3 Value Plays to Consider, 3 Value Traps to Sell

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) --Whitney Tilson riffed a solid line on CNBC the other day:   When the story is the same and the price is lower -- buy more.

Tilson made the comment in support of his continued bullish conviction toward J.C. Penney ( JCP) and Netflix ( NFLX). He considers both value plays.

In a discussion of value, J.C. Penney and Netflix provide solid starting points.

I am in the process of completing a 180 on Netflix. In a recent article, I explain why Netflix can rise from the dead.

The company's decision to build out its own network to handle its streaming video traffic could turn into a big deal. While it will take several years for Netflix to serve all of its own data (it keeps about 5% in house), down the road it could open up its pipes to other streamers. That's a ways off, but it shows Netflix will, most definitely, save money and potentially cultivate a new revenue source.

Near-term, a quiet Reed Hastings and no major (and overpriced) content deal announcements tells me that if I am going to play this one from a value angle, it's best to go with a cautious long position rather than an aggressive short one. I think Netflix has a leaner and meaner self up its sleeve.

Given my support of the company's controversial marketing decision, I would like to endorse a J.C. Penney long play. At this point, however, I just cannot do it.

Ron Johnson did nothing short of botch his company's pricing strategy. But everybody knows that much. Now, as he backtracks, investors have even more to worry about. Johnson's solution to the misfire: Bring back the word "sale."

That sums up the predicament he faces as the CEO of a department store. Everything in the retail toolbox has been recycled and tweaked thousands of times over. At some point, you have to stop pulling from that pathetic arsenal and make wholesale transformations to what it means to be a retailer. It's a tall order; and it's not a knock on Johnson to claim he's not up to it. Most people aren't.

Keep in mind, when going cautiously bullish Netflix and remaining bearish J.C. Penney, I use a time horizon measured in years, not weeks and months. Simply put, there's a greater likelihood that Netflix produces some upside for shareholders in the next 12 to 18 months than J.C. Penney does.

If you were to look at balance sheets and forward P/E ratios, you might come to the opposite conclusion. When you dig for value plays, though, you need to do it on the basis of a company's long-term story, not the numbers.

Is it weaving a reasonable narrative? Does it have the pieces in place to execute and sustain?

Consider Sirius XM ( SIRI).

Because its P/E has tanked to more sensible levels, some investors might start referring to it as a value play. That's a surface-scratch analysis. The P/E dropped as the stock price dropped. It was not because of any meaningful uptick in profits. When a stock consistently trends down, as Sirius XM has since April, there's generally a reason.

And that reason is clear -- Sirius XM equals dead money in the eyes of investors. The company's own CEO thinks the stock "sucks."

Folks such as myself and fellow TheStreet contributor Richard Saintvilus have been hammering home the reasons to Sirius XM loyalist longs for some time now.

Leaving aside a lack of innovation and billions of outstanding shares, egomaniacal men acting like children hold the company and stock back at this point. In a perfect world, Mel Karmazin resigns amicably and relinquishes control of Sirius XM to Liberty Media ( LMCA). That makes the most sense, as, under that arrangement, satellite radio might actually evolve into something relevant. Integration into Liberty's diverse, growing and cross-platform stable can only help the cause.

Instead, Karmazin effectively forces Liberty to strong-arm the situation, which, ultimately, harms the future of Sirius XM's business. A businessman through and through (not an entrepreneur), Karmazin simultaneously grew revenue, generated cash and turned his company into a dinosaur. It will end up in the single-occupancy museum of satellite radio if somebody does not act soon. By the time the Mel and Malone dog and pony show wraps up it might be too late to activate any real change. It probably already is.

Look around the market. Given the recent weakness, you can find plenty of stocks with P/Es falling even harder than Sirius XM's. At last check, Research in Motion ( RIMM) flounders at a ripe current P/E ratio of 4.5 with the stock finally ending up where most of the free world predicted -- in the single digits.

That's not value. That's the definition of a falling knife , straight outta the urban dictionary. Don't fall for the meaning the glossary of your old finance textbook assigns to "value." Blind faith in that outdated tripe is enough to get you killed.

That said, often a low P/E should not send off red flags. Instead, the intuitive reaction might be right.

Cases in point: Time Warner ( TWX) and Viacom ( VIA.B).

It's nothing short of petty larceny that both stocks sport forward P/Es close to 9.

You have two media empires that control some of the most premium content on Earth. They have yet to fully unleash their multiplatform power. And, as with an investment in Disney ( DIS), you benefit from built-in hedges in both.

Disney provides the ultimate example of this. If Studio Entertainment is soft one quarter, you can count on one of the company's other four business segments to offset that weakness. While not quite on the same scale as Disney, Viacom recently reported pretty solid earnings despite considerable pressure at Nickelodeon. Other aspects of the business, such as tweaks at Paramount Pictures, helped pick up the slack.

Plus, Viacom and Time Warner pay dividends that have histories of increasing. That's certainly not the sign of a vulnerable company such as J.C. Penney, RIM or Sirius XM.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.  

At the time of publication, the author was long TWX. He is also long VIAB in a custodial account he manages for his minor child.