Higher Expectations Three companies that may do better than the Street predicts
By Stephen Gandel

(MONEY Magazine) – How many Wall Street analysts does it take to make an estimate? Too many, it seems. Stock investors tend to rely heavily on the so-called consensus number--the average of the earnings predictions of all the analysts who cover a stock. But not all analysts are created equal. Some are just plain more accurate than the rest.

The tracking service StarMine ranks analysts according to their ability to predict a company's bottom line. It then creates a "SmartEstimate" for stocks, which gives more weight to the predictions from the better analysts. John Chisholm, a portfolio manager at Acadian Asset Management who uses StarMine, found that over the past three years a portfolio of stocks with SmartEstimates exceeding Wall Street's consensus earnings outperformed the market by 2.5 percentage points a year.

MONEY asked StarMine to screen for companies with market values of at least $1 billion and SmartEstimates exceeding the Street's consensus for the next 12 months. About 100 companies fit our criteria. After doing some digging, we found three especially interesting opportunities on that list.

EOG RESOURCES (EOG) This is an offspring of the energy industry's ultimate bad boy--Enron--but it couldn't be more different from its parent. The former Enron Oil & Gas makes its money drilling holes, mostly in the Southwest, and discovering natural gas. It doesn't have a trading desk or rely on financial engineering to boost earnings. In fact, EOG's accounting is more conservative than that of rivals. Analyst Jeff Mobley of Raymond James, who gets five stars (the highest ranking) from StarMine, contends that gas prices will remain higher than Wall Street expects. Mobley says EOG, at a recent $54, trades at a discount to rivals based on its gas reserves.

PROVIDIAN FINANCIAL (PVN) In the late 1990s this credit-card issuer took on riskier customers in an effort to boost growth. The strategy backfired. In 2000 the economy faltered, and more and more Providian customers defaulted, clobbering the company and its shares. But Providian has since upgraded its customer base and lowered its loss rate. Still, four-star analyst Chris Brendler of Legg Mason believes the company doesn't get the, well, credit it deserves. He estimates that Providian can earn $1.25 a share this year, 27¢ more than the consensus. And the prospect of higher interest rates is actually a plus. Providian would be able to charge its customers more on balances; its own borrowing costs are mostly fixed. At $12, it trades at just 10 times Brendler's bullish estimate.

WINN-DIXIE (WIN) There has been little to whistle about at the Florida-based grocery chain. It has been losing customers to Wal-Mart, which in the past few years has added food to its offerings. The company is expected to lose 19¢ a share in fiscal 2005, ending June 30 next year, but four-star analyst Jack Murphy at Credit Suisse First Boston thinks it will do better. Change is afoot: Winn-Dixie recently announced that it will close 156 stores this year and lay off 10,000 workers--a move that could save the company as much as $80 million a year. And the company still has a very strong market share in Florida, which is seeing population growth. At a recent $6.26, Winn-Dixie trades at book value. "From an asset standpoint, the stock is very cheap," says Wendell Perkins, senior portfolio manager of Johnson Asset Management, which has recently been buying Winn-Dixie shares. --STEPHEN GANDEL