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 Sherwin-Williams (NYSE: SHW ) -- 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:
- Consistent earnings power.
- Good returns on equity with limited or no debt.
- Management in place.
- Simple, non-techno-mumbo-jumbo businesses.
Does Sherwin-Williams 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 Sherwin-Williams' earnings and free cash flow history:
Source: S&P Capital IQ.
Although free cash flow has fallen off a bit, over the past five several years, Sherwin-Williams' earnings have held fairly steady.
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.
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 use an industry context.
Sherwin-Williams generates a high return on equity -- 28% over the past year, 29% on average over the past five years -- while employing a moderate 65% debt-to-equity ratio.
CEO Christopher Connor has been at the job ever since 1999. He's held various other jobs at the company as far back as 1983.
Paints aren't particularly susceptible to technological disruption.
The Foolish conclusion
So is Sherwin-Williams a Buffett stock? It could very well be. The company exhibits many of the quintessential characteristics of a Buffett investment: consistent earnings, high returns on equity with limited debt, tenured management, and a straightforward business.
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