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Analyst Predicts Cable Stock Rise

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NEW YORK With consumer confidence at a 16-year low, one Merrill Lynch analyst predicts cable stocks will see a boon as U.S. consumers start to cocoon and become bigger couch potatoes. He also suggests that the box-office could suffer accordingly.

The Conference Board's consumer sentiment index for May this week showed a worse-than-projected decline to the lowest level since 1992 amid the continuing housing slump and higher food and gas prices. Consumer sentiment is key for the outlook of the U.S. economy as two-thirds of that measurement is based on consumer spending.

However, as Merrill North American economist David Rosenberg highlights in a report, buying plans for TVs have hit new highs.

"Even though spending intentions for most items in the Conference Board survey, from autos to homes, sagged noticeably, the one segment that hit a new all-time high in terms of buying plans for the next six months was -- the TV," he wrote. "Just as bicycles (unit sales up 5 percent year-over-year) are now replacing motor vehicle sales (down 11 percent) in order to get from point A to point B without spending $75 filling up the tank, households now seem bent on cocooning by staying at home to watch television rather than drive to the local theater and shell out more than $11 to watch a film (and an extra $5 on gas to get there)."

Rosenberg suggests investors get bullish on shares of cable operators. "If there is an 'outside of the box' investment idea here, it may be to turn positive on the cable stocks, which is a segment of the consumer discretionary group our sector strategists are relatively warm on," he argued.

In an investor conference Thursday, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts also suggested that the digital TV transition would provide an opportunity for cable to gain subscribers. The possible ensuing consumer chaos "will play to our advantage" as a local service provider, he said.