Why Merrill Lynch Sees Disney Shares Rising Higher Than Any Other Analyst

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Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) has been undergoing a rerating of its shares on Wall Street. It’s not just because of the massive Fox acquisition, but also the upcoming streaming service of Disney+. Now a bullish Disney analyst on Wall Street has become the most bullish of all sell-side researchers.

Merrill Lynch’s Jessica Reif Ehrlich already had a Buy rating on Disney shares, along with an above-consensus price objective of $144. Now the firm has added Disney to the prized US 1 list of top ideas and raised its price target to $168 — a full $18 higher than the street-high target ahead of this upgrade.

Following the successful unveiling of its streaming initiatives, the team has added Disney to the US 1 list with the note that Disney+ can become a material driver for shareholders. The strength will be led by quality intellectual property, an expanded original content and an engaging interface. The new price objective reflects $159 per share for the core Disney businesses, then minus $13 per share of incremental dilution, before adding back in $22 per share in value for its direct-to-consumer launch.

This is a story in which Merrill Lynch sees traction continuing at Hulu and ESPN+ and also sees a solid studio slate of films, from the latest Avengers film to “Toy Story 4” and “The Lion King.” The parks business also should be aided by the opening of Star Wars Land and multiple gate enhancements leading up to Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary in 2022.

Merrill Lynch also pointed out that it expects an earnings noise disruption near term based on charges associated with the Fox asset acquisition. It sees fiscal year 2020 looking better and more normalized. The firm also sees Disney+ driving asymmetric risk/reward to the upside. It said:

Although it has yet to launch, we believe Disney+ can become a material value driver for shareholders, led by its high quality IP, expanded original content lineup, engaging user interface (including download capability), competitive pricing and go-to-market strategy (leveraging all Disney assets globally).

Where the Disney upside goes from very positive to even greater is the bull-case scenario in which Disney shares point closer to the $200s. That’s not the base case at all, but it is the perceived target if Disney reaches into a high-execution scenario. Merrill Lynch’s bearish case valuation points to $117 per share, when applying a core multiple to total earnings per share and backing out $0.70 of incremental direct-to-consumer dilution.

This Merrill Lynch call is even more bullish than a very optimistic call for outsized upside from Goldman Sachs at the start of April.

Disney shares were last seen trading up 1.1% at $133.19, after hitting a new all-time high of $134.24 earlier in Tuesday’s trading session. There is an additional 26% upside if the call is right, plus the stock comes with a 1.3% dividend yield.


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