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 Visa (NYSE: V) 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 Visa.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?

Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% 26.3% Pass
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% 14.0% Pass
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 84.0% Pass
  Net Margin > 15% 39.7% Pass
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 0.1% Pass
  Current Ratio > 1.3 2.69 Pass
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 14.0% Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 16.93 Pass
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 0.7% Fail
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% 12.6% Pass
  Total Score   8 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

When we looked at Visa last year, it only managed to rack up six points, so we've seen a big improvement from the company's 2010 showing. A cheaper valuation and a continuing rise in the company's dividend have helped the credit card giant get closer to perfection.

Visa is the undisputed leader in the credit card business. With more cards than MasterCard (NYSE: MA), American Express (NYSE: AXP), and Discover Financial (NYSE: DFS) combined, Visa covers the globe and dealt with more than $3.3 trillion in payments during 2010.

But Visa continues to face threats from several directions. Caps on debit-card fees could threaten their growth, especially as banks like Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) have already instituted separate monthly charges for those who use their debit cards.

The bigger concern is the growing battle to create an electronic wallet. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) initially partnered with MasterCard on its pay-by-smartphone service but ended up working with all the major card networks. But with rival networks as well as eBay's (Nasdaq: EBAY) PayPal all fighting for supremacy in the area, Visa will have to act strongly to defend its turf.

For now, though, Visa has everything it needs to succeed. With strong sales growth, a clean balance sheet, and improving returns on equity, all investors would need is a higher dividend to judge Visa a perfect stock.

Keep searching
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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Finding the perfect stock is only one piece of a successful investment strategy. Get the big picture by taking a look at our 13 Steps to Investing Foolishly.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.