Is TJX a Cash King?

As an investor, it pays to follow the cash. If you figure out how a company moves its money, you might eventually find some of that cash flowing into your pockets.

In this series, we'll highlight four companies in an industry, and compare their "cash king margins" over time, trying to determine which has the greatest likelihood of putting cash back into your pocket. After all, a company can pay dividends and buy back stock only after it's actually received cash -- not just when it books those accounting figments known as "profits."

Today, let's look at TJX (NYSE: TJX  ) and three of its peers.

The cash king margin
Looking at a company's cash flow statement can help you determine whether its free cash flow actually backs up its reported profit. Companies that can create 10% or more free cash flow from their revenue can be powerful compounding machines for your portfolio. A sustained high cash king margin can be a good predictor of long-term stock returns.

To find the cash king margin, divide the free cash flow from the cash flow statement by sales:

Cash king margin = Free cash flow / sales

Let's take McDonald's as an example. In the four quarters ending in December, the restaurateur generated $6.97 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $3.05 billion in property, plant, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract McDonald's investment from its operating cash flow. That leaves us with $3.92 billion in free cash flow, which the company can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.

Taking McDonald's sales of $25.5 billion over the same period, we can figure that the company has a cash king margin of about 14% -- a nice high number. In other words, for every dollar of sales, McDonald's produces $0.14 in free cash.

Ideally, we'd like to see the cash king margin top 10%. The best blue chips can notch numbers greater than 20%, making them true cash dynamos. But some businesses, including many types of retailing, just can't sustain such margins.

We're also looking for companies that can consistently increase their margins over time, which indicates that their competitive position is improving. Erratic swings in margins could signal a deteriorating business, or perhaps some financial skullduggery; you'll have to dig deeper to discover the reason.

Four companies
Here are the cash king margins for four industry peers over a few periods.

Company

Cash King Margin (TTM)

1 Year Ago

3 Years Ago

5 Years Ago

TJX 

8%

4.8%

9.1%

4.6%

Kohl's (NYSE: KSS  )

2.5%

6.4%

9.4%

(2%)

Macy's (NYSE: M  )

5.6%

5.8%

5.9%

4.7%

Saks (UNKNOWN: SKS.DL2  )

1.4%

6.3%

4.5%

(2%)

Source: S&P Capital IQ; TTM = trailing 12 months.

None of these companies meets our 10% threshold, but TJX comes the closest. While its current cash king margins are lower than they were three years ago, they are higher than five years ago. Macy's comes in second, and has consistently offered margins close to the 5% range. Kohl's has 2.5% cash king margins, which have consistently declined over the past three years as operating cash flow has fallen. Saks has the lowest margins at below 2%. While its current margins are up from five years ago, they are the lowest they've been in three years.

TJX has benefited from consumer interest in name brands at discount prices. This strategy has a number of advantages. First, by combining low prices with an in-person, hands-on shopping experience, TJX can draw customers away from online shopping. Also, because these companies consistently discount their products, they avoid the trap of changing consumer expectations and changing value perceptions created by companies like Macy's, Kohl's, and Saks when they discount their products.

The cash king margin can help you find highly profitable businesses, but it should only be the start of your search. The ratio does have its limits, especially for fast-growing small businesses. Many such companies reinvest all of their cash flow into growing the business, leaving them little or no free cash -- but that doesn't necessarily make them poor investments. Conversely, the formula works better for slower-growing blue chips. You'll need to look closer to determine exactly how a company is using its cash.

Still, if you can cut through the earnings headlines to follow the cash instead, you might be on the path toward seriously great investments.

The retail space is in the midst of the biggest paradigm shift since mail order took off at the turn of last century. Only those most forward-looking and capable companies will survive, and they'll handsomely reward those investors who understand the landscape. You can read about the 3 Companies Ready to Rule Retail in The Motley Fool's special report. Uncovering these top picks is free today; just click here to read more.


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