Has HealthSouth Become the Perfect Stock?

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Every investor would love to stumble upon the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that provides everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: You'll never discover truly great investments unless you actively look for them. Let's discuss the ideal qualities of a perfect stock and then decide whether HealthSouth (NYS: HLS) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
Stocks that look great based on one factor may prove horrible elsewhere, making due diligence a crucial part of your investing research. The best stocks excel in many different areas, including these important factors:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales mean nothing if a company can't produce profits from them. Strong margins ensure that company can turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. At debt-laden companies, banks and bondholders compete with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Moneymaking opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding opportunities to turn its resources into profitable business endeavors.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. By using normalized figures, you can see how a stock's simple earnings multiple fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. For tangible proof of profits, a check to shareholders every three months can't be beat. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at HealthSouth.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

Growth5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15%4.1%Fail
 1-Year Revenue Growth > 12%6.4%Fail
MarginsGross Margin > 35%46.5%Pass
 Net Margin > 15%9.5%Fail
Balance SheetDebt to Equity < 50%191.8%Fail
 Current Ratio > 1.31.31Pass
OpportunitiesReturn on Equity > 15%38.3%Pass
ValuationNormalized P/E < 2011.24Pass
DividendsCurrent Yield > 2%0.0%Fail
 5-Year Dividend Growth > 10%0.0%Fail
    
 Total Score 4 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at HealthSouth last year, the company has dropped a point. Falling net margins are to blame for the drop, but shareholders are quite happy with stock-price gains of more than 30% over the past year.

HealthSouth operates nearly 100 inpatient hospitals as well as a few dozen satellite clinics. But unlike major hospital operators HCA (NYS: HCA) and Community Health Systems (NYS: CYH) , whose hospitals offer general care, HealthSouth's facilities specialize in rehabilitation, with care tailored to needs ranging from strokes and neurological trauma to hip fractures and other physical injuries.

The biggest concern that HealthSouth has faced lately has come from health-care reform. Even after the Supreme Court's affirmation of the constitutionality of most of the key provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the final impact on Medicaid reimbursement for HealthSouth is uncertain. Moreover, with UnitedHealth Group (NYS: UNH) , WellPoint (NYS: WLP) , and other health-insurance providers having to rein in their administrative costs, they may try to clamp down on costs that HealthSouth and other medical providers charge for their services.

Still, HealthSouth is holding pretty well despite the uncertainty. In its most recent quarter, HealthSouth beat earnings estimates and raised its guidance for the remainder of the year. CFO Doug Coltharp said high cash flow gave the company the chance to boost capital expenditures for maintenance while supporting growth.

For HealthSouth to improve, it really needs to get past the uncertainties that health-care reform has introduced and keep providing the services its patients need. Doing that should help it get its balance sheet in better order, and demographics may bring more sales and get HealthSouth a bit closer to perfection in the years ahead.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

HealthSouth may be far from perfect, but we have some other ideas you might like better. Let me invite you to learn about three smart long-term stock plays in the Fool's latest special report. It's yours for the taking and is absolutely free, but don't miss out -- click here and read it today.

Add HealthSouth toMy Watchlist, which can find all of our Foolish analysis on it and all your other stocks.

The article Has HealthSouth Become the Perfect Stock? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Fool contributorDan Caplingerdoesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of WellPoint.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of WellPoint and UnitedHealth Group, as well as creating a diagonal call position in UnitedHealth Group. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has adisclosure policy.

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

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