"The bigger they are, the harder they fall." It's the worst nightmare of every investor in today's market -- buying a rocket stock just before it takes a nosedive.

Every day, WSJ.com publishes a list of stocks whose shares have just hit new 52-week highs. And every day, investors read the list and tremble -- some with greed, others with terror. On our Motley Fool CAPS investing community, these top stocks usually enjoy favorable ratings, since everyone loves a winner.

But not always.


52-Week Low

Recent Price

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Corning (NYSE:GLW)




Intuitive Surgical (NASDAQ:ISRG)




Disney  (NYSE:DIS)




Texas Instruments (NYSE:TXN)








Companies are selected from the "New Highs & Lows" lists published on WSJ.com on Friday last week. 52-week low and recent price provided by Yahoo! Finance. CAPS ratings from Motley Fool CAPS.

Everybody loves a winner
And really, how can you not love these stocks? As Mr. Market found his footing again last week, some of the biggest names on Wall Street marched right on up to new 52-week highs.

Oracle, TI, Disney -- these names rank among the best of the best. And these days, high-tech tickers like Intuitive Surgical and Corning are ceding them no ground. Corning in particular draws our attention this week, as the sole five-star stock in a sea of none-too-shabby four-star-raters. But just what is it about Corning that merits that final, chart-topping star?

The bull case for Corning
TV's the thing, according to CAPS member Shaftsbury:

Regardless of whether people aren't going out to dinner or taking vacations. In a slow economy, one of the most inexpensive and popular pastimes we have is TV watching. ... Flat panel will eventually replace all old technology sets.

And who makes the glass for those flat-screen LCD TVs? You guessed it: Corning. But that's not all Corning makes. As caterpillar10 informs us, Corning is also "where Pyrex, fiber optics, and flat screens came from. Going forward, as they always do, there's cutting edge filtering elements to clean diesel exhaust among many other things." (Cutting-edge, huh? Couldn't have said it better myself.)

And as CAPS All-Star mrindependent argues, there's seldom been a more attractive price at which to purchase a stake in this high-tech superstar: "Corning is selling for just 1.5 times book value, which is far below its historical norm."

How much below the norm, you ask? Quite a bit, actually. Over the last 10 years, Corning has averaged a price-to-book value ratio of 4.3 -- making today's 1.9 P/B (it's grown a bit since mrindependent spotted it) look like quite a bargain.

The picture seems similar from the perspective of price-to-earnings. If you throw out the turnaround year of 2004, with its triple-digit, turnaround P/E, it appears that a "normal" P/E for this stock over the past five years has been somewhere in the neighborhood of 26. Today, the stock sells for less than 19 times earnings -- again, a bargain, albeit less so than the P/B ratio would suggest.

How to value a superstar?
Skeptics such as yours Fool-ly may contend that even a 19 P/E ratio is too much to pay for Corning. Analysts don't expect the stock to grow its earnings at much more than 12% per year over the next five years. That disparity is enough to give a value investor a serious case of the willies (or won't-ees).

Plus, even the earnings Corning does produce seem a bit lacking in oomph. Over the most recent five years for which we have complete financials, Corning reported earning $7.6 billion. Free cash flow, however, amounted to a mere $2.2 billion over the same time period.

Foolish takeaway
That said, as I've pointed out in recent weeks, investors often treat large-cap, high-quality names like Exxon Mobil (NYSE:XOM), Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), and, yes, Corning differently from more plebeian equity fare. These companies' moats are so deep, their reputations so strong, that many investors will happily "pay up for quality" -- and keep paying up for years on end.

When you consider this fact in Corning's favor, alongside the stock's current discount to historical valuation, even a perma-Corning-bear like myself must admit: There's no guarantee that the stock will get any cheaper. So if you ask me whether Corning is primed to fall from today's 52-week high, I'll simply say no. For whatever reason, the laws of gravity just don't seem to apply to Corning.

Will they ever? Tell us why, or why not, right here.

Motley Fool CAPS : It's fun, it's free, and it just might make you famous.

Intuitive Surgical is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Walt Disney is a Stock Advisor selection. Walt Disney and Coca-Cola are Inside Value recommendations. Coca-Cola is an Income Investor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Oracle and has recommended an options position on the company.

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 currently ranked No. 870 out of more than 145,000 members. The Fool has a disclosure policy.