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

While we can't know for sure whether Buffett is about to buy 3M (NYSE: MMM) – he hasn't specifically mentioned anything about it to me -- he's left us some clues as to whether it's the sort of stock that might interest him. Answering that question could also inform whether it's a stock that should interest us.

In his 10-K filings, Buffett lays out the qualities he looks for in an investment. In addition to adequate size 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 3M 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 3M's earnings and free cash flow history:

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Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Free cash flow is adjusted based on author's calculations.

3M generates fairly stable earnings and free cash flow.

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 actually is.

Since competitive strength is a comparison between peers, and various industries have different levels of profitability and require different levels of debt, it helps to put them in context:

Company

Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Return on Equity (LTM)

Return on Equity
(5-Year Average)

3M 35% 28% 32%
General Electric (NYSE: GE) 385% 11% 14%
Tyco (NYSE: TYC) 29% 10% (1%)
Honeywell (NYSE: HON) 62% 21% 19%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

3M generates high returns on equity with a fairly minimal amount of debt.

3. Management
CEO George Buckley has been at the job since 2005.

 4. Business
Many of 3M's business lines, like commercial graphics and health care, could be susceptible to technological disruption, but the company is diversified and maintains dominant positions in many industries.

The Foolish conclusion
Whether or not Buffett would ever invest in 3M, we've learned that it exhibits several of the characteristics of a quintessential Buffett investment: consistent earnings, high returns on equity with limited debt, tenured management, and straightforward business lines.

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