Analyst indifference sometimes spells opportunity

Benj Gallander and Ben Stadelmann
Monday, May 31, 2004

When we bought Novell in late 2002 at $2.90 (US), the company was covered by one lonely analyst. That’s unusual for a firm with revenue of more than $1 billion and a member of the S&P 500 index.

While analysts rarely issue a Sell rating to “insult” a stock, they will, if they really don’t like a company, often not bother to rate it at all. This is especially the case if the firm, like Novell, has plenty of internal capital resources and is therefore a poor prospect for the broker’s investment-banking arm.

For contrarians, a lack of analyst coverage can be a positive signal. In terms of sentiment, there really isn’t any place to go except up. The cold shoulder from Wall Street can also be helpful to a management team that is in the midst of overhauling the guts of a corporation. Rather than worry about the baying of the hounds every quarter because the company “missed” expectations by a penny, they can concentrate on long-term strategy and make investments that might not show results for several quarters. Or years.

Of course, without analysts to tell the tale, a firm making good progress on the operational front is unlikely to receive fair value from the market. Indeed, this is frequently the case with well-run small-cap companies that don’t use debt to maintain growth. But for an enterprise of Novell’s size, it’s simply a matter of changing the background story so an analyst has something to sell.

Novell was toxic as long as the main theme was a company reliant on a legacy software product in an area where Microsoft was eating its lunch. But once Novell hitched itself firmly to the Linux bandwagon and showed it was willing to spend part of its cash horde to gain dominance over the burgeoning operating system, the wind shifted.

Roth Capital began covering the stock in July, 2003. With Novell’s stock at $3.70, the California-based investment banker initiated coverage with a Strong Buy recommendation. That was timely, as the stock started to move smartly on news of the acquisition of Linux vender Ximian, and then really spurted ahead with a $50 million investment by IBM. By the time Merrill Lynch initiated coverage in December with a Buy rating, Novell was already over $9. Seven more brokers have piled on so far this year. History shows that coverage begets more coverage.

Our initial sell target for Novell was $12.44, which it hit on January 29. But we didn’t sell: in a departure from our disciplined methodology of taking the profit on at least half our position when a holding meets expectations, we reset our target to $18.24. The stock closed Friday at $8.98.

In our view, Linux has a bright long-term future and Novell is currently the world’s leading distributor of the operating system. Traditional heavyweights such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard have realized that Linux may be the one chink in the armour of archrival Microsoft. Though Novell’s management has a spotty record, it is nonetheless an organization that is well known to the Fortune 500. That makes it a more likely champion than a pure Linux play such as Red Hat.

One thing is for sure: whichever way the battle unfolds, Novell once again has an audience of analysts to cheer it on.