Harley Finds Its Stride

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One week ago, Standpoint Research dumped cold water on the theory that Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG  ) might "go private," and leave shareholders with that Holy Grail -- the "acquisition premium." Then Harley proved to us all that it doesn't need to sell out. This company's doing just fine as a public company, and promises to reward shareholders for years to come.

Oh, I know a lot of investors disagree with me on this one. Harley shares sold off by more than 6% today after the company detailed sliding third-quarter sales and how it needed a boost from its finance division to push earnings above target. But from where I sit, the lower stock price only makes this HOG look prettier. Here's why.

Harley's non-financial services revenues dropped 2% in Q3, which doesn't look good when set up against the double-digit revenue gains that its four-wheeled kin Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , and Ford (NYSE: F  ) trumpeted recently. Harley also pales in comparison to fellow biker Polaris (NYSE: PII  ) , which just got done reporting a 33% spike in sales alongside 46% earnings growth.

And yet, Harley did raise the floor on its predictions for this year's motorcycle shipments (from 201,000 units up to 207,000). Meanwhile, like General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) last week (and like Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) will tell us tomorrow, we hope), Harley confirmed that its captive finance division is now solidly profitable again.

Long term, Wall Street analysts expect Harley will get the rest of its growth engine back in gear and increase earnings at an annual 10% clip over the next half-decade. This growth rate -- while it may be a while in coming -- compares favorably to the valuation I see on the stock today. Consider: With nearly $1.2 billion in cash flow created so far this year, Harley's on track to deliver cash from operations in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion this year. Subtract out more muted capital spending plans ($200 million or so through year's end) and what you're left with is a company that could easily generate $1.4 billion in free cash flow this year.

Simply put: To me, paying 9.2 times enterprise value to free cash flow ratio for a 10% grower looks like a good value proposition. Toss in a tidy 1.2% cash-back from the dividend yield, and I would not be a bit surprised to see Harley -- a stock that has already nearly doubled the S&P 500's returns so far this year -- continue to outperform in 2010 and beyond.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. Ford Motor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community.

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