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Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?
One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide if MDU Resources (NYSE: MDU ) fits the bill.
The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.
Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:
- 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 don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure a company is able to turn revenue into profit.
- Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
- Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.
- Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.
- Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. 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 MDU.
|Factor||What We Want to See||Actual||Pass or Fail?|
|Growth||5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15%||5.7%||fail|
|1-Year Revenue Growth > 12%||(17.4%)||fail|
|Margins||Gross Margin > 35%||24.3%||fail|
|Net Margin > 15%||6.6%||fail|
|Balance Sheet||Debt to Equity < 50%||60.3%||fail|
|Current Ratio > 1.3||1.51||pass|
|Opportunities||Return on Equity > 15%||10.2%||fail|
|Valuation||Normalized P/E < 20||15.66||pass|
|Dividends||Current Yield > 2%||3.1%||pass|
|5-Year Dividend Growth > 10%||5.5%||fail|
|Total Score||3 out of 10|
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.
MDU's score of 3 won't turn many heads. But you may not know that if things go right in its market, MDU could be poised to turn things around in a hurry.
MDU is primarily known for its utility business, as a distributor of natural gas and electricity in the upper Midwest. Like peers National Grid (NYSE: NGG ) and Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK ) , MDU has fairly high debt levels, and its net margins leave something to be desired.
But because of its geographic exposure, MDU is also betting big on the Bakken shale gas formation. Just as Enerplus Resources (NYSE: ERF ) and Brigham Exploration (Nasdaq: BEXP ) have focused on the Bakken as a potential game-changer in natural gas, so, too, is MDU diversifying its business to become a vertically integrated explorer, producer, and transporter of gas.
With natural gas prices in the doldrums, that strategy hasn't paid off yet. But if gas prices rebound, you can expect MDU to follow suit.
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.
Want to own the perfect stock? Click here to read our special report, "5 Stocks the Motley Fool Owns -- And You Should Too."