This Just In: Upgrades and Downgrades

At The Motley Fool, we poke plenty of fun at Wall Street analysts and their endless cycle of upgrades, downgrades, and "initiating coverage at neutral." So you might think we'd be the last people to give virtual ink to such "news." And we would be -- if that were all we were doing.

But in "This Just In," we don't simply tell you what the analysts said. We'll also show you whether they know what they're talking about. To help, we've enlisted Motley Fool CAPS, our tool for rating stocks and analysts alike. With CAPS, we'll be tracking the long-term performance of Wall Street's best and brightest -- and worst and sorriest, too.

And speaking of the best ...
Shares of automaker General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) jumped the curb this morning, offroading to what now looks like a 7% gain. The sudden acceleration was sparked by an upgrade from megabank Citigroup, all the way from "sell" to "buy." According to Citi, GM shares that yesterday could have been had for as little as $30 a pop could actually be worth somewhere between $26 and $57. As for the exact number, that's "heavily tied to the outcome of this fall's labor negotiation."

GM is in talks with the United Auto Workers union over a proposal to trim the company's health-care costs by setting up a voluntary employees' beneficiary association (VEBA) trust. Funding the trust with after-tax dollars, says Citi, could in and of itself "restore positive automotive free cash flow" to GM, making the firm's shares worth $57. On the other hand, if talks break down completely, and if GM obtains no concessions whatsoever from the union, the continued cash drain of GM's mammoth health-care obligations could tether the shares to a price of $26.

So which is it, $57 or $26?
My crystal ball is cracked, folks, so I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that one for you. But if you listen to Mr. Market, his bidding the shares up this morning speaks strongly to his conviction that Citi is calling this one right. And at first glance, I think you'll agree the odds look good. After all, with a CAPS ratings of 91.00, Citi ranks in the top 10% of investors, and it's made some strikingly good calls in the past:

Company

Citi Said:

CAPS Says:

Citi's Pick Beating S&P by:

SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWR  )

Outperform

**

118 points

Alcan (NYSE: AL  )

Outperform

****

92 points

Monsanto (NYSE: MON  )

Outperform

****

32

Then again, it's also made some gaffes:

Company

Citi Said:

CAPS Says:

Citi's Pick Lagging S&P by:

Southwest Airlines (NYSE: LUV  )

Outperform

**

31 points

NYSE Euronext (NYSE: NYX  )

Outperform

****

30 points

NutriSystem (Nasdaq: NTRI  )

Outperform

***

27 points

But here's the thing ...
Based on Citi's record, I can see why investors are cheering the bank's abrupt about-face on GM. Having such a highly regarded stock picker call GM a buy certainly seems to augur well. But I must admit -- I'm a bit worried that the magnitude of the upside (nearly 100%) posited by Citi's analyst may have blinded investors to one thing: The identity of the analyst who made the upgrade.

Sure, Citi as a whole has a strong record of outperforming the market. But the specific, individual analyst who made the call, Mr. Itay Michaeli, recently assumed coverage for Citi's analyst team, and he lacks a track record in his own right. A Google search for his name revealed no evidence of Michaeli's affiliation with any other firm prior to this morning's upgrade. (His name does, however, appear on a Citi research note from back in 2005, though we're not told in what capacity.) I'm not certain investors should credit Michaeli with any gains netted by his predecessor's prudent pessimism on GM.

Does $12 billion in negative free cash flow, plus an upgrade from a stock shop with a proven record -- authored by an unproven analyst -- justify a billion-dollar increase in GM's market cap? To find out what the CAPS player with the best record on GM thinks about the matter, click here.


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