As an investor, it pays to follow the cash. If you figure out how a company moves its money, you might eventually find some of that cash flowing into your pockets.
In this series, we'll highlight four companies in an industry, and compare their "cash king margins" over time, trying to determine which has the greatest likelihood of putting cash back in your pocket. After all, a company can pay dividends and buy back stock only after it's actually received cash -- not just when it books those accounting figments known as "profits."
Today, let's look at Honeywell (NYSE: HON ) and three of its peers.
The cash king margin
Looking at a company's cash flow statement can help you determine whether its free cash flow actually backs up its reported profit. Companies that can create 10% or more free cash flow from their revenue can be powerful compounding machines for your portfolio. A sustained high cash king margin can be a good predictor of long-term stock returns.
To find the cash king margin, divide the free cash flow from the cash flow statement by sales:
Cash king margin = Free cash flow / sales
Let's take McDonald's as an example. In the four quarters ending in December, the restaurateur generated $7.15 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $2.73 billion in property, plant, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract McDonald's investment ($2.73 billion) from its operating cash flow ($7.15 billion). That leaves us with $4.42 billion in free cash flow, which the company can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.
Taking McDonald's sales of $27.0 billion over the same period, we can figure that the company has a cash king margin of about 16.4% -- a nice high number. In other words, for every dollar of sales, McDonald's produces more than $0.16 in free cash.
Ideally, we'd like to see the cash king margin top 10%. The best blue chips can notch numbers greater than 20%, making them true cash dynamos. But some businesses, including many types of retailing, just can't sustain such margins.
We're also looking for companies that can consistently increase their margins over time, which indicates that their competitive position is improving. Erratic swings in margins could signal a deteriorating business, or perhaps some financial skullduggery; you'll have to dig deeper to discover the reason.
Here are the cash king margins for four industry peers over a few periods:
Source: S&P Capital IQ. TTM = trailing 12 months.
None of these companies meets our 10% threshold for attractiveness. Honeywell has the highest cash king margins, but they are currently less than 6% and they are the lowest they have been in the periods shown here. BorgWarner (NYSE: BWA ) has the next highest returns, but they are currently below 5% -- higher than they were five years ago but down slightly from last year. Johnson Controls (NYSE: JCI ) and Visteon (NYSE: VC ) currently have margins in the negative numbers, and both of them have seen reductions in their margins from five years ago. Compare these returns to the blue chips of software and biotech, to get some context.
Honeywell is involved in a diverse group of businesses, including power systems, aircraft engines, and specialty chemicals. Its automation and control solutions business, which has general commercial applications, accounts for more than 40% of its business. This segment, along with its specialty materials unit, has seen a lot of sales growth over the past five years, while Honeywell's aerospace and transportation businesses have failed to grow sales. In an attempt to build on its strengths, Honeywell decided to sell its consumer products business for $950 million. In addition, the company beat out Comtech Telecommunications (Nasdaq: CMTL ) with a bid of $491 million, to acquire EMS Technologies, a maker of wireless communication products.
The cash king margin can help you find highly profitable businesses, but it should only be the start of your search. The ratio does have its limits, especially for fast-growing small businesses. Many such companies reinvest all of their cash flow into growing the business, leaving them little or no free cash -- but that doesn't necessarily make them poor investments. Conversely, the formula works better for slower-growing blue chips. You'll need to look closer to determine exactly how a company is using its cash.
Still, if you can cut through the earnings headlines to follow the cash instead, you might be on the path toward seriously great investments.
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