Our so-called junk rally has been unusually kind to the market's weakest links, with the likes of Ford (NYSE: F ) , Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS ) , and Palm (Nasdaq: PALM ) , for example, sporting triple-digit returns on the year.
Never mind the sorry state of their financial "health." A deeply bought-into belief that happy days are here again has led to yet another spiked punch bowl -- and with the lampshade only recently fastened back on the lamp and the glass-cleaner barely dry on the copy machine, too.
Party on, Wayne
Yes indeed: The market is drunk yet again. How else to explain the rise of the aforementioned powerless trio? Each hemorrhaged cash during its past fiscal year and all trade at more than 25 times the rosy next-year earnings scenarios of Wall Street's eternally optimistic, Gucci loafer set -- 25 times!
The you-can't-be-serious shoe also fits Sirius XM Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI ) -- another triple-digit gainer on the year despite its 0-for-10 free cash flow record over the past decade -- as well as Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX ) , an admittedly sturdy operator, but one whose fortunes (or misfortunes, as the case may be) are tethered to the mercurial demand for commodities. Not for nothing did Freeport's operating margins shrink by more than 100% during fiscal 2009.
What goes up ...
Investors have nonetheless bid up Freeport's stock price by some 150% on the year, a trajectory that underscores my point: All these concerns should concern any investor who holds their shares.
Here's why. Parties are fun while they last, but no one Fool should be the last to leave. Investing ain't Sunday school, it's true, but fundamentals (and, um, fundamentalist investors) will eventually trump a "technical" rally, a rise powered in large measure by the fact that money has begun flowing back into equity mutual funds and that money managers don't get paid to sit on cash.
To snip the title from a favorite Fool commentary, the bottom line is this: Danger, horror, get out. Unlike that must-read write-up, though, no irony is required here. Now really is a great time to cash out of clunkers and trade up to tougher stuff, vehicles poised to provide greater mileage over the long haul.
Two for the road
Intel (NYSE: INTC ) , for example, is still trading below its yearly high despite impressive year-over-year growth in operating income during a tough fiscal 2008. Like Intel, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) boasts a rock-solid financial profile as well as a fat and happy figure when it comes to return on equity (ROE) -- a key indicator of both profitability and the managerial acumen of the companies' honchos.
Art and science
No matter what data swirls around it, though, free cash flow (FCF) is my mainstay metric. Add up the cash a company has taken in from operations, subtract its capital expenditures, and voila: FCF, the lifeblood of any going concern that aims to remain a going concern.
The science of analyzing FCF involves assessing the present value of a company's future cash flows. And then the art kicks in; determining whether a stock's current price is right in light of the return you require given its risk and how wide your margin of safety must be.
That latter phrase refers to the gap between a company's stock price and your estimate of its intrinsic value. And that's where I'm currently stuck with both Intel and Apple. Attractive in fundamental terms though they are, both currently trade above my buy-below price -- and therefore outside my margin of safety.
I'm a patient Fool, though, particularly when bargains abound elsewhere and are being conveniently served up on a silver platter. To wit: Even after the market's fast and furious run-up, the list of recommendations at Motley Fool Inside Value -- a service for dyed-in-the-wool cheapskates like moi -- includes more than 20 companies trading at discounts of more than 30% to intrinsic value.
If you're looking to winnow your watch list down to just those stocks you might actually buy, check out Inside Value's complete list of recommendations for the low, low price of ... free. No investment is risk free, of course, but there's a margin of safety in Inside Value's numbers. Click here to snag a free 30-day guest pass.
Shannon Zimmerman runs point on the Fool's Duke Street and Ready-Made Millionaire services, and he runs off at the mouth each week on Motley Fool Money, the Fool's fast 'n' furious podcast. A fresh edition of MFM hits iTunes each Friday, and you can listen by clicking here. (Link opens iTunes.) Shannon doesn't own any of the stocks mentioned. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. You can check out the Fool's strict disclosure policy right here.