Is Capstone Turbine a Cash King?

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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 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 received cash -- not just when it books those accounting figments known as "profits."

Today, let's look at Capstone Turbine (NAS: CPST) 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 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 last 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.

Four companies
Here are the cash king margins for Capstone and three industry peers over a few periods.

CompanyCash King Margin (TTM)1 Year Ago3 Years Ago5 Years Ago
Capstone Turbine(21.9%)(60.1%)(98.8%)(193.9%)
Cummins (NYS: CMI) 6.9%6%3.5%7%
Briggs & Stratton (NYS: BGG) 4.4%6.4%1.2%2.7%
Navistar International (NYS: NAV) 2.7%6.8%6.1%2.3%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

None of these companies meets our 10% threshold for attractiveness. While Capstone has consistently spit out negative numbers, it has consistently and dramatically increased its cash king margins over the past five years. The rest of the companies offer positive margins, but they are lower than we'd prefer. Navistar's margins are below 3%, and while they have slightly improved from five years ago, they're still down from three years ago. At 4.4%, Briggs & Stratton's margins increased more than 3 percentage points from three years ago, but they're still off 2 percentage points from last year. Cummins' margins are down slightly from five years ago.

Capstone Turbine produces microturbines that can generate electricity off the power grid, which is useful for oil drilling and the collection of other resources in locations where there is no access to traditional power sources. The company has developed a new focus on alternative energy, which could generate new interest from investors. Last year also marked the first point at which Capstone made a profit, a milestone for the long-profitless company.

Given that history of losses, though, Capstone lacks the cash to even support a modest dividend, while some of its peers do. For example, Cummins offers a 1.8% yield and Briggs & Stratton offers 2.7%.

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 Capstone Turbine? 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.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Cummins. 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.

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