Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide whether Duke Energy (NYSE: DUK) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.

Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure that a company is able to turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Duke Energy.

Factor What We Want to See Actual Pass or Fail?
Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% (6.5%) fail
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% 9.3% fail
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 41.2% pass
  Net Margin > 15% 9.1% fail
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 83.2% fail
  Current Ratio > 1.3 1.65 pass
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 5.6% fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 13.47 pass
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 5.6% pass
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% (3.2%) fail
  Total Score   4 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

Duke Energy scores 4 points, leaving it far from perfect. But its score is affected in part by its spinoff of Spectra Energy (NYSE: SE), and Duke's numbers are close to on par for the capital-intensive utility industry.

Duke Energy generates and transmits electricity in the Carolinas and various Midwestern states, as well as providing natural gas in some of those areas, serving about 4 million customers. Doing that takes capital, and between fairly high levels of debt and the regulatory constraints of the utility industry, the company's margins are relatively low.

Duke Energy has some competitive advantages. Like fellow regional utility Southern Company (NYSE: SO), Duke operates in a favorable regulatory environment. Perhaps as a result, Duke has actually seen better stock performance in the past year than competitors Exelon (NYSE: EXC) and Entergy (NYSE: ETR), which have been trading close to their 52-week lows.

Utilities aren't generally exciting, and Duke Energy is no exception. But if you're willing to accept the slow, steady income that dividends provide, then the utility may be worth looking at.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. Spectra Energy and Southern Company are Motley Fool Income Investor recommendations. Motley Fool Options has recommended writing covered calls on Exelon, which is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.