Is Cisco Destined for Greatness?

Every investor can appreciate a stock that consistently beats the Street without getting ahead of its fundamentals and risking a meltdown. The best stocks offer sustainable market-beating gains, with improving financial metrics that support strong price growth. Let's take a look at what Cisco's (NASDAQ: CSCO  ) recent results tell us about its potential for future gains.

What the numbers tell you
The graphs you're about to see tell Cisco's story, and we'll be grading the quality of that story in several ways.

Growth is important on both top and bottom lines, and an improving profit margin is a great sign that a company's become more efficient over time. Since profits may not always reported at a steady rate, we'll also look at how much Cisco's free cash flow has grown in comparison to its net income.

A company that generates more earnings per share over time, regardless of the number of shares outstanding, is heading in the right direction. If Cisco's share price has kept pace with its earnings growth, that's another good sign that its stock can move higher.

Is Cisco managing its resources well? A company's return on equity should be improving, and its debt-to-equity ratio declining, if it's to earn our approval.

Healthy dividends are always welcome, so we'll also make sure that Cisco's dividend payouts are increasing, but at a level that can be sustained by its free cash flow.

By the numbers
Now, let's take a look at Cisco's key statistics:

CSCO Total Return Price Chart

CSCO Total Return Price data by YCharts.

Criteria

3-Year* Change

Grade

Revenue growth > 30%

34.1%

Pass

Improving profit margin

(11.1%)

Fail

Free cash flow growth > Net income growth

33.5% vs. 46.1%

Fail

Improving EPS

58.2%

Pass

Stock growth (+ 15%) < EPS growth

(4%) vs. 58.2%

Pass

Source: YCharts. *Period begins at end of Q3 2009.

CSCO Return on Equity Chart

CSCO Return on Equity data by YCharts.

Criteria

3-Year* Change

Grade

Improving return on equity

8.9%

Pass

Declining debt to equity

20.7%

Fail

Dividend growth > 25%

133.3%

Pass

Free cash flow payout ratio < 50% 

18.3%

Pass

Source: YCharts. *Period begins at end of Q3 2009.

How we got here and where we're going
Six out of nine passing grades isn't bad, but for a company in Cisco's position, it's a little disappointing. The only truly worrisome failing grade here is the one granted to Cisco on the profit margin test. Its free cash flow levels are quite close to its net income, and could easily pull ahead by the time we examine the company again. Cisco has three times as much cash as it carries in total debt, so that should not be a major issue going forward. Now, how can Cisco turn its flagging profit margins around for 2013?

The process appears to have already started with Cisco's most recent earnings report, which was greeted favorably on Wall Street. Virtually all of Cisco's key metrics showed improvement: wireless equipment, video-centric networking gear, and data center computing all showed superb growth for such an established company. With the networking giant set to report next week, another quarter of progress would go a long way toward re-establishing this industry leader and its strong yield over its smaller, sexier rivals.

Cisco's business has been shifting away from pure networking, as you can see, to a wider-net model of connected dominance. In the last few months, it's acquired cloud-centric Meraki, self-optimizing network software provider Intucell, and has sold off its underperforming Linksys home-networking division to Belkin. Investors may want to take these moves with a grain of salt, as an earlier acquisition of Pure Digital was one of the most panned deals in recent tech history. Hopefully Cisco will stick to what it knows best -- enterprise connectivity.

It probably makes sense to diversify from networking products, as it's come under increasing threat from software-defined networking, or SDN. Late last year, Juniper Networks shelled out $176 million for a two-day-old SDN start-up, not long after VMWare spent $1.26 on SDN specialist Nicira. One of Cisco's top SDN architects -- and these guys are hard to find -- jumped ship to Brocade Communications in October. Added up, these three events spell big trouble on the networking front for Cisco, if SDN reduces the need for its costly routers and switches.

Cisco's future may depend on getting out in front of this trend, and it's going to have a fierce battle in store. In addition to competition from these three networking specialists, business software provider Oracle (NYSE: ORCL  )  is now positioning itself as an integrated communications company thanks to its just-announced acquisition of Acme Packet. Cisco might have size on its side right now, but there are many examples of an established leader losing its position to more determined invaders.

Putting the pieces together
Today, Cisco has some of the qualities that make up a great stock, but no stock is truly perfect. Digging deeper can help you uncover the answers you need to make a great buy -- or to stay away from a stock that's going nowhere.

Once a high-flying tech darling, Cisco is now on the radar of value-oriented dividend lovers. Get the low down on the routing juggernaut in The Motley Fool's premium report. Our report also has you covered with a full year of free analyst updates to keep you informed as its story changes, so click here now to read more.


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  • Report this Comment On February 06, 2013, at 7:30 PM, mfrendo wrote:

    A fair measure of improving EPS should deduct all the dollars spent buying back stock and buying companies for cash from the earnings. Doing it any other ways skews the result positively and in a misleading way. By that measure Cisco would surely fail......

  • Report this Comment On February 06, 2013, at 8:02 PM, botfeeder wrote:

    All these numbers are irrelevant unless they are in the context of the circumstances of the individual company.

    The discussion of SDN, however is relevant. I own Cisco stock and think they will succeed, but from all I've read, SDN is indeed their main area of vulnerability.

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