Is Intuitive Surgical a Buffett Stock?

As the world's third-richest person and most celebrated investor, Warren Buffett attracts a lot of attention. Thousands try to glean what they can from his thinking processes and track his investments.

We can't know for sure whether Buffett is about to buy Intuitive Surgical (NAS: ISRG) -- he hasn't specifically mentioned anything about it to me -- but we can discover whether it's the sort of stock that might interest him. Answering that question could also reveal whether it's a stock that should interest us. In this series, we do just that.

Writing in a recent 10-K, Buffett lays out the qualities he looks for in an investment. In addition to adequate size, proven management, and a reasonable valuation, he demands:

  1. Consistent earnings power.

  2. Good returns on equity with limited or no debt.

  3. Management in place.

  4. Simple, non-techno-mumbo-jumbo businesses.

Does Intuitive Surgical meet Buffett's standards?

1. Earnings power
Buffett is famous for betting on a sure thing. For that reason, he likes to see companies with demonstrated earnings stability.

Let's examine Intuitive Surgical's earnings and free cash flow history:


Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Over the past five years, Intuitive Surgical has grown its earnings significantly.

2. Return on equity and debt
Return on equity is a great metric for measuring both management's effectiveness and the strength of a company's competitive advantage or disadvantage -- a classic Buffett consideration. When considering return on equity, it's important to make sure a company doesn't have an enormous debt burden, because that will skew your calculations and make the company look much more efficient than it is.

Intuitive Surgical generates a high return on equity -- 21% over the past year, 18% on average over the past five years -- while employing no debt.

3. Management
CEO Gary Guthart has been at the job since only 2010, though he was a president of the company for a few years prior. Before that, he did research on computer-enhanced surgery at Stanford Research Institute.

4. Business
Although the company's surgical systems are fairly high-tech, the patent moat is considerable.

The Foolish conclusion
So is Intuitive Surgical a Buffett stock? Probably not -- Buffett would shy away from a company with such high-tech products. Interestingly, however, the company does exhibit several of the characteristics of a quintessential Buffett investment: consistent or growing earnings, high returns on equity with limited or no debt, and tenured management. To stay up to speed on Intuitive Surgical's progress, simply add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a watchlist of your favorite stocks by clicking here.

At the time thisarticle was published Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFDada. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Intuitive Surgical. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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