SAN FRANCISCO -- Upgrading a stock during a market downdraft can be like spitting into the wind. Rarely do five bullish calls get caught in the same saliva shower, as is the case with USWeb/CKS (USWB) . Still, all five analysts are standing by their calls.
Since May 11, two top-shelf firms initiated coverage on the stock:
with a strong buy, and
Morgan Stanley Dean Witter
with an outperform. Meanwhile,
Dain Rauscher Wessels
Pacific Crest Securities
have raised their estimates on the stock to strong buy from buy. (Of those five, only Dain Rauscher has an underwriting relationship with USWeb/CKS.)
The impact on USWeb/CKS? A bit of goop on its chin. Since May 11, the stock has dropped 15.1%, thanks to a
selloff in Net stocks as well as persistent -- and, say analysts, outdated -- concerns that it's having trouble digesting a Caligula-esque banquet of acquisitions. During that same period, the
index has dropped only 1.8%, and the
TheStreet.com Internet Sector
index has fallen 8.6%.
Nevertheless, analysts and money managers remain upbeat. The primary reason is that the company's business outlook looks increasingly better. Some view USWeb/CKS as a prime example of a "roll-up," a company that has relied on acquisitions for much of its growth. Such companies typically pin their success on how seamlessly they integrate those purchases. "Roll-ups are always show-me stories," says Cruttenden Roth analyst Glen Powers.
And right now, analysts are liking what USWeb/CKS has to show. They say that the company is making progress on the merger of USWeb and CKS, which shareholders approved last December.
"We believe USWeb/CKS has made significant progress in getting past these integration pains," wrote Stephen Sigmond, an analyst with Dain Rauscher, which upgraded the stock to strong buy from buy May 21. Dain Rauscher maintains a price target of 50 on the stock. Shares of USWeb/CKS closed down 5/8 to 20 1/8 Thursday.
CEO Robert Shaw, who in April said the company was in an "
ugly period," told
Thursday that USWeb/CKS is entering a less unsightly phase. Shaw said the tortuous process of integrating the two entities in only six months, a transition central to the company's success, is near an end as the company unifies its back-office systems and compensation plans. Both of these systems are being rolled out in July.
"We're definitely out of that period," said Shaw, refusing to say the word "ugly" this time around. "I don't even have that word in my vocabulary anymore."
In several cities, the company is getting ready to close offices in order to bring scattered employees under one roof. In San Francisco, for example, employees in four different offices are set to move into one bigger office by the end of July. That integration has yielded more and bigger contracts. Since Shaw has been at the helm, the average contract has increased from under $100,000 to around $2.5 million, he said. And for its top 30 customers, USWeb/CKS is pulling in $8 million a client.
Analysts have another cause for their USWeb/CKS lovefest: the stock's relatively low valuation. As of Thursday's close, USWeb/CKS was trading at 28.6 times 2000 earnings. That compares with a multiple of 42.8 for rival
and 37.4 for rival
Prudential analyst James Dougherty reaches the same conclusion using a market-cap-to-revenue metric. As the first major entrant in the Net-services sector, the company should be valued at a premium to its competitors, he says. Instead, as of Thursday's close, USWeb/CKS' market cap was 4.3 times its revenue, compared with ratios of 8.4 for
and 12.9 for
Still, some money managers caution against relying too much on valuing a company against its competitors. "Peer valuation is a double-edged sword," says Alex Cheung, a portfolio manager with the
Monument Internet fund. "There are a lot of reasons why company XYZ may be higher than company ABC." Nevertheless, Cheung has been adding more USWeb/CKS shares to his fund.
Despite all these encouraging signs, analysts are waiting to see second-quarter results from the company, due July 22. It is expected to post a profit of 10 cents a share in the quarter, according to a survey of analysts by
, compared with a loss of 3 cents in the same quarter last year.
"The proof will be in the numbers," says Cruttenden Roth's Powers. "I think they'll make the quarter in June."