The following article is part of The Motley Fool's "Stock Madness 2005," a contest based loosely on the annual NCAA College Basketball Tournament, a.k.a. March Madness. From March 17 to April 4, our writers and analysts will engage in head-to-head competition with each other, advocating and arguing on behalf of 64 stocks we've selected as among the most interesting to Foolish investors. You, dear readers, are the fans and referees -- you'll read these exciting duels and then vote for the stock you think is the better investment... and should therefore move on to the next round of play. The company that survives six "games" will be our tournament champion, and its writer our most valuable "coach."
But, please, make no mistake -- "Stock Madness 2005" is a GAME!
Our writers are doing this for fun. They are enjoying the spirit of competition and the art of debate. They are delighting in the search for positives in the companies they've drawn... and negatives in the companies they're pitted against. They are NOT necessarily recommending these stocks as the ones they believe in above all others. As ever, YOU must decide whether the stocks we're writing about -- winners and losers -- are deserving of your investment dollars.
Level 3 Communications
Broomfield , Colo.
52-week low-high: $1.79-$4.29
$1.67 billion market cap
By Stephen D. Simpson, CFA
Vision is a tricky thing. Claiming that you see a world that doesn't exist yet can be a quick ticket to a padded cell and a new wardrobe with extra-long sleeves. The thing is, though, that when you're right, the rewards can be tremendous.
The automobile? Personal computers? Cable TV? Cell phones? All of these businesses were thought at one time to be nothing more than fads -- toys for the wealthy to amuse themselves, but nothing more. What's more, each one of them required a tremendous upfront investment of capital that had to be made before consumer demand materialized.
Funny. Nobody seems to be laughing at Bill Gates or Craig McCaw much these days.
Level 3 has been the butt of many jokes. After all, this is a cash-flow negative company that has a tremendous load of debt on the balance sheet. What's more, Level 3 scrambled to build its fiber infrastructure precisely while the markets were hitting a peak, and since the bubble burst, the company has found itself with excess capacity and a tough pricing environment.
That's today. The future, though, could be far different. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) is coming fast, and Level 3 has secured eight of the past 10 major contracts awarded, including a recent agreement to support Time Warner's
Elsewhere, telcos are beginning to roll out major new broadband infrastructure projects in an attempt to offer more access to the home user. One consistent theme regarding the Internet has always been "more" -- more users, more bandwidth, and more bandwidth-intensive applications. Are we going to go back to slow dial-up modems? If not, Level 3 will benefit.
Whether it's VoIP or broadband in the home, Level 3 isn't playing for penny-ante stakes.
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned.
West Hollywood , Calif.
52 week low-high: $6.32-$20.97
$370 million market cap
By Jeff Hwang
This is funny. Whichever wise guy set up this bracket pitted me against a company I own -- Level 3 Communications. But that doesn't faze me one bit, because it doesn't take a genius to appreciate where WPT Enterprises is going.
Key words: Online poker.
Think about it: You have an online business, with the scalability of eBay
Compare this to a company whose best source of cash for the time being has been the sale of convertible debt. That would be Level 3, of course.
For those who aren't up to speed, WPT Enterprises -- the company behind the wildly popular World Poker Tour -- will debut its new online gaming site in partnership with WagerWorksduring the second quarter.
The online poker world is dominated by competitive sites, such as Party Poker, Poker Stars, and Poker Room. It features mild eBay-like network effects as a barrier to entry but also low switching costs for the consumer. However, the fact is that the World Poker Tour covers most of the biggest events in poker -- with the exception of Harrah's
Stephen, I know you're going to question whether poker is a "fad," so here is the fact: The growth in poker's popularity will have its ebbs and flows, but the downside to this growth is protected by the increasing number of skilled players who regularly profit from the game.
Fool contributor Jeff Hwang owns shares of Level 3 Communications and eBay.
Here's the deal -- we all know people who play poker. But every single one of us uses telecom and Internet services -- no one would be reading this at all if not for the Internet. I know for a fact that I'm going to be using more bandwidth tomorrow, next month, and next year. How much more poker-themed entertainment will the market take before saturation? And those online poker games? They need bandwidth too. -- S.S.
Here's a question for you, Stephen: Exactly what type of investor would you recommend Level 3 to? Certainly not the casual investor. If you're pitching it to the growth investor, you're probably going to have to give more than a story. And if you're pitching it to the value guy, you're probably going to have to actually talk about valuation. I think Level 3 is too tough a ticket to sell in this space. -- J.H.
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