Is CVS Caremark 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 CVS Caremark (NYS: CVS) 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 (NYS: MCD) 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.

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

CVS Caremark3.7%2.9%2%(0.1%)
Walgreen (NYS: WAG) 2.6%4%1%2.2%
Rite Aid (NYS: RAD) (0.1%)0.8%(1%)(0.3%)
Wal-Mart2.6%3.2%2.3%1.2%

Source: S&P Capital IQ. TTM = trailing 12 months.

None of these companies meets our 10% threshold for attractiveness. However, CVS Caremark shows the kind of steady growth in its cash king margins that we like to see, and it has the highest margins of the listed companies. Walgreen (NYS: WAG) and Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) tie for the second-highest current cash king margins, at 2.6%. Both have seen fluctuations in their margins over the past five years, but while Walgreen has only slightly increased its margins, Wal-Mart has more than doubled its margins. Rite Aid (NYS: RAD) has fairly consistently produced margins in the negative numbers, with the exception of last year.

CVS has offered some decent growth over the past few years and, unlike Rite Aid, has kept its debt levels reasonable. One recent growth opportunity occurred after Medco Health (NYS: MHS) was investigated for possible improprieties, at which point CVS took control of CalPERS public employee pharmacy benefits management business. CVS also purchased Universal American's Medicare Part D business, which has helped it grow its health-care benefit division. However, CVS faces the future challenge of continuing to win contracts in the face of a pending merger between Medco and Express Scripts, which could undermine CVS's market share.

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 CVS Caremark? 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 Wal-Mart Stores.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Medco Health Solutions, McDonald's, and Wal-Mart Stores.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not 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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