This Just In: More Upgrades and Downgrades

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 best ...
Monday morning, Mr. Market woke up on the wrong side of the bed (seems Greece wet the bed Sunday night.) He spent two straight days stomping around the house, growling at everyone he encountered, and sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEX: ^DJI) down nearly 5%. But yesterday, Mr. Market's mood improved -- and a series of reports out of the commodity sector contributed to his good cheer.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a bullish report on crop prices. Corn prices were up 9.3% in October, while soybean prices inched up 2.6%. Crop harvesting in the Heartland is proceeding faster than planned, and planting of the winter wheat crop is also ahead of schedule. Topping off the good news, CNH Global (NYS: CNH) , the second biggest maker of agriculture equipment after Deere (NYS: DE) , just reported a bumper crop of profits in its Q3 earnings report, and predicted demand for ag equipment will end this year up 10% over 2010 levels.

Good news? Some analysts think so ... for some companies. Initiating coverage on a series of mining and ag equipment stocks yesterday, investment megabanker Morgan Stanley picked two stocks that it thinks are well positioned to benefit from global commodities trends -- and three more that aren't.

Beginning at the bottom
Let's clear out the chaff first. If ag products are doing well, then you'd probably expect this to be good news for companies like AGCO (NAS: AGCO) and Deere, right? Well, not so fast. CNH might have done well last quarter, but according to Morgan, this doesn't necessarily bode well for the companies it competes against.

Both AGCO and Deere currently cost more than CNH, after all. And even if you think the Dutch company is a bargain at less than 10 times earnings, that doesn't necessarily make AGCO or Deere "buys." In fact, selling for 11.6 and 12.5 times earnings, respectively, Morgan thinks you're actually better off selling both stocks. The analyst is nearly as pessimistic about mining-equipment maker Joy Global (NAS: JOYG) which, at 16.4 times earnings, appears to cost even more than its crop-harvesting brethren.

Moving on up
In contrast, Morgan gives high marks to Caterpillar and Manitowoc -- two companies historically more tied to the construction industry than to agriculture, both also major players in mining equipment. The key element here, it seems, is growth. Pegged for 23% and 19% long-term earnings growth, respectively, Caterpillar and Manitowoc are both expected to outgrow any of the other five stocks that Morgan initiated yesterday.

Of the two, though, I have to say that Caterpillar appeals to me much more than does Manitowoc. Cat's less leveraged than Manitowoc, it's growing faster, and it pays a higher dividend. Caterpillar is also earning strong profits, and churning out nearly-as-strong free cash flow, at a time when Manitowoc is reporting net losses under GAAP and burning cash on its cash flow statement.

Foolish final thought
If forced to pick between Morgan's two anointed winners, then, it's really no contest: "Cat eats Man." But I do want to point out that Morgan seems to have made a mistake on one of its pans this week as well, when it warns investors away from AGCO. To my Foolish eye, this might actually be the best bargain in the sector. Selling for less than 12 times earnings, AGCO appears priced at a discount to the 18%-plus growth rate that most analysts have predicted for it. It's also worth pointing out that -- alone among the companies discussed here -- AGCO is the only company currently generating free cash flow superior to the profits reported on its income statement.

Debt-free, with $433 million in trailing free cash flow to its credit, and a low price-to-free cash flow ratio of 10 despite superior growth potential, AGCO just might be the best ag stock deal around today.

In fact, I like it so much, I'm going to head over to Motley Fool CAPS and recommend it right now. Care to join me? Right this way.

Looking for more bargains in the mining industry? Strike gold with the Fool's latest recommendation -- and read all about it in our new, free report:The Tiny Gold Stock Digging Up Massive Profits.

At the time thisarticle was published Fool contributorRich Smithdoes not own (or short) shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 320 out of more than 180,000 members.The Motley Fool owns shares of Joy Global. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. 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.

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