By Larry Gellar
Let's take a look at five of the latest analyst upgrades. Blackstone (NYSE:BX) and AIG are benefiting from certain unique economic trends. Meanwhile, Chipotle (NYSE:CMG), Safeway (NYSE:SWY), and Express Scripts (NASDAQ:ESRX) are using new business models to fuel growth. Let's see what specifically has been happening with these five stocks:
William upgraded Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. to Outperform, noting that the company has had good momentum with sales. In fact, CMG stock has been steadily rising since December. Trading for less than $320 at that time, the stock price is now well over $350. That has some investors thinking that the stock is now overvalued, and for good reason. While Chipotle may see tremendous growth in the future, the stock price already reflects that. Chipotle may be able to outdo expectations if the new ShopHouse brand works out well, but it may have made even more sense for Chipotle to just focus on the Chipotle restaurants for the time being. Maybe Chipotle can eventually spin out ShopHouse the way that McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) spun out Chipotle. Value metrics for Chipotle are currently a price-to-earnings ratio of 55.24, price/earnings to growth of 2.54, and price to sales of 5.05, which are all many times higher than the industry average. Gross margin of 36.92% and operating margin of 15.64% are impressive, however. As for cash flow, $5.27 million flowed into Chipotle during 2010, and $185 million flowed in during the first three quarters of 2011. Those numbers have been the result of strong operating cash flows.
Jefferies upgraded Safeway Inc. from Hold to Buy and gave it a price target of $25. The stock was trading below $19 in November, but now it's moved up a bit to $21. In fact, Jefferies says this stock will continue to rise as long as employment numbers keep improving. The key here is that Safeway should be able to increase its prices as the economy strengthens. Other news for Safeway has centered on plans to get out of the Philadelphia area. The company is selling 16 Genuardi's stores to Giant Food for $106 million, and stores in other parts of Pennsylvania could be sold as well. That should improve Safeway's cash flows, which haven't always been impressive. The company had $598 million flow out during the first three quarters of 2011, although two big factors in that were capital expenditures and stock repurchases. Compared with Kroger (NYSE:KR) and Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), Safeway has a fairly high price-to-earnings and price/earnings-to-growth ratio. The stock's price-to-sales ratio is pretty low though, and gross margin of 28.63% is impressive. Investors watching grocer stocks should also keep an eye on SuperValu (NYSE:SVU), which is similar to Safeway except for its lack of profitability.
Jefferies raised both price target and earning estimates for The Blackstone Group. Trading for $14 in parts of December, the stock is now well over $15. That's been fueled by aggressive moves from the private equity firm, such as this one. Indeed, the company is teaming up with DDR buying a $1.6 billion package of shopping centers. Some of the retailers on this real estate are TJX Companies (NYSE:TJX), Bed Bath & Beyond (NASDAQ:BBBY), Best Buy (NYSE:BBY), PetSmart (NASDAQ:PETM), Kohl's (NYSE:KSS), and Home Depot (NYSE:HD). Here's what Blackstone's A.J. Agarwal had to say: "We are excited to purchase this portfolio, which is experiencing a rebound in occupancy as retailers expand their space into high quality community and power centers around the U.S." As for cash flows, Blackstone has had some interesting problems with its operating cash flows. While there was $371 million of operating cash outflow in 2010, $758 million of operating cash flows came in during the first three quarters of 2011. Blackstone executives hope the real estate deal will continue to improve the cash flow situation, but in the meantime, Blackstone's value metrics are reasonable - price/earnings-to-growth ratio is 0.85 and price-to-sales ratio is 2.18.
UBS raised both its price target and earnings estimates for Express Scripts, Inc., in part due to its merger with Medco (NYSE:MHS). The merger news has also boosted Express Scripts stocks lately. Trading for below $44 in December, the stock price is now almost at $50. Express Scripts has been in the news particularly because of its lack of a deal with Walgreens (WAG). Here's what Express Scripts spokesman Brian Henry recently said, "We have remained open to having [Walgreen] in our network, but only at rates and terms that are right for our clients and are consistent with other pharmacies." More specifically, Express Scripts is claiming that Walgreens wants to be paid more than other pharmacies. Meanwhlie, Walgreens recently introduced its own prescription plan. Express Scripts customers who go to another pharmacy will still get lower prices there, but Walgreens CEO Gregory Wasson says his company's plan is competitive. As for value metrics, price-to-earnings, price/earnings-to-growth, and price-to-sales ratios for Express Scripts are all a bit higher than similar companies. Meanwhile, Express Scripts margins are a bit low - those numbers are 7% gross and 5.19% operating. Cash flows for Express Scripts look good though, and the company brought in $538 million during the first three quarters of 2011.
Stifel Nicolaus is rating American International Group, Inc. a Hold. In fact, the stock has been moving sideways for quite some time now since we last identified it as a Richard Pzena pick. AIG shares have been stuck between $20 and $25 for about five months now. The tide could be turning for AIG though, as the insurance company appears to be finally gaining some capital flexibility. Regardless, many financial trends are working against AIG. For instance, equity markets are volatile, interest rates are low, credit spreads are growing larger, and catastrophe losses have been high. Cash flows for AIG have also been negative. $2.842 billion flowed out during 2010, and $16 million flowed out during the first three quarters of 2011. More specifically, most of those outflows were caused by the company's large debt payments. Also related to AIG's bailout, the company recently announced that warrants issued last January weren't a tax-free distribution. That won't be too significant for ordinary shareholders, although some big names like Bruce Berkowitz aren't very happy. Important competitors for AIG include Allianz (OTCQX:AZSEY) and AXA (OTCQX:AXAHY). Those stocks have lower price-to-sales ratios, although AIG has the lowest gross margin (12.92%). Potential investors should note that AIG has a very high beta - 3.71.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.