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." The pinstripe-and-wingtip crowd is entitled to its opinions, but we have some pretty sharp stock pickers down here on Main Street, too. And we're not always impressed with how Wall Street does its job.
Perhaps we shouldn't be giving virtual ink to "news" of analyst upgrades and downgrades. And we wouldn't -- if that were all we were doing. Fortunately, in "This Just In," we don't simply tell you what the analysts said. We 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.
Bad news, good news
It's been a topsy-turvy week for shareholders of AstraZeneca
This could be big news for AstraZeneca shareholders. After all, Plavix is currently the biggest drug on the planet in terms of sales, followed by Pfizer's
And it seems Bank of America believes that's going to be a tough sell.
This morning, B of A pulled its buy rating from AstraZeneca, downgrading the stock to neutral. Details on the downgrade are hard to come by, but a Fool probably won't be too off the mark in surmising that the twin regulatory rulings this week had something to do with it. The question, though, is what we're to make of B of A's downgrade.
After all, there was a time when B of A boasted a reputation second to few on Motley Fool CAPS. In recent years, however, B of A has developed a shy streak and discontinued publication of its recommendations through Briefing.com. Since that's our key recommendations aggregator for CAPS, it's hard for us to say today whether B of A has maintained its mojo in the pharmaceutical industry. In short, I'm afraid we can't give B of A the benefit of the doubt anymore; we're going to have to evaluate this downgrade entirely on its merits.
AstraZeneca: Buy the numbers
But that's OK. Really, all we need to know about this company is already available to investors in the financials the company files with the SEC. We know, for example, that AstraZeneca shares cost about 8.7 times earnings -- about half the industry average, and cheaper by far than rivals such as GlaxoSmithKline
But it gets better. AstraZeneca's financials reveal that the company is quite a bit cheaper than even its GAAP earnings might suggest. Fact is, while AstraZeneca has reported earning $8.2 billion over the past 12 months (as GAAP standards account for such things), the company in fact generated well over $10 billion in free cash flow -- giving AstraZeneca an enticingly low price-to-free cash flow ratio of just 6.9.
Numbers like these are what enticed me to invest in AstraZeneca earlier this year, and call me stubborn, call me a Fool -- but I'm not swayed by B of A's downgrade, or even FiercePharma's worries over Brilinta, to sell the stock now.
Why not? Well, consider: Right now, investors aren't expecting much out of AstraZeneca. Indeed, analysts have the company pegged for essentially zero earnings growth over the next five years. (Scary, huh?) But on the other hand, AstraZeneca pays its shareholders a 5.1% dividend, which to my Foolish eye is nearly enough to pay for the 6.9 P/FCF ratio on its own. Plus, AstraZeneca's currently paying out only about 45% of net income on its dividend, leaving plenty of room to increase the dividend.
Plus-plus, the company's deploying its free cash to buy its own shares, shrinking the share count and consequently improving both earnings per share and free cash flow per share with every repurchase. For these reasons, I think AstraZeneca offers multiple possibilities to grow in the coming years. With free cash arriving by the boatload, AstraZeneca can increase its dividend payout, buy back shares to grow EPS, and/or buy entire companies -- and absorb those companies' revenue streams into its own.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns shares of AstraZeneca. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 598 out of more than 170,000 members.
The Motley Fool owns shares of GlaxoSmithKline and Bank of America and has opened a short position in Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.