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Monday's Top Upgrades (and Downgrades)

By Rich Smith – Apr 1, 2013 at 2:17PM

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Analysts shift stance on Quicksilver Resources, UnitedHealth, and Churchill Downs.

This series, brought to you by Yahoo! Finance, looks at which upgrades and downgrades make sense, and which ones investors should act on. Today, our headlines include a downgrade for Quicksilver Resources (NYSE: KWK), an upgrade for UnitedHealth Group (UNH 1.49%), and, right out of the gate -- a brand-new buy rating for Churchill Downs (CHDN 0.67%). Let's dive right in.

Bad news first
First up, Quicksilver Resources announced this morning that it's selling a 25% interest in its Barnett shale oil and gas properties to a Tokyo Gas subsidiary for $485 million. On the surface, this sounds like good news, $485 million being pretty significant money. But why, then, is Credit Agricole responding to the news by downgrading Quicksilver to "sell"?

The answer probably has less to do with the sale itself than what necessitated it. Quicksilver, you see, isn't a profitable operation -- nor do analysts expect it to become one next year, either. The company's deeply in debt -- about $2 billion worth. And it's continuing to burn cash, as it's done for years, having spent $258 million more on capital improvements last year than it took in as operating cash flow.

With not enough cash coming in the door, Quicksilver had to raise some by selling off assets in the Barnett. Problem is, every time it does this, it reduces the level of assets from which it can earn income in the future -- effectively selling Peter to pay Paul. Unless the company can start generating enough cash from its business to pay its bills, there's probably only one way this story can end... and rather than wait it out, Credit Agricole flipped ahead to the last page this morning.

United... wealth?
In happier news, shareholders of megainsurer UnitedHealth learned today that ace analyst Standpoint Research is endorsing their stock, applying a buy rating and upping its price target on the shares to $69.

It's right to do so.

Priced under 11 times earnings, UnitedHealth looks cheap on its face with an 11% projected long-term growth rate and a modest 1.5% dividend yield. In fact, though, the company's even cheaper than that. With $6.1 billion in trailing free cash flow, UnitedHealth generates about 10% more cash profit in a year than GAAP accounting standards allow it to report as "net income." Even penalizing the company for its sizable debt load, this works out to an enterprise value-to-free cash flow ratio of only 10.5 -- which again, looks mighty cheap relative to the company's growth prospects and dividend payments.

Long story short, in a market that looks expensive pretty much everywhere you look these days, UnitedHealth is one of the few remaining stocks that still looks cheap enough to buy.

And they're off!
Last (and unfortunately, least), we come to a bluegrass stock that one analyst thinks can earn you some serious green: Churchill Downs. The racetrack company announced Friday that it's buying Oxford Casino in Maine for $160 million, and investors seem to like the deal, bidding Churchill "Downs" shares up instead -- by 2% this morning.

At least one analyst likes the deal, too, with Imperial Capital praising the firm's "strategic acquisitions" and saying its stock sells for a "discount to most of the select gaming comparables that we analyze." Sadly, that's not good enough.

Priced at 21 times earnings, or even its more modest-seeming 12 times free cash flow, Churchill Downs offers no great bargain at its projected 6.5% annualized rate of growth. Even acknowledging the effect of a 1% dividend yield to help spur profits at the stock, this stock looks like a plodder to me. I wouldn't bet on it to win, place, or show.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends UnitedHealth Group.

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Stocks Mentioned

UnitedHealth Group Stock Quote
UnitedHealth Group
UNH
$537.62 (1.49%) $7.91
Churchill Downs Stock Quote
Churchill Downs
CHDN
$223.65 (0.67%) $1.48

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