As top Comcast Corp. executives unloaded more than $15 million of stock in the largest U.S. cable operator over the past few weeks, an investor could be excused for a growing sense of unease.
After all, short sellers were already circling the stock in greater numbers, and even in the best of times, hefty insider selling is not the most bullish signal to the market.
But analysts following Comcast suggest the company is on track with its growth plans and its shares could still go higher.
In a regulatory filing last week, Stephen Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer, revealed he had sold 208,000 common shares and 27,792 special shares of the company, worth about $6.4 million.
The disclosure came just over a week after the company's long-time chief executive, Brian Roberts, revealed he had sold some 350,000 shares of Comcast stock, worth about $9.4 million.
You never want to see an insider, particularly the insiders that are selling now, selling stock, said Dave Stepherson, a senior portfolio manager at Hardesty Capital Management in Baltimore, which owns almost 366,000 Comcast shares. But the prospects for the company, as far as we're concerned, are great.
Comcast spokesman John Demming said both executives sold the stock for diversification purposes. For both, it was their first sale of Comcast shares since they exercised stock options in November 2006.
Comcast shares fell more than 4 percent after Roberts sold his stock but they have since recovered to be down about 1 percent. The benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 index has dropped about 0.5 percent in the same period.
Insider sales are not the only bearish signal to surface for the stock recently.
Comcast saw a sharp 61 percent jump in short-interest last month, indicating more investors are betting the stock will fall. And renowned investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. reduced its position in Comcast by almost 30 percent earlier this year.
But even if there is some short-term weakness in Comcast stock, analysts doubt it would plague the company for long.
At this point, for (Burke and Roberts), it's just a good time to take some money off the table, said Gregory Kolb, an analyst who follows the cable industry at Janco Partners Inc. I think it's more of a market call. I think everything's fine at Comcast. I wouldn't be jumping ship.
The cable operator's shares are still up about 22 percent year-to-date. The company has been buying back its own stock, and industry analysts like its triple play strategy for television, voice and Internet connections.
There's no reason to expect the triple play is going to slow down, Kolb said. Voice is still kind of in its infancy, and so is digital. There's still a lot of room to grow.
The company, in May, forecast steady revenue growth through to 2009 and said it sees major new revenue streams from its commercial services and online advertising.
Investors, however, have been nervous the company is laying out too much cash for capital spending and that it may not have enough bandwidth to guarantee its customers fast delivery of new video and interactive services to customers.
One of the big things shorts are probably betting on is that historically Comcast and the cable industry have talked a lot about cash flow, and that capital expenditures are going to fall, but they haven't, Kolb said.
The company is also facing increasing competition from Verizon Communications, which is just beginning to roll out its advanced video and Internet services in several states which will compete with Comcast.
But even after their sales, both Burke and Roberts still retain some of the largest individual holdings in the company. And in another positive sign, Comcast's new co-chief financial officer, Michael Angelakis, bought almost 38,000 Comcast shares this week, boosting his stake in the company by about 20 percent.
From a technical perspective, the stock looks like it is stabilizing, said Louise Yamada, managing director at Louise Yamada Technical Research Advisors.
The chart looks neutral at this point, Yamada said, adding that investors may not have to worry unless the stock falls below $25 a share.
Comcast shares were up 68 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $26.83 in late Wednesday afternoon trading on Nasdaq.
The stock's short interest only represents about 6.1 percent of its shares outstanding.
That's really not alarmingly high, said Bill Rhodes, chief investment strategist at Rhodes Analytics.
Another plus for Comcast bulls is that after some high profile insider trading scandals at other companies, executives are generally thought to be careful about what messages their trades send.
Nobody in their right mind would sell in advance of an adverse event, said Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett.
In fact, both Burke and Roberts lack a great track record for selling ahead of poor stock performance. After selling options in 2006, they missed the stock's run-up to a January high of $30.18.
(Additional reporting by Yinka Adegoke)