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Bitauto Holdings Upgraded: 3 Facts You Need to Know

By Rich Smith - Feb 22, 2016 at 1:00PM

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Fact No. 1: CLSA just upgraded the Kelley Blue Book of China.

Stock markets around the globe are having a banner day Monday -- but few stocks are doing as well as China's Bitauto Holdings Limited (BITA). As the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 1.2% in morning trading, Bitauto was up more than 9%.

And for this, you can thank the friendly analysts at CLSA.

The news
As reported by multiple outlets this morning, CLSA did a 180 on Bitauto this morning, swinging its recommendation on the stock all the way from underperform to buy. The catch? No one seems to know why CLSA wants you to buy Bitauto.

After checking all my usual websites for free recaps of major ratings changes -- StreetInsider, TheFly, Benzinga, and even Marketwatch -- no one has any details whatsoever on CLSA's ratings move, other than confirming that it happened.

This is, of course, a profoundly frustrating situation for individual investors to find themselves in, knowing that an upgrade happened, but not knowing whether it is justified. So let's do what we can to clarify the situation for you, with a quick rundown of three things you should know about Bitauto.

Fact 1: You already know Bitauto
Bitauto isn't exactly a household name here in the U.S. But chances are, you'll probably recognize this company's business as soon as you hear about it. A self-described "leading provider of Internet content and marketing services for China's fast-growing automotive industry," Bitauto offers car buyers "up-to-date automobile pricing and promotional information, specifications, reviews and consumer feedback." Simultaneously, the company gives car dealers and car companies "digital marketing solutions to automobile customers in China."

Sound familiar?

That's right. Bitauto is the Kelley Blue Book of China. In fact, just three years ago, Bitauto launched a joint venture with Kelley Blue Book in China, aiming to grow its business with help from the best-known car information website in the U.S.

Fact 2: Kelley isn't public, but Bitauto is
Owned by cable magnate Cox Enterprises here in the U.S., KBB isn't a company you can invest in. But Bitauto is a public company, trading on the NYSE -- so you can own it, and according to CLSA, you should. But is CLSA right about that?

Maybe, maybe not. According to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, Bitauto is not currently a profitable operation, having lost just over $1 million over the past 12 months. The company earned steady profits for the four previous years, however, averaging annual income of about $38 million a year. On a $1.2 billion market cap, that would work out to a P/E ratio of about 31 if Bitauto should return to historic levels of profitability in the near future.

Fact 3: Uncertainty is key
How likely is it that Bitauto will get its income statement back in black? That's hard to say; analysts polled on S&P Global Market Intelligence aren't expecting to see much good out of Bitauto any time soon. To the contrary, the consensus of analyst following the company is that earnings growth will average less than 3% annually over the next five years -- hardly impressive for the supposedly red-hot Chinese consumer market.

Further complicating things, Bitauto is not the most transparent of companies. Its earnings updates rarely give a good view into free cash flow production, for example, providing details on operating cash flow, but little insight into capital expenditures. Accordingly, while we know that Bitauto has been a good cash producer in years past, we don't have much insight into how much cash it's generating today. This makes it difficult to gauge the quality of the company's reported profits...even when it is earning profits...

...which it presently isn't.

A better way to make money
Not quite ready to take the plunge back into China, and follow CLSA's advice to buy Bitauto? Not to worry. We've been tracking this analyst's stock picks for several years now, here at Motley Fool CAPS, and have been generally impressed by CLSA's performance -- outperforming more than three out of four investors we track. But if Bitauto doesn't float your boat, here's another recommendation that might: General Motors (GM -5.05%).

You see, right alongside Bitauto, our running tally of CLSA's stock picks finds the analyst also endorsing GM. And you may find much more to like in this more familiar name.

Where Bitauto is expensive, General Motors stock is undeniably cheap, costing just 5 times trailing earnings, and only 5.1 times forward earnings. General Motors' growth rate also puts Bitauto's to shame. Whereas analysts foresee only single-digit growth at Bitauto, GM is pegged for nearly 15% annualized earnings growth over the next five years.

Perhaps best of all, even if GM's earnings grow not at all, the stock pays a dividend yield of 5.3% -- more than enough to justify the 5 times P/E ratio all on its own. Long story short, if it's a bargain you're looking for, you needn't travel all the way to China to find it. Look closer to home, and take a look at General Motors instead.

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