This Just In: 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." 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.

Will MAKO make you rich?
Good news for fans of robotic-surgery specialist MAKO Surgical (NAS: MAKO) this morning. Up on Wall Street, someone likes your stock. The bad news? That "someone" is Mizuho Securities.

Bright and early Tuesday morn, the Japanese stock-picker predicted a bright future for this maker of orthopedic surgical arms. Within a year, this $42 stock will hit $52 -- a clean 30% profit. But how likely is that to happen, really?


Let's go to the tape
Judging from Mizuho's record to date, not very likely. Mizuho's been making public stock predictions in the sector for only about four months now, but already it's racked up a record as one of the worst stock-pickers on Wall Street. Barely 35% of its recommendations manage to outperform the market. The average pick underperforms the S&P 500 by more than 4 percentage points. Hardly inspiring.

And although I suppose you'd expect me to like this week's recommendation at least (MAKO is, after all, an official recommendation of Motley Fool Rule Breakers), the truth is that I'm not impressed with MAKO's performance at all.

Why not? Let's start with the analogies. Like Rule Breakers' famous -- and successful -- recommendation Intuitive Surgical (NAS: ISRG) , MAKO is a player in the fast-growing world of robot-assisted surgery. MAKO's aim: to improve the quality of orthopedic care, minimize the need for bone removal during surgery, and maximize the effectiveness of orthopedic implants. Broadly speaking, improving care with robots is an objective shared by Intuitive, and also by former Rule Breakers rec Hansen Medical (NAS: HANS) , a robotic catheter operator.

But here's the problem: When you drill down into the financials, MAKO bears much closer resemblance to Hansen than to Intuitive. It's unprofitable for one thing, and while growing quickly, it still works off a tiny revenue base -- so small that MAKO's $1.8 billion market cap equates to a very optimistic valuation of 21 times annual sales. MAKO's also burning cash like mad, its $39 million in trailing negative free cash flow actually a bit worse than the $36 million than Hansen burnt last year. (In contrast, Intuitive generated close to $595 million in positive free cash flow last year.)

180 degrees opposite of good
While Intuitive is doing a lot right in the robotic surgery space, MAKO seems intent on taking a different path. Despite growing revenues strongly in recent quarters, there's little improvement evident in the company's GAAP profits, or its free cash flow, either. It's done so bad, in fact, that unlike Intuitive Surgical, which consistently exceeds expectations, MAKO has managed to disappoint Wall Street in four of the past six quarters, reporting losses significantly worse than it was "supposed" to report.

Despite this history of consistent underperformance, however, investors have bid up MAKO shares by 65% over the past 12 months -- a number literally 10 times better than what investors in the broader S&P 500 have had to content themselves with.

Foolish takeaway
Listen, Fools. I'm all in favor of free money, and if Mr. Market wants to offer ever-higher prices for MAKO stock, despite the utter lack of justification for the run-up -- I say "great! Take the money!" But let's not get greedy. Let's not forget that the purpose of a business is to earn profits, and that MAKO has consistently failed to do anything of the sort.

My advice: Ignore Mizuho's advice. Don't buy MAKO Surgical today, but instead take the money and run.

That's what I'd do, and that's why right here, right now, I'm publicly making a prediction that MAKO Surgical will underperform the market from here on out -- and I'm rating the stock "underperform" on CAPS for that reason. (Think I'm wrong? Follow along.)

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At the time this article was published Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Intuitive Surgical and MAKO Surgical, but Fool contributorRich Smithowns no shares of of (nor is he short) any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 360 out of more than 180,000 members. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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