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 Ecolab (NYSE: ECL ) 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 Ecolab.
What We Want to See
Pass or Fail?
|Growth||5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15%||10%||Fail|
|1-Year Revenue Growth > 12%||31%||Pass|
|Margins||Gross Margin > 35%||47.7%||Pass|
|Net Margin > 15%||5.2%||Fail|
|Balance Sheet||Debt to Equity < 50%||107.8%||Fail|
|Current Ratio > 1.3||1.13||Fail|
|Opportunities||Return on Equity > 15%||10.3%||Fail|
|Valuation||Normalized P/E < 20||29.80||Fail|
|Dividends||Current Yield > 2%||1.3%||Fail|
|5-Year Dividend Growth > 10%||11.8%||Pass|
|Total Score||3 out of 10|
Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.
Since we looked at Ecolab last year, the company has kept its three-point score. Revenue growth has soared, but those gains have come at the expense of profit margins and return on equity. Yet the stock is up nearly 20% over the past year.
Ecolab has a comfortable niche in the commercial cleaning and sanitation product industry. With a global presence that includes both the U.S. and dozens of countries around the world, the company is on the ground floor of a huge opportunity in a growing world.
Ecolab's acquisition of Nalco Holdings last year greatly expanded the water quality side of its business, taking it beyond water filtration to include water treatment and pollution control, along with energy conservation. As Ecolab looks to go up against established world players Veolia Environnement (NYSE: VE ) and Danaher (NYSE: DHR ) in areas like India, there's definitely no shortage of places that need the company's services. That suggests that Ecolab, Danaher, and Veolia could all end up winners as the overall pie gets bigger.
All that said, Ecolab faces its own competitive pressures. Although Swisher Hygiene (Nasdaq: SWSH ) is relatively small, it's been growing quickly and could eventually threaten to poach some of Ecolab's U.S. commercial clients. And in its pest control segment, Ecolab has to deal with the constant presence of rival Rollins (NYSE: ROL ) and its Orkin brand.
For Ecolab to improve, it needs to get its earnings growth back on track and get its valuation down to more reasonable levels. A boost in dividend yield might follow. If shares pull back a bit, then Ecolab could easily look a lot more like a perfect stock in the near future.
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.
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