Is Cliffs Natural Resources a Buffett Stock?

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 Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE: CLF  ) -- 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:

  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 Cliffs 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 Cliffs' earnings and free cash flow history:

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Cliffs' earnings have grown dramatically over the past several years.

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.

Cliffs' generates an enormous return on equity -- 31% over the past year, 27% on average over the past five years -- while employing a moderate 54% debt-to-equity ratio.

3. Management
CEO Joseph Carrabba has been at the job since 2006. Prior to that, he worked at Rio Tinto in a number of different positions over two decades.

4. Business
Mining isn't particularly susceptible to technological disruption.

The Foolish conclusion
So is Cliffs Natural Resources a Buffett stock? Perhaps. Although a great deal of the company's success in recent years is undoubtedly the result of strong commodity prices, on its face the company does exhibit several of the characteristics of a quintessential Buffett investment: consistent or growing earnings, high returns on equity with limited debt, tenured management, and a straightforward business. To stay up to speed on Cliffs' progress, simply add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a watchlist of your favorite stocks by clicking here.

If you're looking for more stock ideas to profit from commodities, check out The Motley Fool's "3 Stocks for $100 Oil." You can download this special report for free for a limited time by clicking here.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter @TMFDada. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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