Margins matter. The more Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) keeps of each buck it earns in revenue, the more money it has to invest in growth, fund new strategic plans, or (gasp!) distribute to shareholders. That's why I check on my holdings' margins at least once a quarter. I'm looking for the absolute numbers, comparisons to sector peers and competitors, and any trend that may tell me how strong Apple's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for Apple and some of its sector and industry peers, and direct competitors.

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 Apple

40.8%

29.1%

21.4%

 Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT)

80.2%

39.5%

30.0%

 Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)

63.6%

35.9%

28.3%

 Intel (Nasdaq: INTC)

63.4%

33.7%

23.1%

 Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL)

78.5%

36.7%

22.9%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Unfortunately, that chart doesn't tell us much about where Apple has been, or where it's going. A company with rising gross and operating margins often fuels its growth by increasing demand for its products. If it sells more units while keeping costs in check, its profitability increases. Conversely, a company with gross margins that inch downward over time is often losing out to competition, and possibly engaging in a race to the bottom on prices. If it can't make up for this problem by cutting costs -- and most companies can't -- then both the business and its shares face a decidedly bleak outlook.

Of course, over the short term, the kind of economic shocks we recently experienced can drastically affect a company's profitability. That's why I like to look at five fiscal years' worth of margins, along with the results for the trailing 12 months (TTM), the last fiscal year, and last fiscal quarter (LFQ). You can't always reach a hard conclusion about your company's health, but you can better understand what to expect, and what to watch.

Here's the margin picture for Apple over the past few years.


(Because of seasonality in some businesses, the numbers for the last period on the right -- the TTM figures -- aren't always comparable to the FY results preceding them.)

Here's how the stats break down:

  • Over the past five years, gross margin peaked at 40.1% and averaged 33.3%. Operating margin peaked at 27.4% and averaged 18.4%. Net margin peaked at 19.2% and averaged 13.9%.
  • Fiscal year 2009 gross margin was 40.1%, 680 basis points better than the 5-year average. Fiscal year 2009 operating margin was 27.4%, 900 basis points better than the 5-year average. Fiscal year 2009 net margin was 19.2%, 530 basis points better than the 5-year average.
  • TTM gross margin is 40.8%, 750 basis points better than the 5-year average. TTM operating margin is 29.1%, 1,070 basis points better than the 5-year average. TTM net margin is 21.4%, 750 basis points better than the 5-year average.
  • • LFQ gross margin is 39.1%, 180 basis points worse than the prior year quarter. LFQ operating margin is 27%, about the same as the prior year quarter. LFQ net margin is 20.7%, 190 basis points better than the prior year quarter.

With recent 12-month-period operating margins exceeding historical averages, Apple looks like it is doing fine.

If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're probably ahead of 95% of the market's individual investors. By keeping an eye on the health of your companies' margins, you can spot potential trouble early, or figure out whether the numbers merit Mr. Market's enthusiasm or pessimism. Let us know what you think of the health of the margins at Apple in the comments box below. Or, if you're itching to learn more, head on over to our quotes page to view the filings directly.

Seth Jayson had no position in any company mentioned here at the time of publication. You can view his stock holdings here. He is co-advisor of Motley Fool Hidden Gems, which provides new small-cap ideas every month, backed by a real-money portfolio.

Intel and Microsoft are Inside Value recommendations. Google is a Rule Breakers pick. Apple is a Stock Advisor choice. The Fool owns shares of and has written puts on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel and a diagonal call position on Microsoft. The Fool owns shares of Google and Oracle. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.