Positive Signs for These Negative Cash Flow Stocks

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Most of us at The Motley Fool, including me, lovefree cash flow. But if we take that obsession too far, we'll buy into companies we shouldn't, and miss out on some truly great stocks.

Today, I'll show you how to avoid that mistake -- I'll give you my monthly list of stocks with negative free cash flow that might be poised for greatness.

Good FCF, bad FCF
We love free cash flow for a number of reasons, mainly because it gives us a more realistic view of a company's earning power. Yet as you've probably learned if you've been investing for more than a few days, nothing is ever simple in the world of stock picking.


Joel Litman, managing director at Equity Analysis & Strategy, is one of the top experts around when it comes to evaluating cash flows. At a recent presentation at Fool HQ, he pointed out that there are times to buy heavily into a company with negative free cash flow. Determining "good negative free cash flow" and "bad negative free cash flow" begins with a look at a company's rate of return alongside its rate of growth.

Big Orange
The perfect example is Home Depot. The home improvement retailer absolutely plastered the market from 1985 to 2001, yet showed negative free cash flow in all but one of those 16 years.

Home Depot's negative free cash flow during that period was the result of management pouring all its cash back into its high-return business -- and not because of any deficiency in the business itself. "As long as that growth in capital will realize returns above the cost of that capital," Litman says, "negative free cash flows can be a great sign for the business."

In 2001, Home Depot finally hammered out positive free cash flow and has maintained that positivity every year since. Its stock price, however, has been relatively flat.

Litman says the market has understood the issue very well, namely that the positive free cash flow was the result of management slowing its rate of reinvestment back into the business. This is sometimes accompanied by share buybacks, dividend boosts, and other "good things for investors." However, he says, "None of these can be as good for shareholders as massive growth into an incrementally high return business."

If a company you own is transitioning to this stage, you may want to consider that its high-return days are behind it.

The next Home Depot
The natural question, then, is which companies today are exhibiting characteristics similar to Home Depot in the early part of its high-growth, negative-cash-flow phase?

I set up a screen for all companies on U.S. exchanges with a market cap greater than $200 million that have:

  • Grown their revenues an average of 25% or more over the past two years.
  • Grown their capital expenditures an average of 25% or more over the past two years.
  • Generated negative free cash flow each of the past two years.

Because we're looking for younger businesses early in their growth cycles, I also limited the results to companies that were founded since 2000. A total of 35 pass the screen this month:

Company

Market Cap
(millions)

Industry

2-Year
Revenue Growth 
(CAGR)

2-Year CapEx Growth (CAGR)

FCF (TTM in millions)

Linn Energy (NAS: LINE)

7,179.9

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

62.6

 136.1

(293.66)

Tesla Motors

3,190.1

Automobile Manufacturers (Primary)

28.7

285.5

(366.56)

Allied Nevada Gold

2,487.4

Gold (Primary)

58.4

156.2

(81.17)

Oasis Petroleum

2,464.5

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

173.7

176.9

(576.13)

Mechel OAO

2,347.8

Steel (Primary)

 47.7

72.0

(918.26)

Rosetta Resources

2,125.9

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

 29.7

72.4

(169.2)

Molycorp

1,956.8

Diversified Metals and Mining (Primary)

633.5

619.9

(428.51)

Pandora Media

1,930.0

Broadcasting (Primary)

133.7

141.7

(18.28)

Fusion-io

1,917.9

Computer Storage and Peripherals (Primary)

251.9

114.6

(23.74)

Copano Energy

1,910.7

Oil and Gas Storage and Transportation (Primary)

25.4

78.1

(86.97)

Opko Health

1,416.6

Biotechnology (Primary)

26.0

140.0

(27.33)

ExactTarget

1,370.9

Internet Software and Services (Primary)

44.2

45.5

(29.34)

Vanguard Natural Resources

1,359.8

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

138.2

52.2

(78.74)

Clean Energy Fuels (NAS: CLNE)

1,208.8

Oil and Gas Refining and Marketing (Primary)

46.4

94.2

(150.1)

Tudou Holdings

1,034.7

Internet Software and Services (Primary)

195.6

39.8

(20.3)

MAKO Surgical (NAS: MAKO)

1,021.4

Healthcare Equipment (Primary)

55.3

801.9

(42.79)

Approach Resources

954.8

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

 64.6

186.5

(131.98)

ServiceSource International

913.2

IT Consulting and Other Services (Primary)

26.8

34.7

(13.99)

Insulet

891.0

Healthcare Equipment (Primary)

 51.9

   56.1

 (36.41)

Iridium Communications

629.6

Alternative Carriers (Primary)

56.4

477.0

(150.31)

Global Partners

609.4

Oil and Gas Storage and Transportation (Primary)

 57.4

48.8

(18.12)

RealD

608.8

Electronic Equipment and Instruments (Primary)

50.8

95.2

(36.38)

Star Scientific

579.9

Tobacco (Primary)

98.4

205.7

(20.75)

Rex Energy

549.9

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

48.7

98.4

(225.4)

Heckmann (NYS: HEK)

540.8

Oil and Gas Equipment and Services (Primary)

129.2

98.4

(158.87)

Zipcar (NAS: ZIP)

 407.3

Trucking (Primary)

34.7

215.0

(20.2)

Syneron Medical

385.2

Healthcare Equipment (Primary)

 67.5

32.0

(53.28)

OCZ Technology

355.5

Computer Storage and Peripherals (Primary)

59.3

97.4

(93.59)

Heritage-Crystal Clean

323.9

Environmental and Facilities Services (Primary)

33.2

130.5

(41.27)

Novadaq Technologies

249.5

Healthcare Equipment (Primary)

49.4

509.8

(9.1)

Le Gaga Holdings

231.7

Agricultural Products (Primary)

43.7

46.1

(20.14)

Triangle Petroleum

226.5

Oil and Gas Exploration and Production (Primary)

688.1

455.4

 (127.3)

China Ming Yang Wind Power Group

222.2

Heavy Electrical Equipment (Primary)

125.7

96.5

(89.88)

Country Style Cooking Restaurant Chain

204.3

Restaurants (Primary)

46.8

85.8

(17.93)

Trius Therapeutics

203.8

Biotechnology (Primary)

197.6

63.7

(16.49)

Data provided by S&P Capital IQ. TTM = trailing 12 months.

We're left with a list of young, mostly small companies that are investing heavily back into their high-growth businesses -- just as Home Depot was doing in 1985.

There are interesting names to research here. I already bought one stock because of this screen: Zipcar. The company is down 21% since it hit the screen, and I think it's well worth considering at these prices.

There are a couple of other quality companies that have fallen recently and should be on your radar, including MAKO Surgical and Clean Energy Fuels, which are down 42% and 29%, respectively. I consider both to be solid businesses on sale.

Heckmann is also down, but by only 10%. The company, which provides all the water needs of oil and gas fracking companies, is more high-risk, high-reward than the others I listed. Expect some volatility from this one. Linn Energy is a more traditional play in the oil and gas energy. It carries a reasonable valuation, a five-star CAPS rating, and an 8% yield.

Winners and losers
As is the case with all of my screens, this one is now being tracked and scored so we can measure exactly how it's performing. Check my "Next Home Depot" CAPS page here, and mark it as one of your favorites.

Meanwhile, one negative-free-cash-flow company that didn't show up on my screen is interesting for another reason: It's well-positioned to take advantage of the natural-gas boom. Find out more in our special free report "The One Stock You Need to Own for the Coming 'No Choice' Energy Revolution."

At the time this article was published Fool analyst Rex Mooretweetsbut is not a twerp. He runs a real-moneyRising Star portfoliobased on his screens. Of the companies mentioned here, he owns shares of Zipcar. The Motley Fool owns shares of Fusion-io, Tesla Motors, Heckmann, Iridium Communications, MAKO Surgical, and Zipcar.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Zipcar, MAKO Surgical, Clean Energy Fuels, and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days.

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

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