I hate to accuse analysts of window-dressing. That's typically the handiwork of bumbling mutual fund managers, trying to pretty up their year-end portfolio listings by snapping up winners and dumping losers. It's a pointless practice, of course -- performance data doesn't lie. Still, forgive me for initially being skeptical about a pair of analyst moves yesterday.
Citi analyst Mark Mahaney upgraded Amazon.com
The role reversal shouldn't surprise anyone paying attention over the past year. Amazon shares soared 135%, becoming one of 2007's best-performing components within the Nasdaq 100 Index. Starbucks brought up the rear of the index, shedding 42% of its shares' value.
Despite my cynicism over the timing of these moves, this obviously isn't window-dressing, since analysts are consistently held accountable for their calls. But that still doesn't mean this isn't a case of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
Despite Amazon's bubbly 2007, Citi's upgrade was enough to send its shares hurtling 4% higher yesterday, as the rest of the market went weak at the knees. On the lower end of the spectrum, Starbucks' stock surrendered 6% of its value yesterday, hitting lows last seen in May 2004.
Amazon and Starbucks were once growth-stock bookends. Now they seem to be more like passing ships. How did we get here, and how will 2008 really play out?
The rise of Amazon
I get a kick out of the Amazon turnaround story, because the leading online retailer has defied the naysayers at every turn. Instead of the red-ink-spouting, debt-anchored death-pool favorite it seemed to be when the dot-com bubble popped, Amazon is now profitable year-round, with a looker of a balance sheet.
Perhaps the most impressive Amazonian feat is the accelerating growth it's tallied over most of the past two years. You rarely see companies as large as Amazon taking bigger and bigger steps. But the top dog in online shopping is becoming the first stop for most potential buyers, thanks to its sterling reputation and sticky programs like its Prime membership, which offers subsidized shipping in exchange for an annual fee.
"We are fully cognizant that we are upgrading to Buy the second best '07 performance stock in the Internet sector," Mahaney wrote in his upgrade. (Amazon's leap was second only to Baidu.com
Scarily, Mahaney is right. After reading between the lines of Amazon's post-holiday press release, the country's leading online retailer is about to get even bigger.
The fall of Starbucks
It was easy to see this coming. Despite healthy comps and an emphasis on global expansion, there's really only so much real estate to go around. Many of Buckley's bearish warnings -- higher dairy prices and the susceptibility of expanding into less well-to-do neighborhoods -- were presciently voiced by Larry Rothman this past summer, during our Dueling Fools segment.
I put little weight on the percolating-commodities argument. If anyone has the leverage to pass costs on to the end user, it's a premium brandsmith like Starbucks. However, the problem of reaching deeper to mainstream audiences, at a time when consumers are defaulting on their mortgages, is all too real.
Rothman ridiculed Starbucks for expanding its drive-through program, and rightfully so. Starbucks is more than just a java peddler. It's a lifestyle pimp. Transforming the $3 latte experience into something akin to McDonald's
Sadly, Starbucks' pursuit of domestic growth has stooped that low. Now that the chain is testing out baked eats, putting out rock CDs, and installing drive-through speakers, is anyone sure what kind of lifestyle the company will be pitching in the future?
I can't commit to Buckley's call, though, because Starbucks shares are as cheap as its brews are not. Even with slowing growth, it's hard to pass on Starbucks when it's trading for less than 19 times this new year's profit targets (and less than 16 times next year's projected earnings). The stateside challenges are real, but so is the overseas potential.
Besides, if the value-minded burger chains like McDonald's and Burger King found ways to transform into growth stocks in recent years, I trust that Starbucks will also find its way back -- assuming it's even left that cozy spot in the first place.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz isn't much of a coffee drinker, though he's addicted to e-tail. He does not own shares in any company mentioned in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool's disclosure policy wonders whether Ahab's first mate ever sailed the Amazon.