Should you sell Spectra Energy (NYSE: SE) 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 Spectra Energy, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Spectra Energy shares have risen 21.2% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors in Spectra Energy 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 Spectra Energy. For historical context, let's compare Spectra Energy'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

Spectra Energy $22.55 $23.85 $30.00
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (NYSE: KMP) $68.50 $69.90 $69.90
Williams Companies (NYSE: WMB) $19.11 $24.66 $40.80
Energy Transfer Partners (NYSE: ETP) $48.28 $51.95 $64.00

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

As you can see, Spectra Energy is down slightly from its 52-week high. If you bought near the peak, now's the time to think back to why you bought it in the first place. If your reasons still hold true, you shouldn't sell based on this information alone.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of Spectra Energy's valuation. I'm comparing Spectra Energy's recent P/E ratio of 15.8 to where it has been over the past three years, even though the company didn't have earnings in 2005 or 2006.


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

Spectra Energy's current P/E is higher than its three-year average, which could indicate the stock is overvalued. A high P/E isn't always a bad sign, because the company's growth prospects may also be increasing alongside the market's valuation. However, it definitely indicates that, on a purely historical basis, Spectra Energy 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 Spectra Energy's gross margin over the past five years:


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

Spectra Energy has been able to grow its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is great news; however, Spectra Energy investors need to keep an eye on this over the coming quarters. If margins begin to drop, you'll want to know why.

Next, let's explore what other investors think about Spectra Energy. 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)

Spectra Energy ***** 1.3
Kinder Morgan Energy Partners ***** 1.9
Williams Companies **** 1.3
Energy Transfer Partners ***** 0.4

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

The Fool community is rather bullish on Spectra Energy. 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 Spectra Energy's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a mere 1.3%. This typically indicates few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

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



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

Spectra Energy's total debt is around its five-year average. When we take into account decreasing total equity over the same time period, this 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% to be healthy, though it varies by industry.  Spectra Energy is above this level, at 137.5%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Spectra Energy had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could the company cover its liabilities? As of the latest filing, Spectra Energy has a current ratio of 0.48. This is a bad sign for Spectra Energy. The company's liabilities are greater than its assets, which means it could have liquidity issues in the short term.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether Spectra Energy 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 Spectra Energy.

The recap


Spectra Energy has failed three of the quick tests that would make it a sell. Does it mean you should sell your Spectra Energy shares today solely because of this? Not necessarily, but keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

Remember to add Spectra Energy 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.

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned. Spectra Energy is a Motley Fool Income Investor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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 Fool has a disclosure policy.