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 its worst and sorriest, too.

Before speaking of the best… allow me to digress
As I said, my chief aim in this column is to introduce you to Wall Street's finest, clue you in to what they're saying about the hottest stocks on the market -- and more importantly, whether what they're saying is worth you're listening to. I'll do that today as well, but I want to take a short detour en route.

Do you see what I see?
Shares of the twin titans of home improvement, Lowe's (NYSE: LOW  ) and Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) , leapt yesterday on a pair of news items. Let's start with yesterday's comments that HD head honcho Frank Blake let slip at a retail conference hosted by Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS  ) .

Commenting on housing trends in the U.S., Blake opined: "We don't think we're at the bottom yet, but we think you can see it from here." Which sounds encouraging, as visible bottoms have been in exceedingly short supply of late -- and whenever one did seem to pop up, it promptly got spanked. It was at least good for a 4.5% pop in HD's stock, and a corollary 1.4% for Lowe's.

Better get yer vision checked, fella
But here's the problem with Blake's presumed clairvoyance: According to famed hedge fund advisor and insider-trading expert George Muzea, it's unlikely that Blake sees anything more than a mirage. In his classic work, The Vital Few vs. the Trivial Many, Muzea confides: "Insiders really have only about a six-month visibility on their company's prospects. ... Beyond that they are guessing just like everyone else. I am amused when I read analyst reports basing price objectives on predicted earnings two years out."

Assuming Muzea knows what he is talking about (and seeing as George Soros pays him for advice, this is a safe bet), we're therefore faced with a dichotomous conundrum: Either Blake does in fact "see [a recovery] from here" -- in which case the housing market should bounce back by early March -- or else Blake is bluffing.

My guess: The latter
CEOs are, after all, paid to make happy talk about their firms. The (rebuttable) presumption when a corporate boss talks up his own shop, therefore, has to be that he's ... talking up his own shop. Nothing more.

I mean, let's face it -- Blake is a relative babe in the retail woods. His six-and-a-half years spent at Big Orange don't even encompass a single, complete housing boom-bust cycle. Sure, he put in time at GE (NYSE: GE  ) Power Systems and the U.S. Department of Energy, and he sits on the board of electric utility Southern Company (NYSE: SO  ) -- but I fail to see how any of that gives him preternatural powers of prognostication on the housing industry. Yet we're supposed to believe he sees farther than others, and can call the housing bottom?

Gimme a break
Sorry, folks. The simple fact of the matter is that if you yourself can't see housing bouncing before March, then neither can Mr. Blake. He's guessing just like everyone else, and his predictions deserve no more credence than do mine. Or Jesup & Lamont's.

Huh? Who?
Surprised you there, didn't I? Well, remember the analysts? This is a column about analysts. And J&L is our star guinea pig. Yesterday, about the same time Blake was doing his fortune telling act over at Goldman, J&L initiated coverage on both Home Depot (hold) and Lowe's (buy). As with Blake's prediction, you should ignore both opinions.

You see, according to our records at CAPS, Jesup & Lamont is only a middling stock picker at best. J&L guesses right only 52% of the time, and even when it picks great companies (Noble Corp (NYSE: NE  ) , or Transocean (NYSE: RIG  ) ), it has a tendency to mis-time its entry, with disastrous results. On each named example, J&L has underperformed the market by more than 20 points.

What's more, the time J&L came closest to picking a stock associated with the housing industry, it botched the job to the tune of 31 points underperformance on Pier 1 (NYSE: PIR  ) . Suffice it to say that based on its record, J&L's suddenly discovered interest in home improvement fails to wow me.

Foolish takeaway
And so we're left with our question unanswered: Will housing bounce back soon? Unfortunately, your guess is as good as theirs.

Southern Company is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. The Home Depot is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 509 out of more than 115,000 players. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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