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 Huntsman (NYSE: HUN ) -- 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 Huntsman 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 Huntsman's earnings and free cash flow history:
Source: S&P Capital IQ.
Although the company has generally managed to remain profitable, earnings and free cash flow have been all over the place over the past few economically tumultuous years as Huntsman's sales fluctuated wildly.
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.
Huntsman generates a moderate return on equity -- 14% over the past year, 10% on average over the past five years -- while employing a rather large 222% debt-to-equity ratio.
CEO Peter Huntsman has been at the job as far back as 2000 and had spent many years before that working for the family company.
Diversified chemicals aren't particularly susceptible to technological disruption -- Buffett, in fact, made a large acquisition of specialty-chemical-maker Lubrizol last year.
The Foolish conclusion
So is Huntsman a Buffett stock? Probably not. Although the company has tenured management and operates in a straightforward industry, it doesn't yet particularly exhibit the other qualities of a quintessential Buffett investment: consistent earnings and high returns on equity with limited debt. However, if you're interested in a stock that our top analysts and chief investment officer have picked to beat the market, you can check out "The Motley Fool's Top Stock for 2012." I invite you to download this special report for a limited time by clicking here -- it's free.