Numbers can lie -- but they’re the best first step in determining whether a stock is a buy. In this series, we use some carefully chosen metrics to size up a stock’s true value based on the following clues:

  • The current price multiples.
  • The consistency of past earnings and cash flow.
  • How much growth we can expect.

Let’s see what those numbers can tell us about how cheap midstream natural gas services player  Copano Energy LLC (Nasdaq: CPNO) might be.

The current price multiples
First, we'll look at most investors' favorite metric: the P/E ratio. It divides the company's share price by its earnings per share (EPS) -- the lower, the better.

Then, we'll take things up a notch with a more advanced metric: enterprise value to unlevered free cash flow. This divides the company's enterprise value (basically, its market cap plus its debt, minus its cash) by its unlevered free cash flow (its free cash flow, adding back the interest payments on its debt). Like the P/E, the lower this number is, the better.

Analysts argue about which is more important -- earnings or cash flow. Who cares? A good buy ideally has low multiples on both.

Copano has a negative P/E ratio and an EV/FCF ratio of 42.9 over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch and compare current valuations to the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, Copano has a P/E ratio of 47.0 and a 5-year EV/FCF ratio of 64.0.

A one-year ratio under 10 for both metrics is ideal. For a 5-year metric, under 20 is ideal.

Copano is 0 for 4 on hitting the ideal targets, but let’s see how it compares against some competitors and industry mates. 

Company

1-Year P/E

1-Year EV/FCF

5-Year P/E

5-Year EV/FCF

Copano Energy NM 42.9 47.0 64.0
Atlas Pipeline Holdings (NYSE: AHD) NM 25.1 NM NM
Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN) 9.6 52.1 27.1 99.1
Enterprise Products Partners (NYSE: EPD) 19.7 25.5 32.6 302.7


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor’s; NM = not meaningful.

Numerically, we’ve seen how Copano‘s valuation rates on both an absolute and relative basis. Next, let's examine …

The consistency of past earnings and cash flow
An ideal company will be consistently strong in its earnings and cash flow generation.

In the past five years, Copano’s net income margin has ranged from -1.2% to 6.5%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from 1.3% to 6.6%.

How do those figures compare with those of the company's peers? See for yourself:



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor’s; margin ranges are combined.

Additionally, over the last five years, Copano has tallied up 4 years of positive earnings and 5 years of positive free cash flow.

Next, let’s figure out …

How much growth we can expect
Analysts tend to comically overstate their five-year growth estimates. If you accept them at face value, you will overpay for stocks.  But while you should definitely take the analysts' prognostications with a grain of salt, they can still provide a useful starting point when compared to similar numbers from a company's closest rivals.

Let's start by seeing what this company's done over the past five years. In that time period, Copano’s growth is nonexistent because of its current negative earnings. Meanwhile, Wall Street’s analysts expect future growth rates of 4.2%.


Here's how it measures up with regard to the growth analysts expect over the next five years:



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor’s; estimates for EPS growth.

The bottom line
The pile of numbers we've plowed through has shown us how cheap shares of Copano are trading, how consistent its performance has been, and what kind of growth profile it has -- both on an absolute and a relative basis.

The more consistent a company’s performance has been and the more growth we can expect, the more we should be willing to pay. We’ve gone well beyond looking at a negative P/E ratio.

The numbers don’t look exceptionally compelling for Copano or any of its comparables. Except for one number I haven’t presented yet -- dividend yield. Copano’s is at a whopping 8%. It is structured as an LLC, which affords it similar tax treatment as a master limited partnership (MLP). A better natural gas market would help Copano with its numbers, including maintaining this nice dividend yield.

If you find Copano‘s numbers compelling, don’t stop. Continue your due diligence process until you’re confident that the initial numbers aren't lying to you.

Click here to add Copano Energy to My Watchlist, and My Watchlist will find all of our Foolish analysis on this stock.

Anand Chokkavelu doesn’t own shares in any company mentioned. Enterprise Products Partners LP is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Devon Energy.

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.