Has Hershey Become the Perfect Stock?

Every investor would love to stumble upon the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that provides everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: You'll never discover truly great investments unless you actively look for them. Let's discuss the ideal qualities of a perfect stock, then decide if Hershey (NYSE: HSY  ) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
Stocks that look great based on one factor may prove horrible elsewhere, making due diligence a crucial part of your investing research. The best stocks excel in many different areas, including these important factors:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales mean nothing if a company can't produce profits from them. Strong margins ensure that company can turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. At debt-laden companies, banks and bondholders compete with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding opportunities to turn its resources into profitable business endeavors.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. By using normalized figures, you can see how a stock's simple earnings multiple fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. For tangible proof of profits, a check to shareholders every three months can't be beat. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Hershey.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% 4.7% Fail
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% 7.2% Fail
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 42.8% Pass
  Net Margin > 15% 10.7% Fail
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 225.1% Fail
  Current Ratio > 1.3 1.52 Pass
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 74.4% Pass
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 23 Fail
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 2.2% Pass
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% 6.0% Fail
       
  Total Score   4 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at Hershey last year, the company has kept its four-point score. Yet even though the company's financial metrics look similar to how they looked this time last year, the stock has had a nice 20% rise over the past year.

Hershey may seem like a perfect defensive play in a tumultuous market. It's not as if its products ever go out of style, especially among its base of young customers.

But confectioners are feeling the pinch of rising cocoa prices. Hershey, Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM  ) , and Kraft (NYSE: KFT  ) are all low-margin businesses, and although they have strong enough brand names to pass on some costs to consumers, there's only so far they can go before volumes start to fall precipitously.

Hershey is responding by broadening its product line. It acquired Canada's Brookside Foods late last year, gaining its line of chocolate-covered fruit candies. Combined with ongoing product innovation, Hershey keeps its products interesting for customers, and that's a big part of how it has managed to keep its margins so much higher than fellow food giants Heinz (NYSE: HNZ  ) and Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB  ) .

The problem Hershey faces is that its stock is already priced for perfection. Although its dividend yield is solid, Hershey needs to see declining cocoa prices in order to justify its current valuation. With huge amounts of debt on the books, Hershey won't get closer to perfection until it starts to get its earnings growth to catch up to its rising stock price.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

Hershey isn't the perfect stock, but we've got some ideas you may like better. Let me invite you to learn about three smart long-term stock plays in the Fool's latest special report. It's yours for the taking and is absolutely free, but don't miss out -- click here and read it today.

Click here to add Hershey to My Watchlist, which can find all of our Foolish analysis on it and all your other stocks.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Heinz. 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 Fool has a disclosure policy.


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