We've all heard of the "death rattle," the last gasp from a lost soul's lungs. Sometimes, we seem to hear it from the companies in which we invest. Revenue dries up. Margins contract. Profits evaporate. All these signs suggest that their condition is worsening -- a financial death rattle, if you will.

Stocks in sickbay
Don't assume that all such companies are goners. Some will barely cling to life, while others will make a full recovery. But here, we're seeking companies that have all but given up the ghost.

For help, we'll turn to the clever coroners at our 120,000-strong Motley Fool CAPS community, where members give the thumbs-up or thumbs-down to some 5,400 stocks. Data shows that newly minted five-star stocks offer the best opportunities for investors, while the lowest-rated companies fared the worst. We've unearthed a handful of stocks that look like they might be headed six feet under, based on the rock-bottom one-star rating they've garnered from CAPS.

Then we'll palpate their pulse with some quick tests for liquidity -- who knows, maybe we'll still find some signs of life? The current ratio and quick ratio (also called the "acid test" ratio) give us an idea of a company's ability to pay its bills, and the Altman Z-Score suggests companies in danger of bankruptcy. Companies scoring 3.00 and above are considered safe; between 2.70 and 2.99 should prompt caution; between 1.80 and 2.70 have a good chance of going bankrupt within two years; and those with scores below 1.80 mean the cryptkeeper is waiting.

Here's today's list. Are these companies only mostly dead, or have they already given up the ghost?


Current Ratio

Acid-Test Ratio

Altman Z-Score

Recent Price

AutoNation (NYSE:AN)










Internet Capital Group (NASDAQ:ICGE)





Life Time Fitness (NYSE:LTM)





Merrill Lynch (NYSE:MER)





Sources: Motley Fool CAPS; Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

We obviously don't know whether these companies are headed six feet under, so don't short them based on their appearance here. Moreover, some companies, like software makers and financial firms, don't neatly fit into the Altman Z-Score scale. Yet our primary screen searches for stocks that CAPS investors have marked down to one- or two-star status, suggesting they may be destined to seriously underperform the market. Just the other day, Pilgrim's Pride -- which appeared here back in April -- filed for bankruptcy protection.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained
Revenue at Internet Capital Group's eight core companies grew 20% last quarter, but they still collectively reported a wider aggregate loss of $6.9 million. Although revenue growth trailed expectations, the venture capital firm's management said it was still happy with the results, considering the economic headwinds. Still, this market isn't kind to startups, like those in which ICG invests, and IPOs have been extremely rare. ICG may operate a profitable model during good times, but CAPS member srk85 nonetheless suspects there's too little hope for it ahead: "Big losses on the horizon, little prospect for a recovery"

In outer space
Back in March, CAPS All-Star member equalfuture called InfoSpace a holdover from the tech boom. It may have outlasted Pets.com and DrKoop.com, but it still finds itself mired among other tech wrecks like Internap Network Services (NASDAQ:INAP). equalfuture thinks it may have outlived its usefulness: "A relic from the dot.com days. It has outlived its expected lifespan and the day has come to put it out of its misery."

Still financially fit?
At least one high-profile stock site has questioned whether Life Time Fitness can reverse membership trends amid tightening discretionary spending. CAPS member Relic666 thinks the comapny could succeed -- if it makes it through this recession.

With the current economic status this is a luxury that will sit in the wings for the next year or so. Once everything has settled down, they [should] begin to prosper. Have to [keep] a sharp eye out and make sure they don't over extend themselves between now and then.

Whether for gyms or gym-equipment makers like Nautilus (NYSE:NLS), itself a former denizen of the deathbed list, these are hardly friendly times for big-ticket items.

Rattling the cage
Are these companies doomed to drag their investors into an underworld of underperformance? Or will they be resurrected to stalk the markets once again? It pays to start your own research on these stocks on Motley Fool CAPS. Read a company's financial reports, scrutinize key data and charts, and examine the comments your fellow investors have made, all from a stock's CAPS page. Sign up today, absolutely free, and let us know whether you think the Grim Reaper's at the door.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial interest in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is full of life.