Meet the Cash Kings of Hardware

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As an investor, you know that it pays to follow the cash. If you figure out how a company moves its money, you might eventually find some of that cash flowing to you.

In this series, we'll highlight three big dogs in an industry and compare their "cash king margins" over time, trying to determine which has the greatest likelihood of putting cash back in your pocket. After all, a company can pay dividends and buy back stock only after it's actually received cash -- not just when it books those accounting figments known as "profits."

The cash king margin
Looking at a company's cash flow statement can help you determine whether its free cash flow backs up its reported profit. Companies that can create 10% or more free cash flow from their revenue can be powerful compounding machines for your portfolio.

To find the cash king margin, divide the free cash flow from the cash flow statement by sales:

Cash king margin = Free cash flow / sales

Let's take McDonald's as an example. Over the past four quarters, the restaurateur generated $6.0 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $1.9 billion in property, plants, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract the company's investment ($1.9 billion) from its operating cash flow ($6.0 billion). That leaves us with $4.1 billion in free cash flow, which McDonald's can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.

Taking the company's sales of $23.8 billion over the same period, we can figure that it has a cash king margin of about 17% -- a nice high number. In other words, for every dollar of sales, McDonald's produces $0.17 in free cash.

Ideally, we'd like to see the cash king margin top 10%. The best blue chips can notch numbers greater than 20%, making them true cash dynamos. But some businesses, including many types of retailing, just can't sustain such margins.

We're also looking for companies that can consistently increase their margins over time, an indication that their competitive position is improving. Erratic swings in margins could signal a deteriorating business or perhaps some financial skullduggery; you'll have to dig deeper to discover the reason.

Three companies
Today, let's look at Apple (NAS: AAPL) and three of its peers:

Company

Cash King Margin (TTM)

1 Year Ago

3 Years Ago

5 Years Ago

Apple30.7%25.4%22.7%8.1%
Dell (NAS: DELL) 7.6%5.6%4.4%6.3%
Hewlett-Packard (NYS: HPQ) 7%6.8%10.7%8.8%
Seagate Technology (NAS: STX) 4.3%8.7%8.3%0%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Of these companies, only Apple meets our 10% threshold for attractiveness, and it offers the kind of steady growth over the past five years that we like to see. Dell and Hewlett-Packard have cash king margins in the 7% range, but they have fluctuated over the past five years, and Hewlett-Packard's current margins are lower than they were five years ago. Seagate's margins are the lowest of these companies, at 4.3%, which is lower than what they were three years ago. Compare these returns with the blue chips of software and biotech, to get some context.

The cash king margin can help you find highly profitable businesses, but it should be only the start of your search. The ratio does have its limits, especially for rapidly growing small businesses. Many such companies reinvest all of their cash flow into growing the business, leaving them little or no free cash -- but that doesn't necessarily make them poor investments. You'll need to look closer to determine exactly how a company is using its cash.

Still, if you can cut through the earnings headlines to follow the cash instead, you might be on the path toward seriously great investments.

Want to read more about Apple? Add it to My Watchlist, which will find all of our Foolish analysis on this stock.

At the time this article was published Jim Royal owns shares of McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of McDonald's, Apple, and Dell and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2011 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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