This Just In: 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." 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.

Who's hot, who's not -- in biotech stocks
Wednesday is turning out to be a good day indeed if you're an investor in big pharma ... or even little pharma for that matter. Across the length and breadth of the stock markets, analysts are doubling down on some of their favorite health care bets. Here are four that catch the eye today:

Dendreon
Once a favorite of the go-go momentum-investing crowd, cancer researcher Dendreon -- maker of the pricey Provenge prostate cancer treatment -- scored a price target hike to $7 from analysts at Cantor Fitzgerald Wednesday.


According to the analyst, "expectations for Provenge are likely too low overall and ... Provenge will find a place in the treatment of CRPC above the current trend." Granted, Cantor warns that "this could take a bit some time to play out given near-term competition," and for that reason the analyst isn't quite ready yet to rate the stock a "buy" (it's only saying "hold," for now). But still -- the bump to a $7 price target suggests anyone willing to take the plunge today could end up with a 17% profit within a year.

Is it worth the risk, though? I mean, sure, Provenge could take off. But analysts have been making forecasts like this about Dendreon and its new wonder drug for years. To date, the stock remains unprofitable, short of its goal of making $500 million in annual sales (which Dendreon says it needs to "break even"), and according to most analysts, likely to see sales decline in 2013.

Call me a pessimist, but it's hard to see 17% upside in all that.

Gilead Sciences
Better prospects may be found in shares of Gilead Sciences, recipient of its own price target hike (from UBS this time) to $47.

Earnings are due out on Monday, providing the prospect of an immediate catalyst that could drive the shares higher. Adding to the attraction: Gilead is cheap.

The stock costs 25 times earnings, sure, and that may not look like a huge bargain on Gilead's 19% projected earnings growth. But with $3.3 billion in trailing free cash flow, a better way to look at this stock may be by looking past the GAAP numbers and valuing it instead at 18.4 times annual cash profits. Viewed from this perspective, 19% growth should be plenty fast to justify the share price. UBS likes Gilead as a "buy" -- and as you can see on my CAPS scorecard, so do I.

Where I differ with UBS, however, is on its two "traditional" pharma stock recommendations of the day: Eli Lilly and Pfizer. UBS rates the one a "hold," and the other a "buy" -- but upped its price targets on each this morning, raising Lilly to $54 and Pfizer to $31. Let's take them one at a time:

Eli Lilly
At first glance, Lilly certainly looks cheap enough at 14.7 times earnings and a 3.7% dividend yield. The company also just reported a small "earnings beat," and increased its earnings guidance for the current fiscal year slightly. Regardless, most analysts on Wall Street still see the company posting negative earnings growth over the next five years.

Between the underwhelming growth prospects and the overvalued shares (S&P 500 stocks currently trade for a forward P/E ratio of 13.3, while Lilly sports a forward P/E of 19.6), I agree with UBS that the stock's no "buy." But I disagree that its slightly positive earnings news justifies raising the price target.

Pfizer
UBS is even more optimistic about Pfizer, whose shares it now values higher than it used to and which it recommends with a "buy" rating. And yes, on the one hand Pfizer seems to have dodged the declining-earnings bullet that clipped Lilly -- but in many respects it's still a poor choice for your money.

For example, even if Pfizer is expected to show positive earnings growth over the next five years, the rate it's expected to grow at -- 2.8% -- hardly inspires excitement. It also seems a stretch to say this mediocre rate of growth justifies paying 21.6 times Pfizer's earnings -- or nearly half-again what a share of Lilly would cost you. Finally, whereas Lilly offers the advantage of a net-debt-free balance sheet, Pfizer's $38.9 billion debt load dwarfs even the $23 billion it has in the bank.

Long story short, out of all four biotech/pharma plays getting ink on Wall Street today, I still think Gilead Sciences is the best pick of all.

Also, Dendreon's run over the past four years witnessed sub-$5 share prices skyrocket to 10-bagger status before tumbling all the way back down below $5, as its revolutionary prostate cancer vaccine Provenge became a lightning rod of debate. But where does that leave investors -- other than a bit nauseous from the roller-coaster ride? Our own David Williamson answers this question, and many more, inside our brand new premium research report on Dendreon. Inside, he details every key issue facing the company and outlines just how Dendreon intends to regain its former glory. The report also comes with a full year of analyst updates, so claim your copy of this exclusive report today by clicking here now.

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

Fool contributor   Rich Smith   has no positions in the stocks mentioned above.   You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty , where he's currently ranked No. 334 out of more than 180,000 members. The Motley Fool recommends Gilead Sciences. The Motley Fool owns shares of Dendreon. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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