Should you sell AT&T (NYSE: T) today?

The decision to sell a stock you've researched and followed for months or years is never easy. But 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 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 AT&T, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, AT&T has by risen 7.5% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors are no doubt disappointed with their returns, but is now the time to cut and run? Not necessarily. Short-term underperformance alone is not a sell sign. The market may be missing the critical element of your investing thesis. For historical context, let's compare AT&T's recent price with its 52-week and five-year highs. I've also included a few other businesses in the same industry or a related one.

Company

Recent Price

52-Week High

5-Year High

AT&T $28.60 $29.15 $43.00
Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S) $4.63 $5.31 $26.90
Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) $32.59 $34.13 $46.20
Clearwire (Nasdaq: CLWR) $8.09 $8.82 $35.40

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

AT&T is basically at its 52-week high. As a result, 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 AT&T's valuation. I'm comparing AT&T's recent P/E ratio of 13.4 with where it's been over the past five years. 


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

AT&T's P/E is lower than its five-year average, a possible indication that the stock is undervalued. A low P/E isn't always a good sign, since the market may be lowering its valuation of the company because of less attractive growth prospects. But it does indicate that, on a purely historical basis, AT&T looks cheap.

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 AT&T's gross margin over the past five years:


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

AT&T is having no trouble maintaining its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is solid news; however, AT&T investors need to keep an eye on this metric over the coming quarters. If margins begin to dip, you'll want to know why.

Next, let's explore what other investors think about AT&T. We love the contrarian view here at Fool.com, but we don't mind cheating off our neighbors every once in a while. For this portion of our research, 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 rates the stock, and the latter shows what proportion of investors is betting that the stock will fall. I'm including other peer companies once again for context.

Company

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Short Interest (% of Float)

AT&T 3 1.0
Sprint Nextel 2 3.3
Verizon Communications 4 1.9
Clearwire 3 12.6

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

The Fool community is in the middle of the road on AT&T. We typically like to see our stocks rated at four or five stars. Anything below that level is a less-than-bullish indicator. I highly recommend you visit AT&T's stock-pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a mere 1.0%. This kind of number typically indicates that few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now let's study AT&T'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.

AT&T has been taking on some additional debt over the past five years. With total equity increasing over the same time period, debt-to-equity has consequently increased, as the above charts. Based on the trend alone, that's a bad sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though the number can vary by industry. AT&T is currently above this level, at 67.9%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If AT&T had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could it cover its liabilities? As of the last filing, AT&T has a current ratio of 0.59 -- low for many companies, but just in line with AT&T's historical averages. Still, we'd like to see that number higher.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether AT&T 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 adding AT&T.

The final recap


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

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

If you haven't had a chance yet, be sure to read this article detailing how I missed out on over $100,000 in gains through wrong-headed selling.

Jeremy Phillips owns no shares of the companies mentioned. 

Sprint Nextel is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. 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 Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.