications for smooth operation of businesses and their ability to compete in international marketplace. So much so that big U.S. businesses wasted no time in joining hands to oppose Trump's travel ban.

Among the most affected are four companies that, according to the 2017 H-1B Report, take a large portion of the annual quota of 65,000 visas to hire foreigners with exceptional skills who help their businesses grow. These American titans are going to be hurt by Trump directives, which reduce the talent pool size and increase payroll costs that could pressure both revenue and operating margins.

Although they are fundamentally strong businesses with attractive growth prospects, investors who own these stocks or have them on their wish list may want to keep an eye out for the impact of these developments on their performance.

Microsoft Corp.
Ticker MSFT
Current yield 2.31%
Forward P/E 19.1
Price US$63.64
Fair value US$68
Data as of Feb. 6, 2017

Global tech behemoth  Microsoft (MSFT) is seeing torrid growth in its Azure business, while Office 365 adoption continues at a strong clip. The firm's business is increasingly driven by cloud products, according to a Morningstar report, which notes the company generates 25% of sales from its intelligent cloud segment that includes Azure, Windows Server OS and SQL Serve.

"Microsoft has quickly emerged as one of the most important cloud computing firms in the world," the report says. "Public cloud represents a monumental opportunity for Microsoft as new workloads increasingly shift to the cloud, and the firm has curated a rich set of software and tools that will help keep developers in the ecosystem."

The company's wide economic moat, or sustainable competitive advantage, is built on monopoly products such as Windows operating system and "massive enterprise footprint across a multitude of products and services creates a network effect around its productivity apps and operating systems," says Morningstar equity analyst Rodney Nelson, who recently raised the stock's fair value from US$63 to US$68.

"CEO [Satya] Nadella's cloud-first, mobile-first vision for the firm is beginning to take hold, and we think the company is making the appropriate investments to reinforce its competitive positioning, which remains driven by the enterprise," he says.

Trump's immigration order impacted 76 Microsoft staffers, prompting Nadella, himself an immigrant, to express concern over the move. He was also one of the first to react to Trump's measures against foreign workers, which could directly affect Microsoft, a firm that sponsored 5,029 H-1B visas in 2016, according to 2017 H-1B report.

Alphabet Inc. C
Ticker GOOG
Current yield -
Forward P/E 16.6
Price US$801.64
Fair value US$860
Data as of Feb. 6, 2017

Google's parent company,  Alphabet (GOOG) saw its brand value rise 24%, growing from US$88.2 billion in 2016 to US$109.5 billion in 2017, to become the world's most valuable company, overtaking Apple. The firm generates the bulk of its revenue and cash flow from the search engine, which holds a more than 80% share of the world's online search market.

"We expect continuing growth in the company's cash flow as we remain confident that Google will maintain its leadership in the search market," says a Morningstar report, which regards "the investment of some of that cash in futuristic projects as attractive."

The tech giant's efforts to gain greater dominance in the public cloud market, expected to grow more than 25% annually through 2020, are particularly impressive, says Morningstar equity analyst Ali Mogharabi.

The wide-moat firm leverages its superior technology to increase users' dependency on its products. "As users and search requests grow and more data is gathered, advertisers' demands for ads increase, helping Google to further monetize the network," says Mogharabi, who appraises the stock's worth to be US$860, and forecasts a five-year compounded annual revenue growth rate of 15%, and a five-year average operating margin of 24%.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, also an immigrant, expressed dismay over Trump's immigration order that affected 187 employees at the company. He further expressed disappointment over Trump's proposal, arguing it "could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S." Google sponsored a staggering 4,897 foreign workers on H-1B visas last year.

Amazon.com Inc.
Ticker AMZN
Current yield -
Forward P/E 49.8
Price US$807.64
Fair value US$950
Data as of Feb. 6, 2017

One of the world's highest-grossing online retailers with a global presence,  Amazon (AMZN) generated 18% of its sales from media products, 72% from electronics and other general merchandise, with the remaining 10% coming from its web and advertising services and cobranded credit cards.

"Amazon's growth potential is undeniable," says a Morningstar report. More than 300 million active users globally, the symbiotic hardware/software ecosystem of its products, and "intriguing possibilities with Amazon's Alexa voice-recognition products" all point to the firm's formidable competitiveness in digital media, the report notes.

Morningstar sector strategist R.J. Hottovy regards the company as the most disruptive force to emerge in retail in several decades, with a sustainable competitive advantage that's hard for traditional retailers to match. "Amazon dominates North American online retail with 2016 product sales of almost US$95 billion (excluding services), roughly equal to the next eight closest non-auction competitors combined," he says, noting that given the explosive growth of the internet in developing markets, "Amazon has promising international growth opportunities."

Hottovy recently upped the stock's value from US$900 to US$950, prompted by "continued market share gains, the secular shift to online retail, digital content sales, [and] international expansion," among other factors.

Amazon is a magnet for talent, with a large portion of its workforces comprised of foreign nationals. The company, which sponsored 2,622 H-1B visas last year, has strongly opposed the executive order that could directly affect many of its employees in the United States and around the world.

Facebook Inc. A
Ticker FB
Current yield -
Forward P/E 20.4
Price US$132.06
Fair value US$135
Data as of Feb. 6, 2017

 Facebook (FB) is the world's largest online social network with 1.6 billion active users exchanging messages, videos and photos on the website and through its other products including Instagram and WhatsApp. More than 90% of revenue comes from advertising, of which the U.S. and Canada account for 50%, while 25% comes from Europe.

"The combination of these valuable assets and expected continuing growth in online advertising bode well for Facebook, as the firm generates strong top-line growth, remains cash flow positive, and profitable," says a Morningstar report.

The firm recently reported strong fourth-quarter results with the top and bottom line handily beating expectations. The performance prompted Morningstar equity analyst Ali Mogharabi to say: "The firm's leadership in social networking and online ad markets were reaffirmed with healthy gains in monthly average users, and average revenue per user." Facebook, he adds, will continue to gain from greater allocation of marketing and advertising dollars toward online advertising.

More recently, the social media leader has been pushing for technological innovation geared toward boosting consumer loyalty and revenue. "The firm is also applying artificial intelligence and virtual and augmented reality technologies to various products, which may increase Facebook user engagement even further, helping to further generate attractive revenue growth from advertisers in the future," says Mogharabi, who recently increased the stock's fair value from US$127 to US$135.

In spite of strong growth prospects, though, the H-1B dependent Facebook remains vulnerable to the changes in the visa program, as more than 15% of its U.S. employees used a temporary work visa in 2016, according to a Reuters report.

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About Author

Vikram Barhat

Vikram Barhat  Vikram Barhat is a Toronto-based financial writer specializing in investing, stock markets, personal finance and other areas of the financial services industry. He also writes for CNBC, BBC, The Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star.

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