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.

A wonder-land
Unfortunately, not all analysts submit themselves easily to categorization as "best" or "worst." Some, like JPMorgan, for example, used to report their ratings through Briefing.com for public analysis, but apparently got embarrassed and stopped when people began holding them to account for their successes and failures. Others, like today's featured analyst, Buckingham Research, never published their ratings in the first place.

That raises a dilemma for investors. Yesterday, Buckingham quick-like-a-bunny snuck out one final downgrade before the calendar turns over to 2011. It told investors the time has come to stop buying specialty chemicals maker Ashland (NYSE: ASH). It pulled both its buy rating on the stock, and its $66-a-share price target to boot.

Problem is, not only do we not know why Buckingham suddenly soured on Ashland (no major media outlets have any details on the downgrade). But because the analyst has no public record to speak of on its picks, we also lack so much as a hint as to whether it's usually right on recommendations of this sort. How, then, is an investor to react to the downgrade?

Begin at the beginning
One reaction might be to look at what other analysts have been saying about Ashland lately. Good analysts. Rated analysts. Analysts like Jefferies & Co., one of the better analysts we track here on CAPS, or Longbow Research, literally one of Wall Street's Best analysts.

Like Buckingham, both of these analysts recently soured on Ashland's prospects. Citing the rising cost of raw materials in water technologies and higher crude oil prices that decrease profitability at Ashland's Valvoline, Jefferies has ratcheted back its earnings estimates for Ashland three times in the last six weeks. With profit margins squeezed, and consumers ill-prepared to pay higher prices on its products, Jefferies worries that Ashland's profits may not measure up to forecasts. Considering that Wall Street analysts are by nature herd animals, it doesn't take a genius to guess that similar concerns were probably behind the downgrade to "neutral" at Longbow last week -- or at Buckingham yesterday. But that doesn't mean they're wrong.

Follow the big dogs
You see, while Buckingham may be following the "alpha" leaders of the pack this week, the records of both Jefferies and Longbow on picks in the Chemicals industry tell us it's probably smart to do so. Currently, 92% of Jefferies' Chemicals picks are outperforming the market; while at Longbow the record is an astounding 100%. Jefferies' biggest winner to date has been glass and resin specialist Solutia (NYSE: SOA), a supplier to solar industry players such as LDK Solar and a 543-point gainer for the analyst, although it's also done well with its higher-profile pick of DuPont (NYSE: DD) in 2008.

For its part, Longbow has profited greatly from backing catalyst specialist Albemarle (NYSE: ALB) (another of Jefferies' faves), and also Lubrizol (NYSE: LZ), which, like Ashland, is a chemicals concern with significant ties to the automotive industry.

In short
Are there more reliable sources than Buckingham you could turn to for insight into this downgrade? Yes. Do those other, rated analysts know what they're talking about when they say Ashland isn't quite as attractive as it once appeared? Yes.

Yet even so, it's worth pointing out that none of these analysts are telling you yet to sell Ashland. Buckingham and Longbow are still only saying "hold." Jefferies, while giving ground grudgingly on its earnings estimates, still stubbornly insists that Ashland is a "buy." And I think I see why.

Consider: At 12.2 times trailing earnings, Ashland is hardly the most expensive stock in the Chemicals industry, where the average equity fetches 12.6 times earnings, DuPont costs nearly 15 times earnings, and Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW) fetches a multiple near 24. Ashland is also, as Jefferies is quick to point out with each successive step back on its forecasts, a "robust" producer of free cash flow, generating $301 million worth of such cash profits over the past 12 months alone. That means its free cash flow backs up a greater percentage of reported GAAP net income than you'll find at either DuPont or Dow.

Foolish takeaway
With a price-to-free cash flow ratio of 13.4, long-term earnings growth projected at 12.8% per year, and a modest 1.1% dividend to lend ballast to its shares, Ashland looks to me every bit the solid "hold" that analysts are now declaring it to be. While I wouldn't rush out to buy it at today's prices, neither do I see much risk to the downside from today's prices.

Fool contributor Rich Smith doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 673 out of more than 170,000 members. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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