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 it to mask a company's true operations. Yet a company's ability to generate cash -- what comes into the register and goes out the door -- remains the preeminent indicator of its 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 that it could pay to its investors. We'll find companies that generated compounded free cash flow growth rates exceeding 25% annually over the past five years, then pair them with opinions from some of the more than 130,000 members of Motley Fool CAPS to see which ones might have the best chance of outperforming the market.


Levered FCF 5-Year CAGR, %

CAPS Rating  (5 Stars Max)

Jacobs Engineering (NYSE:JEC)



Johnson Controls (NYSE:JCI)



Juniper Networks (NASDAQ:JNPR)



L-3 Communications (NYSE:LLL)



ON Semiconductor (NASDAQ:ONNN)



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, so use this list as a jumping-off point to dig deeper.

Something doesn't seem right here. This company counts on the auto industry for nearly half of its sales -- Ford (NYSE:F), General Motors (NYSE:GM), Chrysler, and Toyota combine to generate more than 10% of its revenues -- looks to have a profitable year, and its share price more than doubled over the past two months.

And this while Chrysler was pushed into bankruptcy, and GM is being led down the same path. Although Ford's market share increased, its sales still dropped 32% in April, but it managed to outsell Toyota around the world.

Yet officials at Johnson Controls, which makes automotive and building systems, said that despite a second-quarter loss, the company would be profitable for the rest of the year because vehicle demand in Europe was returning and the "markets are stabilizing." They acknowledge that that's probably more closely related to cost-cutting measures than anything else.

Of course, while the auto industry grabs all the headlines, Johnson Controls' other business is building efficiency, which provides the other half of its revenues, but 60% of operating profits. CAPS member sett0047 likes that the company helps make offices more energy-efficient, too.

JCI provides automation and controls for reducing energy consumption in large buildings and industrial processes. [The] company has some nice contracts in place and should be first in line to provide controls for next-gen automobiles as well.

Follow the money
While these stocks have left a trail of dollars, it pays to 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. Head over to the completely free CAPS service and let us hear what you have to say about these or any other stocks that you think will roll 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. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.