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." In our recurring column, "This Just In," we cover the most headline-worthy upgrades and downgrades, testing the analysts' logic and examining their records to help you decide whether they're worth listening to at all. And in "Get to Know a Guru," we use upgrade and downgrade news as a springboard to introduce you to some of the lesser-known names in analyst-land. Up this week: Merriman Curhan Ford.

Profiles in punditry
No sooner had retailer Dress Barn (NASDAQ:DBRN) turned in a superb fiscal Q3 report on Wednesday -- featuring an earnings beat, positive comps, and raised guidance for the full year -- then out came Merriman Curhan Ford (MCF) with an analyst upgrade to "buy."

What's that? You're wondering who MCF is, and how much it knowa about women's fashion? If so, you're not alone. The analyst's name doesn't ring a bell for me, either. Fortunately, the purpose of this column is to answer questions like these. To pull back the veil of anonymity shrouding the mysterious analysts who issue these "upgrades" and "downgrades" every trading day. So let's put aside for a moment the question of what MCF knows about dresses, and focus first on ...

Who is Merriman Curhan Ford?
That's the question of the hour. Fortunately, on Motley Fool CAPS, we track this firm and know the answer. Here's what CAPS has to say about MCF: "A financial services holding company, Merriman Curhan Ford Corporation offers investment research, capital markets services, corporate and venture services, investment banking, asset management and wealth management through its operating subsidiaries. The company's general strategy is to serve fast-growing companies with a market capitalization below $2 billion with a wide range of financial services. Equity Research focuses on fundamental analysis of small-cap companies in the following broad market sectors: consumer, energy and industrial technology, health care, technology, telecommunications and special situations."

So in a nutshell, the firm has no specific industry specialization. Basically, it just researches small caps. It may have special insight here, seeing as MCF is a small cap itself -- MCF Corp. (AMEX:MEM) -- sporting all of a $57 million market cap. Further digging reveals that San Francisco-based MCF is the fourth iteration of an entity originally called Ratexchange Corporation, and was founded by a Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC) alumnus in 1987. MCF didn't place its first trade until early 2002.

Are these guys any good?
So much for the firm's biography. What we really want to know about is its resume. When MCF speaks, should investors listen?

As a general rule, no, they shouldn't. While not as bad as certain other investment bankers we've reviewed in this column, MCF's record to date is far from enviable. With a CAPS rating, as of this writing, of just 40.72, MCF scores worse than 17,000-odd other players, very few of whom own investment banks. Meanwhile, its 37% accuracy rating suggests you're statistically much better off flipping a coin than listening to MCF's advice. Advice that includes:

MCF says:

CAPS says:

MCF's pick lagging S&P by:

Dynavax Technologies (NASDAQ:DVAX)



54 points

Palomar Medical Technologies (NASDAQ:PMTI)



38 points

Then again, MCF has also picked:

MCF says:

CAPS says:

MCF's pick beating S&P by:

Volcano Corporation (NASDAQ:VOLC)



20 points

Columbia Sportswear (NASDAQ:COLM)



5 points

Meanwhile, back in Dress Barn
Do you see what I see? Reviewing the full list of Dress Barn's active picks on CAPS, my impression is that this firm is pretty hit-or-miss when making predictions in the dicey world of hi-tech and biotech. But when it focuses on more mundane clothiers, and the stores that sell clothing, MCF actually does pretty well.

For this reason, when MCF says that Dress Barn is a buy, I'm inclined to take that advice. But whenever the firm ventures out of the clothing aisle -- that's when I'd say you're better off flipping a penny then paying it for this banker's thoughts.

That said, if MCF's record has you feeling leery of everything it says, I wouldn't blame you. Feel free to double-check your thinking, and MCF's as well, by checking out what the current score leader on Dress Barn has to say. You can find this information right here. (Just don't be surprised to learn that this mystery investor is no professional analyst at all.)

And if you're curious just why it is that MCF's pick Columbia Sportswear has done so very well, that's no mystery at all. Fool co-founder Tom Gardner explains why he too likes the stock on Motley Fool Hidden Gems. Click here to claim a free 30-day pass to the service.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's ranked No. 1,698 out of more than 29,000 rated investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.