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.

If not now, when? If not Apple, who?
$580. $570. On a good day -- maybe $550. Even after a fairly steep descent these past two months, Apple (NAS: AAPL) costs more on an absolute basis than a lot of investors feel comfortable paying. The shares may be down nearly 10% from recent highs, but they're still up 75% from what they cost a year ago. And knowing this, investors looking for an angle are always asking: Is there any way to profit off of Apple's success, but avoid paying the high price tag?

Last week, investment banker Canaccord Genuity answered this question with a definite "Yes" as it detailed the pluses and minuses of three separate components makers riding the smartphone revolution right alongside Apple: Skyworks Solutions (NAS: SWKS) , TriQuint Semiconductor (NAS: TQNT) , and RF Micro Devices (NAS: RFMD) .


The good...
I won't keep you in suspense. Of the three companies, Canaccord sees Skyworks as the clear winner, and the only stock of the three that's worth buying. "Skyworks supplies [chips to] most of the top-selling global smartphones," writes Canaccord. Of the major players, "Skyworks has the broadest RFIC customer base and is growing its overall RF content share in the smartphone market." What's more, because Skyworks "should maintain and expand its industry-leading margins," the company is likely to grow "faster than the market."

Canaccord sees the industry at large growing at about a 14% annualized pace over the next several years. Most analysts think Skyworks should be able to manage 15% growth, and Canaccord appears to believe it will do even better than that. If it's right, then Skyworks' share price of about 16 times annual free cash flow means the stock is at worst fairly priced -- and probably actually pretty cheap.

The bad...
In contrast, about the best you can say about RF Micro and TriQuint is that there might be some value there, and only if a lot of things go right. According to Canaccord, RF Micro has had a rough 2012 so far, suffering from "declining revenue due to softer sales to [Nokia (NYS: NOK) ] combined with slowing 2G sales in China." While power amplification products such as Phenom and PowerSmart have the potential to turn things around, Canaccord honestly doesn't see much hope before fiscal 2013 or 2014.

Meanwhile, we're looking here at a stock selling for a quadruple-digit P/E ratio (although free cash flow is a bit better than that), but with only 13% long-term growth projected. Best case, the stock's fairly valued on superior free cash flow, but RF Micro is still no bargain.

As for TriQuint, what can I say? The stock's a mess. While Canaccord sees "long-term growth" in TriQuint's future, margins are weak and "it could take until 2014 for the company to diversify its customer base in order to grow sales and generate stronger margins." In the meantime, TriQuint's a 25 P/E stock with 5% earnings growth prospects, and negative free cash flow to boot. Given that Skyworks looks so much more attractive, and that even RF Micro's numbers aren't quite as bad as TriQuint's, there's really no reason to want to own this one at this time.

...and the obvious
Of course, this still leaves the question of whether investors looking for an angle on Apple aren't putting themselves to a whole lot of trouble for no good reason. I mean, Apple stock only costs 14 times earnings, for heaven's sake, and it's growing earnings at 22%! If you ask me, too many investors spend too much time trying to do things the hard way. Sure, sometimes, this pays off. For example, I happen to think the stock featured in our recent report on mobile communications actually will do as well as Apple. (Download the report for free today, and see if you agree.)

While I get why Canaccord is looking into all the options, and I commend the analyst for coming to the correct conclusion regarding Skyworks, as compared to RF Micro and TriQuint, the fact remains: When you get right down to it, the best way to profit from Apple's success is to just go ahead and buy Apple. If you want to stay up to date on the latest exclusive analysis from our top tech analyst, check out our new premium Apple research service today!

The article This Just In: Upgrades and Downgrades originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributorRich Smithowns shares of Nokia.You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 330 out of more than 180,000 members.The Fool has adisclosure policyThe Motley Fool owns shares of TriQuint Semiconductor and Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple.We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors.

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