Margins matter. The more American Science & Engineering (Nasdaq: ASEI) 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 American Science & Engineering's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for American Science & Engineering and some of its sector and industry peers, and direct competitors.

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 American Science & Engineering

45.3%

21.7%

14.8%

 Cogent (Nasdaq: COGT)

56.1%

23.7%

19.6%

 ArcSight (Nasdaq: ARST)

80.3%

10.7%

15.7%

 AeroVironment (Nasdaq: AVAV)

38.8%

12%

8.3%

 Applied Signal Technology (Nasdaq: APSG)

29.3%

10.8%

6.4%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Unfortunately, that chart doesn't tell us much about where American Science & Engineering 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 American Science & Engineering 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 47.8% and averaged 43.1%. Operating margin peaked at 29.9% and averaged 21.3%. Net margin peaked at 18.2% and averaged 14.5%.
  • Fiscal year 2010 gross margin was 45.9%, 280 basis points better than the 5-year average. Fiscal year 2010 operating margin was 22.4%, 110 basis points better than the 5-year average. Fiscal year 2010 net margin was 14.9%, 40 basis points better than the 5-year average.
  • TTM gross margin is 45.3%, 220 basis points better than the 5-year average. TTM operating margin is 21.7%, 40 basis points better than the 5-year average. TTM net margin is 14.8%, 30 basis points better than the 5-year average.
  • LFQ gross margin is 44.4%, 240 basis points worse than the prior year quarter. LFQ operating margin is 16.8%, 350 basis points worse than the prior year quarter. LFQ net margin is 12.7%, 70 basis points worse than the prior year quarter.

With recent 12-month-period operating margins exceeding historical averages, American Science & Engineering 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 American Science & Engineering 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. American Science & Engineering and AeroVironment are Motley Fool Rule Breakers selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.