I love cash. Don't we all? But in particular, I love free cash flow. Measured as the cash a company generates from its operating activities, minus the cash it spends on new property and equipment, free cash flow represents the money that can be used to fuel growth opportunities or to repay shareholders via dividends or share buybacks.
When I divide the free cash flow by the stock's market cap, I get a number known as the free cash flow yield. The higher the yield, the more money the company can invest in growth or for payouts to investors. And those are good things.
I ran a screen to find companies with double-digit free cash flow yields, then sorted those based on their growth rates -- both historical and expected. The high growth could mean that these cash cows are going to get fatter. Of course, the high cash flow yield is often because the stock has dropped in price -- so it is important to keep the risks in mind when considering these as potential investments.
The first stock on my screen is office-furniture maker Steelcase. This three-star stock in Motley Fool CAPS earned $170 million in free cash flow last year, good for close to an 11% free cash flow yield. Its earnings have grown from negative territory to solid, growing profitability over the last five years, and analysts expect them to grow 11% per year over the next five years.
The slowing economy has caused Steelcase to lower its guidance below analyst expectations for this quarter, and the stock is down nearly 50% from its 52-week highs. Steelcase is trying to cut costs in response, but the pain may continue for a while. With the cash flow as high as it is, at least investors can be paid to wait.
Five-star CAPS-rated oil services company Global Industries soared in early 2007 thanks to the huge inflow of work rebuilding oil infrastructure following Hurricane Katrina. The stock has been deflating as that work gets completed. However, in both 2006 and 2007, Global's free cash flow exceeded $200 million. That's approximately an 11% yield on the current market cap.
Global's fortunes will continue to turn with the price of oil and the need for new drilling capacity. The way things have been going, I think that future is probably secure. With that in mind, four-star CAPS-rated refiner Tesoro
ON Semiconductor makes power management chips for a variety of electronics end-markets. It has a three-star CAPS rating and generated $176 million in free cash flow last year. Because of its recent stock price uptick, the resulting 9% free cash flow yield didn't quite make the double-digit cut.
In addition, analyst expectations for 12% annual growth over the next five years may be taking a detour. The analysts following the company now expect earnings to shrink in 2008. This affliction has been felt widely among the semiconductor manufacturers, so ON is not alone in its misery. The decent cash flow should provide investors comfort while waiting for the cycle to turn.
Metals processor Reliance Steel has earned a top CAPS rating of five stars, and it isn't hard to see why. The free cash flow yield is 11%, earnings keep rising, and the stock is near its 52-week high (which is more than you can say for most stocks these days).
A global economic slowdown would clearly have an impact on steel. But with a low price-to-earnings multiple, Reliance may already have some of that baked into the price.
Fool contributor William Trent holds no positions in the companies mentioned in this article. He co-authored Understanding and Evaluating Prospectuses, Offering Documents, and Proxy Statements and blogs at Stock Market Beat. Having trouble understanding financial reports? No problem. Email William your questions, and he will answer them in a future column. The Fool has a disclosure policy.