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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 track the long-term performance of Wall Street's best and brightest -- and its worst and sorriest, too.
The artist formerly known as "Alcatel"
Well, it was fun while it lasted. Last month, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU ) shareholders partied like it was 1999 (again), celebrating an abrupt volte-face by the stock junkies at Jefferies. Formerly bearish on the shares, an analyst had turned suddenly sunny on the stock, arguing that "increased EVDO software sales into CDMA operators" Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) , Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S ) , US Cellular, and Leap Wireless (Nasdaq: LEAP ) would push Alcatel sales up 62% over 2009's sales.
If only that were true. But instead, writes a more bearish Bernstein this week: Alcatel's performance "isn't reassuring." In the face of a "booming" telecom equipment market in America, Alcatel has grown its sales just 10% year-to-date. Meanwhile, competitor Ericsson's (Nasdaq: ERIC ) U.S. sales are up 91%, and Alcatel "has lost share on many fronts." Globally, Alcatel is trending down 6% by sales so far this year, versus strong sales gains at Ciena (Nasdaq: CIEN ) and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO ) , and Alcatel remains woefully incapable of turning a profit on its business.
Admitting to growing and very "real worries" about the company, Bernstein took a U-turn yesterday, driving away from Jefferies' bull run on Alcatel and downgrading the shares to "underperform" (aka "sell"). I agree.
Let's go to the tape
Why? Well, for one thing, because thanks to CAPS, and the record it keeps of these analysts' past picks, I happen to know that Bernstein is a much brighter analyst than Jefferies. It gets the majority of its picks right, for one thing, while Jefferies guesses wrong more often than not.
But really, the main reason I'm siding with Bernstein today is that the numbers demand it: According to Bernstein, there are a couple of really bad trends evident at Alcatel.
Where's the cash, Alcatel?
For one, "cash generation potential" is "weak." Over the past 12 months, Alcatel burned through $73 million in free cash flow. It lost nearly $12 billion over the past five years. According to Bernstein, considering the costs Alcatel carries, the company's unlikely to generate positive free cash flow at anything under a 4% operating margin -- and right now, the best Alcatel seems able to manage is 0.3%.
All I see here is debt
But if Alcatel lacks for free cash flow, it's got one thing in abundance: debt. Bernstein warns that once you subtract cash Alcatel needs to fund its operations, more cash needed to refinance a convertible debt offering that comes due Jan. 1, and even more cash earmarked for restructuring the company's struggling operations, there's less than $2 billion on Alcatel's balance sheet that's left available for productive purposes.
Against that, Alcatel carries $6.75 billion in debt, a figure Bernstein says will leave Alcatel "with debt over 3x EBITDA," and make it difficult for the company to obtain any extra financing it needs if it's unable to maintain its "cash pile."
Put these two concerns together, and what do you get? A heavily leveraged company, which while it has cash on hand, has most of that cash spoken for already. A desperate debtor who needs to maintain its cash collateral to allay creditor concerns -- even as this cash dwindles away, for lack of free cash flow to replenish it.