This Just In: More Upgrades and Downgrades

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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." The pinstripe-and-wingtip crowd is entitled to its opinions, but we have some pretty sharp stock pickers down here on Main Street, too. And we're not always impressed with how Wall Street does its job.

So perhaps we shouldn't be giving virtual ink to "news" of analyst upgrades and downgrades. And we wouldn't -- if that were all we were doing. Fortunately, in "This Just In," we don't simply tell you what the analysts said. We also show you whether they know what they're talking about.

And speaking of the worst ...
It's perhaps not really fair to call broker Ticonderoga the "worst" today. While the broker sports a (very) subpar rating on Motley Fool CAPS, the downgrade we're going to discuss today is in a sector Ticonderoga has more or less ignored in the past: solar stocks. With nearly 100 picks on record to date, yesterday's downgrade of First Solar (NAS: FSLR) is the first time we have Ticonderoga on record taking an affirmative position on solar.

But what position is Tico taking, exactly? Well, here's what the analyst has to say: Right now, First Solar is operating at breakeven on its solar products and using its "downstream project business" to show profits -- a tactic Tico terms an "accounting gimmick." Farther up the supply chain, Tico notes that First Solar's thin-film solar modules are fetching only $0.90 per watt "or below."

Also: "Pricing throughout photovoltaic value chain appears to be accelerating to the downside." In evidence of which, Bloomberg just reported that polysilicon prices dropped 9% week-on-week to $40.51 per kilogram on weak demand. As this trend gains speed, First Solar could be facing tremendous negative pressure.

Tell us what you really think, Ticonderoga
In short, Ticonderoga argues that within just a few months, First Solar will begin to lose money on every solar module it sells. While Tico says First Solar's project business is still enabling the company to report profits, these profits will amount to only $8 a share in 2011 (nearly $1 below consensus estimates) and then drop to $6.30 next year (versus Street expectations of 17% profit growth). Could the analyst be right about that?

It's hard to say. On one hand, I have to admit that when I look at Ticonderoga's record and see that it's scored only about 37% for accuracy on its picks over the past few years, that doesn't exactly inspire confidence. On the other hand, Tico does seem to have some insight into the electric-utilities business, where both of its active recommendations -- Exelon (NYS: EXC) and PPL (NYS: PPL) -- are currently beating the market.

I also have to admit that I have more than a few reservations about First Solar. Arguably, First Solar is a "value stock," selling for barely 5 times consensus earnings estimates for next year, versus an average forward P/E of 11 on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX ^DJI). But by the same token, most solar stocks are in the tank right now. SunPower (NAS: SPWRA) , for example (and you know what I think about that one), costs only 7 times forward earnings. Yingli Green Energy (NYS: YGE) , likewise. And Trina Solar (NYS: TSL) costs less than 6 times earnings.

And don't even get me started about the free cash flow situation. After posting one good year of real cash-profits production in 2009, First Solar immediately plunged back into the red. At last report, the company was burning cash at the rate of nearly $390 million per year ... even as First Solar claims to be earning $510 million in annual "profits."

Foolish takeaway
When you get right down to it, it probably doesn't matter what you think of Ticonderoga as an analyst. It doesn't matter if Tico's record on solar stocks is good, bad, or indifferent, because the numbers at First Solar speak for themselves. And the word they're screaming at me is: "sell!"

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At the time this article was published Fool contributorRich Smithdoes not own shares of (nor is he short) any company named above. You can find Rich on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 296 out of more than 180,000 members.Rich's reservations notwithstanding, The Motley Fool owns shares of First Solar.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave also recommended buying shares of Exelon and First Solar and creating a write covered strangle position in Exelon.We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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