Had Jerry Maguire been an investor instead of a fictional sports agent, he might have become famous for yelling, "Show me the cash flow!"

Earnings come and go, and the green-eyeshade types can legally manipulate them to mask a company's true operations. Yet its ability to generate cash -- what comes in the register and goes out the door -- remains the preeminent indicator of a company's worth. In short, cash is king.

Below, we'll look at companies that have proven themselves prodigious generators of free cash flow (FCF) -- the amount of money a company has left over to potentially pay its investors. We'll find companies that have generated compounded free cash flow growth rates exceeding 25% annually over the past five years, then pair them with the opinions of the more than 125,000 members of the Motley Fool CAPS investor intelligence community, to see which ones might have the best chance of outperforming the market.

Company

Levered FCF
5-Yr CAGR, %

CAPS Rating
(5 stars max.)

ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM)

26%

***

MEMC Electronic Materials (NYSE:WFR)

77.4%

****

Terra Industries (NYSE:TRA)

41.3%

****

Urban Outfitters (NASDAQ:URBN)

39.8%

**

US Steel (NYSE:X)

110.5%

****

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; Motley Fool CAPS. CAGR = compounded annual growth rate.

Generating copious amounts of cash doesn't make a company an automatic buy. But having looked at Enron's cash flows instead of its earnings would have saved many investors a lot of grief. Warren Buffett understands that the value of a company today is calculated by its discounted future cash flows. Use this list as a jumping-off point to dig deeper into these companies' piles of cash.

Ka-ching!
ExxonMobil's recent record profits should help position and protect the oil giant during the current economic downturn. Despite a one-third drop in quarterly profits year over year, production cuts by OPEC nations, still-high stockpiles, weak demand, and gas selling for less than $1.90 a gallon, Exxon still has some $36 billion in cash and equivalents, and only $10 billion in debt.

That means Exxon has the wherewithal to pursue attractive merger and acquisition opportunities unavailable to, say, BP (NYSE:BP). The British petrogiant lost $3.3 billion compared to a profit of $4.4 billion last year, and it carries a net debt of roughly $25 billion.

CAPS member Ak66 thinks Exxon is an attractive long-term investment candidate, but believes that the industry's conditions don't justify the assumption that oil companies are currently undervalued:

Energy is over-priced for the current status of petroleum products. Inventory is high and demand continues to drop. If oil rises less than 100%, these stocks are overpriced. $80 oil is possible, but less likely than a continued movement in the current range.

Longer term, I like [ExxonMobil]. ... Exxon is well-run and makes the best business decisions in the industry. ... I liked [Conoco Phillips], but decisions made in the past year or two make me think they have lost focus. BP is not well run and gets by on size more than ability.

Ring the register
Wafer maker MEMC Electronic Materials is finding weak demand in both the semiconductor and solar industries. Polysilicon pricing is tumbling, which in turn is dragging down pricing for wafers. Rival LDK Solar (NYSE:LDK) has been suffering from the same conditions. As a result, even though MEMC just reported 20.6% less revenue year over year, CEO Marshall Turner has warned that first-quarter revenue could be off another 50% from the previous quarter.

CAPS member digiferret expected pricing issues to hit MEMC, but believes its solid cash position will help it weather the storm:

I'm expecting weaker performance in the sector in general mainly due to pricing issues. This'll squeeze the other smaller poly players much harder than MEMC, since they have little debt, and are sitting on a lot of cash. This is a hold for when the dumping is over.

Follow the money
Once you've followed these stocks' trails of dollars, start your own research 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. Why not head over to the completely free CAPS service and share your thoughts on these or any other stocks that you think will continue to be rolling in the dough.

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Fool contributor Rich Duprey does not have a financial position in any of the stocks mentioned in this article. You can see his holdings here. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy had you at hello.