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This Just In: Upgrades and Downgrades

is going down in flames.

Over the next 12 months, Walt Disney plans to release nine separate major motion pictures, including near-certain smash hits like Star Wars: The Force Awakens , Captain America: Civil War , and Finding Dory . With so much buzz behind the film slate, it can be hard for Wall Street analysts to resist the pressure to wax enthusiastic about the stock.

One such analyst, NYC's Cowen & Co. , finally bowed to that pressure this morning, and upped its price target on Disney -- but it did so under duress.

Why so glum, chum?

Announcing its decision to raise its price target on Disney stock , Cowen took the very modest step of adding only $3 to its valuation of the company -- and now prices the stock at $92. Astute observers will notice, however, that this target is still nearly $28 below where Disney stock trades today ...

So what's the reason for Cowen's reluctance to endorse Disney? According to the analyst, "the market is valuing Disney's non-TV businesses at somewhere between a 23x and 30x implied P/E ratio. While we agree that Disney has the best collection of film IP, this seems to us to be a very high valuation ..."

And indeed it is. Disney's biggest rivals in the movie business, companies such as Twenty-First Century Fox and Time Warner , sell for far lower valuations relative to their earnings. Time Warner shares, for example, can be had for less than 16 times earnings today. Twenty-First Century Fox costs less than 8 times earnings!

But does the fact that its competitors cost less mean that Disney shares should also decline? Should they decline as much as the 23% collapse in share price that Cowen & Co. is predicting?

Let's go to the tape

Maybe it does, and maybe they should. After all, Cowen & Co. has a pretty good record in this business. Out of its six active recommendations in the media industry today, four are currently outperforming the market -- and these include Cowen's recommendations to buy both Twenty-First Century Fox and Time Warner:

Company Cowen Says: CAPS Says: Cowen's Picks Beating (Lagging) S&P By:
DIRECTV Outperform *** 204 points
Lions Gate Entertainment Outperform **** 178 points
Twenty-First Century Fox Outperform **** 10 points
Time Warner Outperform **** 10 points
Viacom Outperform **** (20 points )
Pandora Media Outperform * (55 points)

What's more, when Cowen says Disney shares are overpriced, it's not just referring to the shares' price relative to the valuations on Disney's competitors. Viewed all on its own, Disney stock looks objectively overvalued as well.

How much is Disney stock worth?

According to the analysts who follow it, even if you assume a financial boost from the nine films coming out over the next 12 months, analysts still only see Disney's total corporate profits growing about 12% annually over the next five years. That's not a particularly fast growth rate to support a stock selling for more than 24 times earnings, as Disney does.

And let's not forget -- valuing Disney on GAAP earnings alone gives the stock a huge benefit of the doubt. It gives a lot of credence to the company's GAAP income statement, which claims $8.4 billion as "net income" earned over the past year. In fact, though, Disney's free cash flow for the past 12 months has amounted to just $6.6 billion -- less than 80% of reported net income.

Value Disney on its actual cash profits, though, and the stock is selling for not "24 times earnings" but more than 30 times free cash flow. (And it's even more expensive once debt is factored into the picture. The company's enterprise value-to-free-cash-flow ratio is a whopping 32.9).

The upshot for investors

Despite its sky-high valuation, Disney remains an exceedingly popular stock among both professional analysts, and amateur investors alike. On Motley Fool CAPS , Disney shares retain a sterling "five-star" rating, the highest compliment our CAPS members can give a stock.

This doesn't mean that Cowen is wrong to question Disney's worth -- but it does explain why the analyst may have felt compelled to raise its price target on a stock that it clearly is not at all enthusiastic about. Pointing out the overvaluation of a popular stock cannot be a pleasant experience for Cowen -- but when Disney stock does finally stumble, its the investors who will the real pain.

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

Fool contributorRich Smith does not own shares of, nor is he short, any company named above. Nor does he always agree with his fellows at The Motley Fool. You can find him onMotley Fool CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handleTMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 308 out of more than 75,000 rated members.The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Lions Gate Entertainment, Pandora Media, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Time Warner. 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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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.


The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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