Is Chico's a Cash King?

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As an investor, 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 into your pockets.

In this series, we'll highlight four companies 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."

Today, let's look at Chico's (NYS: CHS) and three of its peers.

The cash king margin
Looking at a company's cash flow statement can help you determine whether its free cash flow actually 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. A sustained high cash king margin can be a good predictor of long-term stock returns.

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. In the four quarters ending in June, the restaurateur generated $6.87 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $2.44 billion in property, plant, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract McDonald's investment ($2.44 billion) from its operating cash flow ($6.87 billion). That leaves us with $4.43 billion in free cash flow, which the company can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.

Taking McDonald's sales of $25.5 billion over the same period, we can figure that the company 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, which indicates 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
Here are the cash king margins for four industry peers over a few periods.

Chico's6.2%6.3%(2.1%)2.6%
Talbots (NYS: TLB) (6.7%)1.2%7.5%5.4%
ANN (NYS: ANN) 3.8%4.8%3.7%8.2%
Coldwater Creek (NAS: CWTR) (8.4%)(1.7%)0.1%(0.5%)

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

None of the listed companies meets our 10% threshold for attractiveness, and three of the listed companies have lower cash king margins than they did five years ago. Chico's has the highest cash king margins of the listed companies, and its margins have grown almost four percentage points from five years ago. These numbers are a testament to the difficulty of retail.

While Chico's fares well against its competition in the women's retailing market, the sector as a whole was struggling even before the financial crisis. Its wider net margins allow Chico's to produce profits without the excessive leverage that other industry peers depend on.

In fact, both Chico's and ANN have no debt, which could allow them to buy up smaller struggling companies like Coldwater Creek and Talbots, putting them in a better competitive position once the economy improves, allowing them to take advantage of greater economies of scale.

The cash king margin can help you find highly profitable businesses, but it should only be the start of your search. The ratio does have its limits, especially for fast-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. Conversely, the formula works better for slower-growing blue chips. 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 Chico's? Add it toMy Watchlist, which will find all of our Foolish analysis on this stock.

At the time this article was published

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

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