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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 Abbott Laboratories (NYSE: ABT ) 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 Abbott.
What We Want to See
Pass or Fail?
|Growth||5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15%||9.1%||fail|
|1-Year Revenue Growth > 12%||13.6%||pass|
|Margins||Gross Margin > 35%||57.6%||pass|
|Net Margin > 15%||13.9%||fail|
|Balance Sheet||Debt to Equity < 50%||92.8%||fail|
|Current Ratio > 1.3||1.36||pass|
|Opportunities||Return on Equity > 15%||26.7%||pass|
|Valuation||Normalized P/E < 20||24.60||fail|
|Dividends||Current Yield > 2%||3.5%||pass|
|5-Year Dividend Growth > 10%||9.7%||fail|
|Total Score||5 out of 10|
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.
Abbott Labs clocks in with a mid-range score of 5. That lackluster showing obscures the long-term stability of this stalwart pharma company, although it does point to uncertainty ahead.
Historically, Abbott has been a solid performer. As a member of the Dividend Aristocrats, Abbott has raised its dividend annually in 38 consecutive years. That compares favorably with Pfizer (NYSE: PFE ) , which ended its 41-year streak when it slashed its dividend to buy Wyeth.
But despite its strong past, Abbott faces the same challenges that many of its competitors are struggling with. Just as Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ ) has had to deal with product recalls, Abbott had to pull Similac baby formula from the shelves in September. As Vivus (Nasdaq: VVUS ) and Arena Pharmaceuticals (Nasdaq: ARNA ) suffered rejections from the FDA on their weight-loss drugs, so too did Abbott have to stop selling its drug in the weight-loss space, Meridia. And like Merck (NYSE: MRK ) , Abbott faces an aging pipeline.
None of that means that Abbott won't rise to the challenge. It has the financial resources to make acquisitions to boost its pipeline. Investors have to understand, however, that Abbott isn't an autopilot investment, and in a changing industry, shareholders need to keep on their toes.
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.
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