LONDON -- How do you spot a share that will go on doing business for years? It's a question that perplexes many investors, who often rely on intuition, newspaper tips, and friends for suggestions on where to park their cash.
But with the arrival of free online databases carrying a wealth of financial information, it's never been easier to do the fundamentals of investment selection, reviewing key metrics, and winnowing down a shortlist.
Granted, you may have to hop between databases to get the complete picture; not every free online resource carries every metric. But given the time and the inclination, it's possible to progress a long way.
So here, then, are five things to look out for.
1. Growing revenue
The first thing you want to see is increasing revenue. Simply put, if sales aren't climbing over time, it's difficult for profit or dividends to grow much, either. They may in the short term, but you won't see the long-term growth you want.
Nor, frankly, do investors want stellar growth of the sort experienced by, say, SuperGroup (LSE: SGP.L ) . SuperGroup saw soaring sales thanks to its Superdry fashion label, to be sure. But fashions can just as quickly go out of style. Throw in operational and logistical problems, and the prospect of disaster looms.
In my book, steady-as-you-go revenue growth is much more appealing. High-tech chip designer ARM Holdings (LSE: ARM.L ) , with five-year revenue growth of 15%, looks good on this metric. So too do advertising firm WPP (LSE: WPP.L ) and Associated British Foods (LSE: ABF.L ) , each with 12% growth. And in each case, there are no obvious cyclical factors to take into account -- as there are with, say, miners -- so the five-year figures will be reasonably representative.
2. Earnings growth
After revenue growth, I like to see earnings growth -- otherwise, those new sales will have come at the expense of margins, and the business is effectively "buying" growth.
Again, some businesses will be able to point to shoot-the-lights-out earnings growth. Tullow Oil, for instance, has posted an impressive five-year earnings growth of 128%. My approach is to once again eliminate the outliers and set myself more modest aspirations.
So how do ARM, WPP, and Associated British Foods fare on earnings growth, then? Quite respectably, as it happens. ARM saw earnings growth of 42%, WPP grew EPS by 18%, and sugar-to-Primark Associated British Foods posted 16% EPS growth. All three, then, get a green light from me.
3. Price-to-earnings ratio
But how expensive is it to buy a share -- literally -- of such earnings? Today, the FTSE 100 is on an overall price-to-earnings ratio of 10.7, and for me alarm bells ring when a share's P/E is significantly above or below that market average.
Too high a P/E, and the share is too expensive. Too low a P/E, and I begin to worry about sustainability: Why has the market marked down the company's earnings to such a low level? Insurer Aviva (LSE: AV.L ) , on a forecast P/E of just half the market average, is one such example of a share that is worth carefully evaluating before taking the plunge -- especially in the wake of recent boardroom turmoil.
So how do our three shares fare on this metric? ARM, I'm sorry to report, is on a P/E of 54. For me, that's far too much to pay. If it becomes unexpectedly cheaper, that's great, but failing that, it's for the chop. Associated British Foods, at 18, is expensive but just affordable. WPP, on a P/E of 12, is fine.
As an income-focused investor, I like a stream of dividends flowing in. Dividends, I find, are the most sincere form of profitability. What's more, while growth-oriented shares offer the prospect of a decent gain at some point in the future, dividend shares give you that growth in small chunks, enabling you to spend or reinvest them as you wish.
So how do our three shares fare on forecast yield, then? As might be expected, on a P/E of 54, ARM offers only a miserly 0.8% yield. Associated British Foods is better, at 2.2%, but still a fair bit less than the FTSE 100's average dividend yield of 3.8%. WPP, on the other hand, comes in at 3.5% -- lower than the average, to be sure, but within the bounds of acceptability.
5. Dividend growth
Finally, we turn to dividend growth. The logic? Yield provides a snapshot at a moment in time, so let's see how payouts to shareholders have grown -- or not -- over a longer timescale.
Even though we're no longer really interested in ARM Holdings, it's worth noting that the company has increased its dividend by a healthy 12% per annum over the past five years -- albeit from a low base of 2 pence per share.
Associated British Foods' dividend growth is far more miserly at just 6% -- ahead of inflation, but not significantly. As for WPP, once again the advertising giant with a 10 billion pound market cap turns in a creditable performance, posting 17% growth.
Foolish bottom line
So would I rush out and purchase WPP, the single share to make it successfully through all five filters? No, of course not. Further research is required -- debt levels, exposure to pension commitments, currency issues, dominant shareholders who might delist it, and so on.
And, of course, I'll want to check all the figures above -- sourced from Bloomberg -- against the figures in the company's accounts. Databases can, and do, contain errors, and they can find it difficult to deal with circumstances such as special dividends.
Finally, one investor adept at evaluating the prospects of shares is, of course, Neil Woodford, who looks after two of the country's largest investment funds and runs more money for private investors than any other City manager. Why not let him do the donkey work for you? A free special report from The Motley Fool -- "8 Shares Held By Britain's Super Investor" -- profiles eight of his largest holdings and explains the investing logic behind them. So why not download the report? It's free, so what have you got to lose?
Want to learn more about shares, but not sure where to start? Download our latest guide -- "What Every New Investor Needs To Know" -- it's free. The Motley Fool is helping Britain invest. Better.
More investing ideas from Malcolm Wheatley: