In recent months, we've seen first Citigroup (NYSE: C ) call the bottom on Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG ) shares, then Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) argue the opposite. As for me, I staked out a position somewhere in between these two clashing titans of Wall Street.
Conceding that the fourth-quarter sales report was worse than expected, and that Citi was wrong about Harley turning the corner, I argued that Harley's significant efforts to slash inventories, cut shipments, and max out free cash flow demonstrated that it's at least "leaning into the curve." Crunching the numbers, I concluded: "This train's been a long time coming, but ... If Harley's finally getting serious about its inventory issues, now seems like a good time to climb aboard."
And all of a sudden, it seems a lot of people agree with me.
Who hearts Harley?
Harley shares spiked on Tuesday in response to unconfirmed reports that somebody wants to buy the company. And not just a few shares. The whole company. Reuters was reporting that rumors were swirling concerning a possible buyout, with private equity player Kohlberg Kravis Roberts named as Prime Suspect.
Not everyone bought the story, of course. In fact, Barron's dashed cold water on these hopes, quoting a pair of analysts who echoed my own observations about Harley's progress. Noting that Harley has already satisfied the usual reasons for a private equity takeover (bringing in motivated management to cut costs and streamline operations), the experts argue there's little logic in Harley now handing over its accomplishments to an opportunistic acquirer on the cheap. Not with the stock selling for just 15.5 times forward earnings. Not when anyone with more than a hamster's memory span can remember that before the recession struck, Harley shares regularly fetched multiples of 20 times and up.
Speculating 'bout speculation
So what sparked the rumors? According to Barron's, it's possible that Harley has been reaching out to would be acquirers of its troubled finance unit, HDFS, for example. Whether that's true, I haven't a clue -- but I sure hope it is, because ...
Big manufacturing companies like Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) and Boeing (NYSE: BA ) have demonstrated how useful having a captive finance arm can be to boosting product sales in tough economic times. On the flip side, though, we've seen at General Electric (NYSE: GE ) and Textron (NYSE: TXT ) -- and at Harley -- how one mismanaged finance arm can ruin a great manufacturing business.
As an investor, I'd love to see Harley get quit of HDFS -- and give itself a chance to show the world how profitable it can be all on its own. My bet: It would make for quite the thrill-ride.