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.
And speaking of the best ...
Corning (NYSE:GLW) got a big boost Thursday, when ace stockpicker Bernstein announced it was initiating coverage of the LCD glassmaker at an outperform rating. Slapping a $15.20 price target on the stock, Bernstein promised investors at today's prices the chance to earn a 21.4% profit on the shares themselves, and the practical guarantee of collecting Corning's 2.9% dividend yield, as they wait for the shares to go up.
So, in total, a better than 24% profit in just 12 months of investing. Not a bad return ... if Bernstein turns out to be correct. But is the analyst right about this one?
Let's go to the tape
At first glance, indications look good. According to our CAPS stats, Bernstein is one of the better analysts out there today, ranking in the top 10% of investors we track, getting most of its stock picks right -- and beating the market by an average of seven percentage points-per-pick.
Bernstein's also got good reason to be recommending Corning. The company that invented the glass for Thomas Edison's light bulb, that dominates the market for glass used in LCD TVs and monitors, and whose "Gorilla Glass" product forms the screens of most of the world's higher-end smartphones, recently announced a new flexible LCD glass that it's calling "Willow" (because, you see, it bends).
According to Corning, no one in the industry has yet invented a product to take advantage of Willow Glass's unique property. But that's the kind of thing that can change in a hurry in the tech world.
For example, manufacturers such as Samsung have encountered difficulties designing around Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) "rounded rectangle" design patent for the iPad. Now, imagine if you will, a "tablet" computer that's not a rectangular tablet at all -- but, perhaps, a cylinder shaped more like a rolling pin. Instead of swiping to scroll the screen up or down, you simply rotate your cylinder clockwise or counterclockwise to move up or down the screen. That's the kind of innovation that flexible Willow Glass might make possible. Similar innovations might come out of Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL), now that it's in the computer hardware-making biz. Its recent interest in wearable computers, for example, might lend itself to a portable device that slides over the wrist, like an armband -- again, an innovation that Willow could make possible.
Faster than the speed of tech
How quickly might Willow catch on? Consider this: Back in 2009, when Corning was still "boasting" of having just seven manufacturers starting to experiment with its Gorilla Glass, management predicted that, within a few years, the new product would be bringing in "$300 million" in annual revenues. Corning was right about that -- times three. Just last year, Gorilla Glass sales topped $1 billion for Corning.
If Willow Glass turns into a similar-sized success story, this could be big news for Corning.
But valuation still matters
And yet, while Corning's invention intrigues, and Bernstein's endorsement encourages, it's worth asking whether even successful and widespread adoption of Willow Glass would do much good for Corning's bottom line. After all, over the three years since Corning began hawking Gorilla Glass, total sales at the company increased 48.5% (from 2009 to 2012) to hit $8 billion. Meanwhile, free cash flow at the company rose only 18%, while actual GAAP profits actually ... fell 14% !
Key to Corning's success going forward, therefore, will be its ability to not just get the market to adopt its new invention, but also to preserve profit margins on the product, and grow earnings and free cash flow in proportion to revenues.
The company's mixed success with Gorilla Glass shows us that this is not at all a sure thing. Still, the valuation on Corning's stock today suggests to me that Bernstein is still right to be optimistic. With a market cap of $18.4 billion, Corning currently costs about 10.8 times GAAP earnings, and 13.1x free cash flow. Assuming Street estimates of 12% annualized profits growth over the next five years are accurate, I'd say this makes Corning's valuation look attractive today.
Factor in that tidy 2.9% dividend yield and, as a matter of fact, yes, I do believe I'll go out on a limb here, and say that I think Corning is cheap.