Markets & Finance

Smartphone Stock Battle: The Pros Like RIM


Gadget geeks may be talking up the new iPhone and Palm Pre, but BlackBerry maker Research In Motion is getting high marks from analysts

Early June has been a heady time for gadget lovers, with Palm's (PALM) new Pre smartphone going on sale on June 6 and Apple (AAPL) unveiling its updated iPhone 3G S on June 8. Shares of both companies shot up in anticipation of the sexy devices but sold off slightly once the news arrived.

The best bet for investors may be neither stock, however.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Robert W. Baird have all come out in recent days favoring the smartphone maker with nothing new or sexy to release in June: Research In Motion (RIMM). The maker of the ubiquitous BlackBerry line of smartphones, RIM has been lingering in the shadows this week.

Analysts say checks with wireless retail stores show RIM's in no need of a sexy new model. Sales of its existing models, such as the touchscreen Storm and consumer-oriented Curve, are running ahead of expectations. It doesn't hurt that BlackBerrys are available from virtually every major carrier while Apple's iPhone can only run on AT&T's (T) network in the U.S. and Palm's Pre is locked in with Sprint Nextel (S). Apple faithful are already griping about AT&T's trade-in prices and delays in offering MMS and broadband tethering features to the new iPhone.

Bold Predictions for RIM

Goldman Sachs (GS) analyst Simona Jankowski on June 10 increased her earnings per share estimates for RIM's fiscal 2010, which ended at the end of May, as well as the upcoming fiscal 2011. Better-than-expected sales and currency market trends are both helping bolster profits, she wrote in a research note. She thinks RIM should earn $5.34 a share, up from her previous estimate of $5.10, for 2010, and $6.45, up from $6.03, in 2011. Jankowski also increased her target price on the stock to $96, after it doubled in the past three months to about $83 a share.

Citigroup (C) analyst Jim Suva compared what Research In Motion experienced during the Palm and Apple announcements to "shooting the rapids" in a kayak. "Rapids are inevitably followed by clear water," he said in a June 1 report handicapping the various players. He expects that RIM, currently trading around $82, could hit $100. The company will be able to sell more BlackBerrys than the market expects this year, he believes, in part by taking market share from the weakest players, Motorola (MOT) and Sony Ericsson, a joint venture of consumer electronics giant Sony (SNE) and European cell-phone maker Ericsson (ERIC).

William Power, an analyst at Robert W. Baird, polled 300 retail wireless phone stores in March, April, and May and found various models of BlackBerry holding their own against the iPhone and other competitors. Power thinks RIM likely beat its target of selling 7.5 million to 8 million for those three months, the company's fiscal first quarter.

Away from Wall Street, some independent research firms are more cautious, however. Morningstar (MORN) says RIM shares are worth only about $72 and rates the stock just three stars out of five. And Ockham Research in Roswell, Ga., staffed by a handful of former Wall Street analysts, says the stock is "fairly valued" right now, and investors shouldn't consider buying it unless it drops into the mid-70s.

Pressman is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Boston bureau.

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