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.

And speaking of the best ...
Does Italy's recent legislative strike against solar subsidies deliver a knee-capping to the global solar power industry? Not necessarily, according to the solar analysts at Brean Murray. While not all solar stocks are worthy of a place in your portfolio (according to Brean), there are at least a few worthy "buys" out there. Here are a few of 'em:

  • LDK Solar (NYSE: LDK). One of the biggest solar wafer companies in the world, Brean praises LDK for its "strong forward visibility" and suggests that Street estimates for the company are too conservative.
  • Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL). Size also matters at Trina Solar, which Brean likes for its history of "guidance beats" and its ongoing expansion of solar cell, module, ingot, and wafer production.
  • GT Solar (Nasdaq: SOLR). Perhaps the most intriguing of Brean's picks this week, no one in the mainstream media -- not even the usually insightful StreetInsider.com -- seems to possess details on why this one got the coveted "Brean bump." On the other hand, the company's low P/E ratio (9.3) and strong free cash flow ($230 million over the past 12 months, or nearly 50% higher than reported GAAP "net income" suggest it's one of the true bargains in solar.

And now, a few of the stocks Brean thinks something less than good bargains:

  • Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE). In stark contrast to GT Solar, Yingli is a hi-profile solar play that lacks free cash flow. On the one hand, the analyst likes the role Yingli play's as a "full value chain and low-cost leader." On the other hand, the company's history of FCF-negativity, combined with a sizeable debt load, has Brean sitting on the fence on Yingli.
  • MEMC Electronic (NYSE: WFR). About the best Brean has to say for MEMC is that after experiencing "significant disruption to its polysilicon business in 2008," the company could evolve into a turnaround story if it can grow revenues and expand profit margins -- but it's a big "if."
  • SunPower (Nasdaq: SPWRA)(Nasdaq: SPWRB). While praised as "a cell efficiency leader," Brean worries that SunPower's popularity comes at a high price. A high price that could fall sharply if "in the event of a downturn."

A little consistency, please?
I've already told you why I think GT Solar is the most interesting -- and value-priced -- of these picks. Now let me tell you why it's a completely different stock that draws my attention today: LDK Solar.

Brean names this as one of its favored names in the industry. And yet another analyst chose yesterday, the advent of Brean's coverage, to pan LDK. Citing the same Italian subsidy cuts that I highlighted on Monday, and that Brean mostly ignored, Collins Stewart argued yesterday that LDK is "poorly positioned" to perform in a subsidy-less Italian environment. In a well-reasoned, three-pronged attack, CS warns that:

  • "The Italian market may freeze in the weeks ahead, due to system buyers not knowing the feed-in tariff they will receive on new systems..."
  • LDK depends to a large extent on making sales to "foreign cell manufactures and 2nd- and 3rd-tier module vendors," markets that "may dry up quickly in a less robust demand environment."
  • If a lapse in Italian buying leads to a supply glut in solar, LDK could suffer "a large volume and price pullback."

To which I'd add that LDK is most definitely not in a good position to endure such reversals of fortune. LDK is a lot like Yingli, you see -- only more so. The two companies currently sport identical market capitalizations of $1.69 billion, yet LDK's debt load is larger than Yingli's by a good 50% or more, while its offsetting cash balance is nearly half the size of Yingli's.

And as far as generating the kind of cash necessary to pay down its debt goes ... don't hold your breath. LDK hasn't produced a penny of free cash flow since at least 2005. At last report, it was burning cash at the rate of more than $60 million per year -- a trend calculated to grow the company's debt, not pay it down.

Foolish takeaway
Now don't get me wrong: I actually agree with Brean Murray's statement that that there's "strong forward visibility" at LDK. Unfortunately, I don't like what I see.

The Fool owns shares of SunPower, but Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own (nor is he short) shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 524 out of more than 170,000 members. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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