Numbers can lie -- but they're the best first step in determining whether a stock is a buy. In this series, we use some carefully chosen metrics to size up a stock's true value based on the following clues:

  • The current price multiples
  • The consistency of past earnings and cash flow
  • How much growth we can expect

Let's see what those numbers can tell us about how cheap Schlumberger Limited (NYSE: SLB) might be.

The current price multiples
First, we'll look at most investors' favorite metric: the P/E ratio. It divides the company's share price by its earnings per share (EPS) -- the lower, the better.

Then, we'll take things up a notch with a more advanced metric: enterprise value to unlevered free cash flow. This divides the company's enterprise value (basically, its market cap plus its debt, minus its cash) by its unlevered free cash flow (its free cash flow, adding back the interest payments on its debt). Like the P/E, the lower this number is, the better.

Analysts argue about which is more important -- earnings or cash flow. Who cares? A good buy ideally has low multiples on both.

Schlumberger has a P/E ratio of 21.3 and an EV/FCF ratio of 20.3 over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch back and compare current valuations to the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, Schlumberger has a P/E ratio of 16.2 and a five-year EV/FCF ratio of 23.3. For both metrics, we'd like to see a one-year ratio of less than 10; for a five-year ratio, we're shooting for less than 20. 

Schlumberger has a mixed performance in hitting the ideal targets, but let's see how it compares against some competitors and industry mates. 

To make comparison to some competitors a little bit easier, let's average Schlumberger's P/E and EV/FCF ratios.

Company

Average 1-Year Multiples

Average 5-Year Multiples

Schlumberger

20.8

19.8

Weatherford International (NYSE: WFT)

N/M

N/M

National Oilwell Varco (NYSE: NOV)

12.6

12.0

Halliburton (NYSE: HAL)

32.1

15.2

Average of Peers

22.4

13.6

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. N/M = not meaningful.

Numerically, we've seen how cheap Schlumberger is on both an absolute and relative basis. Next, let's examine...

The consistency of past earnings and cash flow
An ideal company will be steady (and growing) in its earnings and cash flow generation.

In the past five years, Schlumberger's net income margin has ranged from 13.5% to 21.8%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from 11.7% to 14.9%.

How do those figures compare with those of the company's peers? See for yourself:



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; margin ranges are combined.

Additionally, over the past five years, Schlumberger has tallied up 5 years of positive earnings and 5 years of positive free cash flow.

Next, let's figure out...

How much growth we can expect
Five-year analyst growth estimates tend to be comically overstated. If you accept them at face value, you will overpay for stocks. But while you should definitely take the analysts' prognostications with a grain of salt, they can still provide a useful ballpark estimate when compared to similar numbers from a company's closest rivals.

Let's start by seeing what this company's done over the past five years. In that time period, Schlumberger has put up past EPS growth rates of 13.4%. Meanwhile, Wall Street's analysts expect future growth rates of 13.7%.

Here's how Schlumberger compares it its peers for trailing five-year growth. Note that Weatherford had negative earnings last year, so its comparison isn't meaningful:



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; margin ranges are combined.

And here's how it measures up with regard to the growth analysts expect over the next five years. Note that National Oilwell Varco's estimate is pulled down from one especially low growth estimate. Its mean average is closer to 7%:



Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; estimates for EPS growth.

The bottom line
The pile of numbers we've plowed through has shown us how cheap shares of Schlumberger are trading, how consistent its performance has been, and what kind of growth profile it has -- both on an absolute and a relative basis.

The more consistent a company's performance has been and the more growth we can expect, the more we should be willing to pay. We've gone well beyond looking at its 21.3 P/E ratio. Still, the numbers are just a start.

If you find Schlumberger's numbers compelling, continue your due diligence via earnings releases, 10-K's, company websites, Motley Fool CAPS, and more. You can also come back to Fool.com to see the analysis we're doing each day.

When you're finally confident that the numbers aren't lying to you, you'll be ready to make your own buy, sell, or hold call.

Anand Chokkavelu doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. National Oilwell Varco is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Fool has a disclosure policy.