Margins matter. The more (NYSE: CRM) 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's competitive position could be.

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


TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin




 Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL)




 Intuit (Nasdaq: INTU)




 International Business Machines (NYSE: IBM)




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

Unfortunately, that chart doesn't tell us much about where 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 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 80.2% and averaged 78.1%. Operating margin peaked at 8.8% and averaged 4.6%. Net margin peaked at 9.2% and averaged 4.4%.
  • Fiscal year 2010 gross margin was 80.2%, 210 basis points better than the five-year average. Fiscal year 2010 operating margin was 8.8%, 420 basis points better than the five-year average. Fiscal year 2010 net margin was 6.2%, 180 basis points better than the five-year average.
  • TTM gross margin is 80.6%, 250 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 8.6%, 400 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM net margin is 5.8%, 140 basis points better than the five-year average.
  • LFQ gross margin is 81%, 130 basis points better than the prior-year quarter. LFQ operating margin is 8.8%, 110 basis points worse than the prior-year quarter. LFQ net margin is 4.7%, 130 basis points worse than the prior-year quarter.

With recent 12-month-period operating margins exceeding historical averages, looks like it's 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 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. is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Oracle. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.