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We Fools certainly don't agree with much of the investment commentary that comes from Wall Street, which all too often seems to put the interest of the big corporation over the investing public. But it's also hard to deny that there are also some exceptionally talented investors that also call New York home.
Last week, a healthy portion of finance's stock-picking elite gathered at New York's Lincoln Center for the 19th annual Sohn Investment Conference. For those unfamiliar with the Sohn Investment Conference, it's one of the most watched stock-picking events of the year. The conference format consists of series of stock picks or investment ideas from well-known fund managers. The proceeds from tickets sales and donations raised by the event help fund the Sohn Foundation's goals of treating and curing childhood cancer.
Yours truly was fortunate enough to attend this year's conference, and, as always, the list of speakers and their stock picks didn't disappoint. So, without further ado, let's look at three top stock ideas from this year's Sohn Conference.
Stock pick: long Moody's (NYSE: MCO )
Presented by: Chris Shumway, Shumway Capital
Investors everywhere should be familiar with credit-rating service Moody's. Moody's pioneered the rating of bonds when it was founded in 1909, and today it sits at the epicenter of a $67 trillion (yes, with a "T") bond market.
Along with Standard & Poor's and distant-third-place rating house Fitch Ratings, Moody's is a near-essential toll booth for any bond issuance. According to Shumway, choosing not to have a bond rated by at least one ratings agency, but more commonly both Moody's and S&P, will add an extra 150 basis points to the interest rate any issuer will have to pay on a given bond. Simply put, it makes economic sense for companies to use a ratings service, and this grants both Moody's and S&P fantastic pricing power and a near-oligopoly of a massive global market.
Moody's uses its brilliant economics to great effect, funding sizable stock buybacks and dividends alike. All told, Shumway believes that despite light to moderate global economic growth, Moody's can generate a 19% to 23% total annual return, though it's trading close to 21 times earnings today. Sounds like a buy to me.
Stock Pick: long Liberty Global (NASDAQ: LBTYB )
Presented by: Philippe Laffont, Coatue Management
As someone who focuses predominantly on technology and telecom (TMT) stocks, I was personally excited to hear Laffont's stock pitch, and his pitch for European media giant Liberty Global certainly won me over.
Although this could apply to all walks to investing, finding a successful TMT stock pick required three specific elements according to Laffont: a trend, a winning business model, and a management team that cares about the stock price -- and Liberty Global has all three in his eyes.
The trend Laffont was referring to was the proliferation of streaming video services like Netflix across the European continent, a trend which today remains in its infancy but should help jump-start a broader trend in high-speed broadband adoption throughout Europe. And thankfully for its investors, Liberty Global is perfectly positioned to capitalize on this trend.
From an investor's perspective, Liberty's high-fixed-cost business model gives it huge operating leverage, meaning a small increase in revenue will see a disproportionately large boost to earnings. That's the second part of Laffont's TMT stock trifecta. And lastly, Laffont correctly noted that there are few, if any, executives in the cable industry that have a better track record of driving shareholder returns than Liberty Global chairman John Malone.
One, two, and three -- Liberty Global has it all, according to Laffont.
Stock Pick: short athenahealth (NASDAQ: ATHN )
Presented by: David Einhorn, Greenlight Capital
Perhaps the most anticipated pitch of the day came from hedge fund billionaire David Einhorn, who used his presentation at the 2008 Sohn Investment Conference to deliver his highly publicized short thesis for the soon-to-fail Lehman Brothers, at a time when few considered Lehman as risky as history proved.
This year, Einhorn delivered another compelling short thesis, this time against medical-tech cloud player athenahealth. Einhorn has been in the news lately for his critical commentary of the sky-high valuations common to many highflying growth stocks, without naming names -- until this presentation, that is.
Einhorn's criticism, like arguments I've made against some other pricy growth stocks, was largely value-driven in nature. In his eyes, athenahealth could certainly fulfill its highly disruptive potential. But with other well-established competitors like health care software power Epic notching wins in key areas, it appears athenahealth's prospects are far less certain than its $4.3 billion market capitalization would suggest. Einhorn absolutely shredded a recent Morgan Stanley research report touting athenahealth's prospects, calling into question Morgan Stanley's "optimistic" valuation of athenahealth's shares. Morgan Stanley's core bull case was based upon a somewhat implausible combination of significant margin-expansion, substantial future growth, and the successful rollout of future products.
Einhorn also went to great lengths to highlight the highly promotional behavior of athenahealth CEO Johnathan Bush, cousin of former President George W. Bush. Although stopping short of accusing Bush of any illegal behavior, Einhorn did present several video clips of Bush hyping athenahealth's prospects by shouting nearly every buzzword closely associated with either technology or health care today. All told, Einhorn gave a convincing argument that athenahealth, though certainly holding its fair share of disruptive potential, had seen its shares reach bubble levels and should trade down accordingly.
Go your own way
Each one of these stock picks was compelling in its own right. But just because they're presented by one of Wall Street's best doesn't necessarily mean they're right for you. At the end of the day, every investor is responsible for his or her own investment decisions.
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