What Ross Stores Does With Its Cash

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In the quest to find great investments, most investors focus on earnings to gauge a company's financial strength. This is a good start, but earnings can be misleading and incomplete. To get a clearer understanding of a company's ability to earn money and reward you, the shareholder, it's often better to focus on cash flow. In this series, we tear apart a company's cash flow statement to see how much money is truly being earned and, more importantly, what management is doing with that cash.

Step on up, Ross Stores (NAS: ROST) .

The first step in analyzing cash flow is to look at net income. Ross Stores' net income over the last five years has been impressive:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Normalized Net Income$658 million$561 million$449 million$310 million$266 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Next, we add back in a few non-cash expenses like the depreciation of assets, and adjust net income for changes in inventory, accounts receivable, and accounts payable -- changes in cash levels that reflect a company either paying its bills, or being paid by customers. This yields a figure called "cash from operating activities" -- the amount of cash a company generates from doing everyday business.

From there, we subtract capital expenditures, or the amount a company spends acquiring or fixing physical assets. This yields one version of a figure called "free cash flow," or the true amount of cash a company has left over for its investors after doing business:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Free Cash Flow

$404 million

$474 million

$730 million

$359 million

$117 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now we know how much cash Ross Stores is really pulling in each year. Next question: What is it doing with that cash?

There are two ways a company can use free cash flow to directly reward shareholders: dividends and share repurchases. Cash not returned to shareholders can be stashed in the bank, invested in other companies and assets, or used to pay off debt.

Here's how much Ross Stores has returned to shareholders in recent years:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Dividends$102 million$77 million$55 million$50 million$41 million
Share Repurchases$466 million$385 million$306 million$305 million$204 million
Total Returned to Shareholders$568 million$462 million$361 million$355 million$245 million

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

As you can see, the company has repurchased a decent amount of its own stock. That's caused shares outstanding to fall:

 

2011

2010

2009

2008

2007

Shares Outstanding (millions)226236246258270

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Now, companies tend to be fairly poor at repurchasing their own shares, buying feverishly when shares are expensive and backing away when they're cheap. Does Ross Stores fall into this trap? Let's take a look:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Impressive. Ross's buybacks have increased along with its share price, but it's fairly clear that it's driven by an increase in earnings and cash flow, rather than management exuberance. Given reasonable valuations, these buybacks have likely been a good deal for shareholders.

Finally, I like to look at how dividends have added to total shareholder returns:

anImage

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Shares returned 244% over the last five years, which increases to 264% with dividends reinvested -- a nice boost to top off already great performance.

To gauge how well a company is doing, keep an eye on the cash. How much a company earns is not as important as how much cash is actually coming in the door, and how much cash is coming in the door isn't as important as what management actually does with that cash. Remember, you, the shareholder, own the company. Are you happy with the way management has used Ross Stores' cash? Sound off in the comment section below.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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