Years ago, Wall Street analysts could differentiate stocks they favored against stocks with little appeal. A "buy" rating was all a client needed to know.
But during the 1960s and 1970s, clients began to demand more information. They didn't want to only know what to buy, but how much of a gain they could expect from the investment. Pretty soon, an increasing number of analysts began issuing price targets, and soon enough, the practice became the norm.
Still, not everyone focuses on these targets. I tend to quibble with their short-term nature, and am less concerned about where a stock could trade in the next three to six months, but instead the next two to three years. Other detractors suggest a quantified target, which is usually a multiple applied to a particular metric, such as earnings per share or EBITDA. This is too formulaic and doesn't allow for qualitative factors such as the relative newness and competitiveness of a company's product lines.
Having said that, it's still worthwhile to consider price targets when they are far above current trading levels. Even if the targets are imprecise, it's clear analysts are calling attention to what they believe is a sharply undervalued stock.
Here are six stocks with price targets at least 50% higher than the current price.
1. U.S. Airways (NYSE: LCC)
Current price: $10.79
Sterne Agee target: $21
These analysts note that the airline has done a solid job of streamlining operations, which has helped boost cash. More to the point, they say an increasingly likely bid for AMR, parent of American Airlines, will yield significant gains.
2. Ford Motor (NYSE: F)
Current price: $9
various targets: $13-$15
Most analysts are looking past Ford's near-term woes and continue to see this stock as seriously undervalued. Sterne Agee sees shares rising to $15, Citigroup expects a trade up to $14, Morgan Stanley targets $16, UBS is at $14, while Deutsche Bank sees shares trading up to $13.
As I noted in this column, Ford is doing a solid job in North America and remains decently profitable, despite the huge headwinds coming from Europe. I think those above-cited price targets will likely move toward the $20 mark, once the European headwinds truly abate.
3. Parametric Tech. (Nasdaq: PMTC)
Current price: $20.75
Think Equity target: $31
This company, which enables clients to integrate product-design collaboration, data management and documentation under a single software platform, has always delivered erratic year-over-year results. More troubling, has never quite generated the profit margins you'd expect from a software company. Yet a series of recent acquisitions has broadened Paramteric's platform, which should fuel steadier growth as the company is able to penetrate its base of global manufacturers more deeply. And the larger contracts should yield improving gross margins. Analysts at Think Equity say Parametric's operating margins, which stood at 10% in fiscal (September) 2011, could hit 25% by 2015.
Coupled with their expectations of steady 10% annual sales growth, they say shares could trade up past the $30 mark.
4. Electro-Scientific (Nasdaq: ESIO)
Current price: $13
D.A. Davidson target price: $22
This company is well known for its production of lasers, which are used in a wide range of industrial applications, such as micro-machining, when very small holes need to be drilled into a sheet of steel, aluminum or plastic. Judging by second-quarter results and forward guidance, business appears to be growing at a solid clip -- despite a weak global economy. Analysts at D.A. Davidson see solid share price upside, as they are "bullish on ESI's future growth prospects and built in earnings leverage based on cyclical end market recoveries and increased acceptance of the company's new and diverse product portfolio."
5. Whiting Petroleum (NYSE: WLL)
Current price: $40.25
Keycorp target price: $75
Even as these analysts concede that just-released second-quarter results were mediocre, they spot a number of catalysts that could unlock value for this energy driller. These include a possible joint venture announcement to exploit its Bakken Shale acreage, solid initial tests from its wells in the Missouri Breaks region, as well as the increasingly likely sale of some of its more mature energy assets. Analysts note that shares trade for a reasonable 4.0 times projected 2013 EBITDA (compared to the peer average of 5.4), and say shares should trade up to 6.5 times that projected 2013 figure during the next 12 months. Also, analysts at Jefferies have a similar $70 price target while Oppenheimer has a $65 price target.
6. Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF)
Current price: $38
Citigroup target: $80
This mining firm just delivered a subpar second quarter, and its shares lost nearly 10% of their value. Still, analysts at Citigroup say shares are too cheap based on likely stabilized results in the next few years. They note that the price-to-earnings ratio for this stock swings in a wild range -- from two to 15 -- and suggest shares will eventually move back to around 10 times projected 2013 profits, which equates to that $80 target price.
Risks to Consider: These analysts are typically more bullish than their peers on these stocks, and shares won't move toward these price targets until the more bearish analysts pivot toward bullishness.
Action to Take --> Take these price targets with a grain of salt. Shares prices rarely actually hit them on the mark. Instead, use them as a directional guide for potential upside. If shares end up moving close to the target price, then it can be a time to book profits as the supportive analysts could soon lower their rating.