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Harley: Is It a Value Yet?

Is this a dent, or is the hog totaled? A lot of Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HDI  ) stock riders are asking themselves that question this week, following some gnarly earnings and a subsequent whomping in the market.

To recap, while the latest quarter's EPS growth came in at a reasonably sanguine 13%, the firm said that number is likely to drop to the mid-single digits next year. Since then, Harley's P/E has dropped to the mid-teens, and the forward P/E -- if we can believe management's guidance for modest EPS growth -- is even lower.

No surprise, then, that bottom-feeders everywhere -- including our own group of elite cheapskates at Inside Value -- have started to discuss whether Harley is a good deal yet. I've even batted the idea around a bit with the lead Inside Value analyst, the good Admiral, Philip Durell. His skepticism is worth considering. If money's tight, he asked me, who's going to keep buying these very expensive toys?

On one hand, I can look at serial Harley consumers I know, like my father and uncles, and decide that Harley's market is secure. On the other hand, looking at Harley's own estimate of its regular customer, I wonder how much longer families earning about $80,000 per year will keep spending up to a quarter of that on Daddy's midlife crisis. After all, there are other, far cheaper ways to prove to the folks down there at Mid-State Office Solutions that you still walk on the wild side. Sunglasses indoors. Scary beards. Maybe a mullet.

The coming end of double-digit growth has been the essence of the bear argument for some time. And the ever-suspicious (and therefore very worthwhile) Herb Greenberg has some interesting comments on the alleged channel-stuffing that Harley critics have been claiming for years.

And Harley admits that other knocks are on the way. As at box-jockey suppliers GM (NYSE: GM  ) and Ford (NYSE: F  ) , Harley's financing wing is expecting to face a tougher future as slackening demand and rising interest rates deliver a one-two punch. And I can't help noticing that over the past few years, Harley has taken longer and longer to convert cash paid out into cash taken in. Ideally, as a firm grows and becomes more powerful, this situation is the opposite. In the latest report, the year-over-year trend is confirmed by the 10.8% jump in inventory, the 10.5% uptick in accounts receivable, the 20.5% rise in finance receivables, and the 20% bloat in finance debt, all of which solidly outpaced the 6% revenue growth.

In other words, Harley's got real problems, and they go beyond slowing sales. Are they correctable? Sure. But in the meantime, I expect Harley to continue its slide, and I see no reason for investors to jump in just yet. As my colleague Stephen Simpson pointed out earlier in the week, insiders don't have much of a taste for the stock. They hold a tiny number of shares and sell just about everything they do get their hands on. Maybe, back in February, when Vice President Karl Eberle was exercising options in the $40s and selling them for $60, we should have taken that as a sign of things to come. For my part, I'll be waiting for a better price before I buy something the insiders won't touch.

For related Foolishness:

Seth Jayson likes to keep a pile of cash on hand for times like these, but he's picky about where he puts it. At the time of publication, he had no position in any firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.

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