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." Today, we'll show you whether those bigwigs actually know what they're talking about. To help, we've enlisted Motley Fool CAPS to track the long-term performance of Wall Street's best and worst.

And speaking of the best ...
"Timing," they say, "is everything." And UBS picked a particularly propitious time to release its latest upgrade of General Motors (NYSE: GM) yesterday. The company still known to many as "Government Motors" has had a tough time of things since its re-IPO last year. Its stock has fallen, and its biggest shareholder are beginning to doubt whether it can get up. But according to UBS, that's all about to change.

The reason: Fukushima Daiichi. Japan's once-in-a-millennium earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown have wreaked havoc on Japanese automaking supply chains, upset the semiconductor industry, and dealt a PR nightmare to General Electric (which built the reactors), but it's turning into a "previously lacking catalyst" for that other "general" of American industry -- GM.

Location, location, location
Realtors tell us these are the three words most crucial to investing in real estate. Turns out, they're pretty important to automotive investors as well. Because as yesterday's April sales reports show, America's the place to be today, where Ford (NYSE: F) just turned in 16% U.S. sales growth, versus 12% growth at Nissan, 10% at Honda (NYSE: HMC), and 1% at Toyota (NYSE: TM). Best of all -- and proving UBS right -- was GM's performance, where we saw April sales skyrocket 27% in comparison to April 2010.

According to UBS, supply shortages and production interruptions in Japan are behind much of these sales dynamics. What's more: "Given its size, we believe GM will be the biggest beneficiary of the upcoming Japan-related inventory shortages, with the potential to gain of as much as 110 [basis points] of additional share in 2011. We expect these gains can boost 2011 EBIT by $1bn and EPS by $0.60/share. ... While we have been cautious on GM to date, we now view the Japan situation as the catalyst we've been looking for to carry GM through its weak launch period. In addition, we see Q1 EPS rebounding from a weak Q4." Is UBS right?

Let's go to the tape
If history is any guide, it really should be. Because so far, UBS has done a fine job of picking winners (if not so fine a job picking losers) in the auto industry. Over the four years we've been tracking its performance here on CAPS, UBS has racked up a record of 62% accuracy on its automotive picks:

Company

UBS Rating

CAPS Rating
(out of 5)

UBS's Picks Beating
S&P by

Fiat Outperform ***** 20 points
Daimler Outperform Not rated 33 points (picked thrice)
Ford Outperform *** 398 points (!)

And yet, not even UBS is perfect. While it's done a good job handicapping the racehorses down at the bottom of the supply chain, this banker's been less successful higher up. Fewer than 40% of UBS' picks among the auto components makers who feed into GM have outperformed the market, with UBS bungling calls on everyone from American Axle (NYSE: AXL) to Visteon (NYSE: VC). When you consider that supply bottlenecks are absolutely key to the banker's outperform call on GM, therefore, there is at least some reason to worry about this call.

Valuation, valuation, valuation
The more so when you look at the numbers. Listen -- I get where UBS is coming from with its optimism. April's numbers look fabulous. Toyota's on the ropes. In all likelihood, GM will astound and amaze investors with its earnings report tomorrow, and the stock will skyrocket. But so what?

When I urged investors to buy GM at its IPO last year, valuation was key to my thesis that you could Get Rich from the GM IPO. Problem is, so far that value has been slow to appear. At 11.5 times earnings, GM's price may not look too out of whack relative to consensus expectations for 10% long-term growth at the company. I get that. But according to GM's cash flow statement, the company's "profits" still aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Foolish final thought
Here's why: At last report, free cash flow was running at less than half the rate of reported GAAP "profits." With $2.6 billion in trailing FCF, GM now sells for nearly 20 times the amount of cash it can generate in a year. For a 10% grower, that's too little cash flow, selling for too high a price.

Maybe GM will change that equation when it reports new numbers tomorrow. Maybe not. Either way -- and UBS' advice notwithstanding -- I won't be buying until I see a better valuation on the stock.

Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own (nor is he short) shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 500 out of more than 170,000 members. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

General Motors is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Ford Motor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation and The Fool owns shares of Ford Motor.

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