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." Today, we'll show you whether those bigwigs actually know what they're talking about. To help, we've enlisted Motley Fool CAPS to track the long-term performance of Wall Street's best and worst.

Time to buy Ford?
There's no two ways about it -- Ford (NYSE: F) shareholders have had a rough time of things in 2011. Year to date, the stock is down 12% and is underperforming Toyota (NYSE: TM), Honda (NYSE: HMC), and even upstart electric buggy-maker Tesla (Nasdaq: TSLA). So far, Ford's only claim to fame this year has been outperforming Government, er, General Motors (NYSE: GM) stock -- down 15%.

But fear not, intrepid investor. Things are about to turn around for Ford ... or at least that's what Citigroup says.

Ordinarily, a falling stock price is the kind of thing that scares investors away. But according to Citi, a cheaper stock price is really just that: a cheaper price, and a potential bargain. As the banker points out, Ford hasn't just underperformed its automaking peers this year. It's underperformed auto parts makers such as Lear (NYSE: LEA), Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI), BorgWarner, and Exide -- underperformed the whole dang S&P 500, for that matter. But as Citi argues, selling Ford and buying everybody but Ford is likely to lead you to a dead end. The company's on the cusp of a credit rating upgrade, enjoying strong pricing on its product, and poised to steal market share from Japan. As a result, as StreetInsider.com summarizes Citi's argument: "Ford's pricing and product momentum deserves a premium, not a discount."

I agree.

Ford: Quality is Job 1 ... but value's a close second
Why? Well, for one thing, there's the fact that the analyst recommending Ford today ranks in the top 10% of investors we track on CAPS. But really, that's just the beginning. More important to me is that the Ford story makes sense -- and the numbers back it up.

Ford really is getting better, as fellow Fool John Rosevear illustrated for us in his write-up on the company's most recent "scorching" quarter. Solid profits in all regions in which Ford operates, a lighter debt load, a heaping helping of "automotive cash" at the company's manufacturing division -- all these factors argue in Ford's favor. Best of all, the price is right.

Right now, Ford shares sell for just 9.2 times trailing earnings. Free cash flow (the engine that powers the company's cash-making machine) is humming along at an annual $7.3 billion clip, pricing the stock at less than eight times cash profits. And whether you choose to value the company on GAAP earnings or free cash flow, either way, these multiples look awfully good in light of consensus expectations for 18% long-term growth at Ford.

Foolish final thought
Now, are there risks to investing in Ford? Does the company carry more debt than I'd like to see? Yes there are, and yes it does. Unlike GM and Chrysler, Ford never took the easy way out, declaring bankruptcy and making its debt load go "poof." Still, even after factoring Ford's net debt into the equation, I get an enterprise value-to-free cash flow ratio of just 19 on the stock, which tells me Ford's at worst fairly priced relative to the growth rate today.

But revive the dividend, reduce the cost of debt with a credit rating upgrade, or boost market share and profits a few basis points -- essentially, take any one of Citi's potential catalysts and make them happen, and Ford will look even better tomorrow. Buying the stock before the good news becomes "fact" sounds like a smart bet to me.

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. 441 out of more than 170,000 members. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended General Motors and Ford Motor. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford Motor. Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.