Should you sell Altria (NYSE: MO) today?

The decision to sell a stock you've researched and followed for months or years is never easy. If you fall in love with your stock holdings, you risk becoming vulnerable to confirmation bias -- listening only to information that supports your theories, and rejecting any contradictions.

In 2004, longtime Fool Bill Mann called confirmation bias one of the most dangerous components of investing. This warning has helped my own personal investing throughout the Great Recession. Now, I want to help you identify potential sell signs on popular stocks within our 4-million-strong Fool.com community.

Today I'm laser-focused on Altria, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Altria has risen 36.9% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors in Altria have every reason to be proud of their returns, but is it time to take some off the top? Not necessarily. Short-term outperformance alone is not a sell sign. The market may be just beginning to realize the true, intrinsic value of Altria. For historical context, let's compare Altria's recent price to its 52-week and five-year highs. I've also included a few other businesses in the same or related industries:

Company

Recent Price

52-Week High

5-Year High

Altria $24.02 $24.39 $90.50
Lorillard (NYSE: LO) $80.31 $83.03 $92.80
Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM) $56.02 $57.11 $57.10
Reynolds American (NYSE: RAI) $59.39 $60.44 $72.00

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Altria is basically at its 52-week high. This means we need to dig into the valuation to ensure that these previously untested highs are justified.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of Altria's valuation. I'm comparing Altria's recent P/E ratio of 14.6 to where it's been over the past five years.



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Altria's current P/E is higher than its five-year average, which could indicate the stock is overvalued. A high P/E isn't always a bad sign, since the company's growth prospects may also be increasing alongside the market's valuation. However, it definitely indicates that, on a purely historical basis, Altria looks expensive.

Now, let's look at the gross margins trend, which represents the amount of profit a company makes for each $1 in sales, after deducting all costs directly related to that sale. A deteriorating gross margin over time can indicate that competition has forced the company to lower prices, that it can't control costs, or that its whole industry's facing tough times. Here is Altria's gross margin over the past five years:



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; prices in millions.

Despite a three-year lull, in 2009 Altria boosted their gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is solid news; however, Altria investors need to keep an eye on this over the coming quarters. If margins begin to dip again, you'll want to know why.

Next, let's explore what other investors think about Altria. We love the contrarian view here at Fool.com, but we don't mind cheating off of our neighbors every once in a while. For this, we'll examine two metrics: Motley Fool CAPS ratings and short interest. The former tells us how Fool.com's 170,000-strong community of individual analysts rate the stock. The latter shows what proportion of investors are betting that the stock will fall. I'm including other peer companies once again for context.

Company

CAPS Rating

Short Interest (Float)

Altria 4 1.9
Lorillard 4 6.9
Philip Morris International 5 1.8
Reynolds American 4 2.6

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

The Fool community is rather bullish on Altria. We typically like to see our stocks rated at four or five stars. Anything below that is a less-than-bullish indicator. I highly recommend you visit Altria's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a mere 1.9%. This typically indicates few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Altria's debt situation, with a little help from the debt-to-equity ratio. This metric tells us how much debt the company's taken on, relative to its overall capital structure.



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Altria has done a good job of reducing its debt over the past five years. However, its total equity has decreased over the same time period, which has caused debt-to-equity to increase, as seen in the above chart. Based on the trend alone, that's a bad sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% healthy, though it varies by industry. Altria currently exceeds this level, at a dizzying 269.5%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Altria had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could the company cover its liabilities? As of the last filing, Altria has a current ratio of 1.7. This is a healthy sign. I like to see companies with current ratios greater than 1.5.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether Altria belongs in your portfolio -- and to know how many similar businesses already occupy your stable of investments. If you haven't already, be sure to put your tickers into Fool.com's free portfolio tracker, My Watchlist. You can get started right away by clicking here to add Altria.

The final recap



Altria has failed two of the quick tests that would make it a sell. This is great, but does it mean you should hold your Altria shares? Not necessarily. Just keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

Remember to add Altria to My Watchlist  to help you keep track of all our coverage of the company on Fool.com.

What companies would you like me to cover next in this series? Please leave your comments below.

Philip Morris International is a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Altria and Philip Morris International. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.