As investors, we always want our investments to generate a healthy return. However, investors often forget that returns stem from two, not one, extremely important factors:
1) the business' ability to generate profits and
2) the price you pay for one share of those profits.
This idea of price versus returns provides the bedrock for the school of investing known as value investing. In this series, I'll examine a specific business from both a quality and pricing standpoint. Hopefully, in doing so, we can get a better sense of its potential as an investment right now.
Where should we start to find value?
As we all know, the quality of businesses vary widely. A company that has the ability to grow its bottom line faster (or much faster) than the market, especially with any consistency, gives its owner greater value than a stagnant or declining business (duh!). However, many investors also fail to understand that any business becomes a buy at a low enough price. Figuring out this price-to-value equation drives all intelligent investment research.
In order to do so today, I selected several metrics that will evaluate returns, profitability, growth and leverage. These make for some of the most important aspects to consider when researching a potential investment.
Return on equity divides net income by shareholder's equity, highlighting the return a company generates for its equity base.
The EBIT (short for earnings before interest and taxes) margin provides a rough measurement of the percent of cash a company keeps from its operations. I prefer using EBIT to other measurements because it focuses more exclusively on the performance of a company's core business. Stripping out interest and taxes makes these figures less susceptible to dubious accounting distortions.
The EBIT growth rate demonstrates whether a company can expand its business.
Finally, the debt-to-equity ratio reveals how much leverage a company employs to fund its operations. Some companies have a track record of wisely managing high debt levels; generally speaking, though, the lower the better for this figure. I chose to use 5-year averages to help smooth away one-year irregularities that can easily distort regular business results.
Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at CenturyLink (NYS: CTL) and some of its closest peers.
Return on Equity (5-year avg.)
EBIT Margin (5-year avg.)
EBIT Growth (5-year avg.)
Total Debt / Equity
AT&T (NYS: T)
Windstream (NAS: WIN)
Frontier Communications (NYS: FTR)
Source: Capital IQ, a Standard & Poor's company.
We see some pretty impressive figures appearing here. Both Windstream and Frontier, but especially Windstream, have strong historical returns on equity. These companies demonstrate strong operating margins, with AT&T lagging behind its peers somewhat. These companies also exhibited enticing growth figures. Although strong across the board, CentryLink and AT&T still lead the field by a pretty wide margin. Windstream seems especially risky with its D/E approaching 1000%. At the same time, Frontier seems dangerous as well, but not even close to being in the same league as Windstream. However, the performance statistics only make up part of the price/value equation required by all savvy investors.
How cheap does CenturyLink look?
To look at pricing, I chose to look at two important multiples, price-to-earnings and enterprise value-to-free cash flow. Similar to a P/E ratio, enterprise value (essentially debt, preferred stock, and equity holders combined minus cash) to unlevered free cash flow conveys how expensive the entire company is versus the cash it can generate. This gives investors another measurement of cheapness when analyzing a stock. For both metrics, the lower the multiple, the better.
Let's check this performance against the price we'll need to pay to get our hands on some of the company's stock.
Enterprise Value / FCF
P / LTM Diluted EPS Before Extra Items
Source: Capital IQ, a Standard &Poor's company.
AT&T clearly clocks in as the cheapest stock, especially looking cheap from an earnings standpoint. That said, none of the other companies looks especially cheap across the board.
Not highly inclined to chase growth, none of the companies appear to have the right price-to-value proposition on the surface to merit a spot in your portfolio. Especially given the recent market malaise, stocks could continue to get cheaper. I think watching to see if these stocks get somewhat cheaper seems the most appropriate course.
While CenturyLink doesn't look like a stock for your portfolio right now, the search doesn't end here. In order to really get to know a company, you need to keep digging. If any of the companies mentioned here today piques your interest, further examining a company's quality of earnings, management track record, or analyst estimates all make for great ways to further your search. You can also stop by The Motley Fool's CAPS page, where our users come to share their ideas and chat about their favorite stocks, or click here to add them to My Watchlist.
At the time thisarticle was published Andrew Tonner holds no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of AT&T. 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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