When Jeremy Grantham speaks, I listen. He's not afraid to have a contrarian mind-set lead him in a different direction from the crowd. Recently, Grantham believed some high-quality companies traded at attractive prices. Grantham wasn't sure why the high-quality names were on sale, but he thought they offered the best returns for the next seven years. He has a pretty good long-term track record of sniffing out where the best returns are, so let's see what companies Grantham is rooting out.

What do "high-quality" and "on sale" mean? Certainly they will represent different things to different people. For our purposes, let's say high-quality companies have a strong balance sheet and generate excellent returns on invested capital. We'll use free cash flow yield (free cash flow / market cap) compared with the 10-year Treasury yield as a proxy for value.

So a Grantham-like opportunity would have:

1. Net cash position > 0

More cash than debt can indicate a strong balance sheet.

2. ROIC > 15%

Earning a 15% return should be more than a company's cost of capital.

3. FCF / Price > 4%

Ten-year treasuries are yielding about 3%. We want more return than that.

With the definitions out of the way, let's see if Paychex (Nasdaq: PAYX) can pass our sniff test.

As you can see from the table below, Paychex has a positive net cash position on its balance sheet. What's more, the company currently earns a return on invested capital that is higher than its cost of capital. Fools love companies that take shareholder capital and create value with it.


Net Cash











Barrett Business Services (Nasdaq: BBSI)




Source: Capital IQ (a division of Standard & Poor's) and author calculations. Dollars in millions.

How does it stack up to the competition? Competitors CBIZ and Barrett Business Services don't quite make the grade on this test. CBIZ has more debt than cash on its balance sheet and a low ROIC. Barrett turned in a loss over the past 12 months and doesn't have a high enough free cash flow yield.

Foolish conclusion
Would Jeremy Grantham buy Paychex? That's really hard to say. After all, he's his own investor. But with quality numbers like the ones above, I have to believe Grantham would certainly give Paychex a good, hard look. And you and I should, too.