Here's why Ford (NYSE: F) may be cheaper than you think.

In the daily noise machine of CNBC, analyst estimates, and quarterly announcements, investors are inundated with talking heads obsessing over earnings-per-share figures.

This is the primary metric we use to mark corporate progress. Earnings, or net income, are also the basis for the price-to-earnings ratio, the most popular way of measuring how cheap or expensive a stock is.

Unfortunately, "earnings" figures don't always give you the full picture.

Let me explain
Reported earnings are an accounting construction that may or may not accurately reflect a company's true earnings power. Free cash flow -- the amount of cash a company earns on its operations minus what it spends on them -- is another, oftentimes more accurate metric that can help you identify cheap stocks.

Better still, it's one that other investors frequently overlook. That means investors like us who peek at free cash flow can gain a significant advantage in the market.

How Ford stacks up
If Ford tends to generate more free cash flow than net income, there's a good chance earnings-per-share figures understate its profitability and overstate its price tag. Conversely, if Ford consistently generates less free cash flow than net income, it may be less profitable and more expensive than it appears.

This graph compares Ford's historical net income to free cash flow. (I omitted various gains and charges such as tax deferrals, restructurings, and benefits related to stock options.)


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

As you can see, Ford has a tendency to produce more free cash flow than net income.

This means that the standard price-to-earnings multiple investors use to judge companies may overstate its price tag.

Let's examine Ford alongside some of its peers for additional context:

Company

Price-to-Earnings Ratio

Price-to-Free-Cash-Flow Ratio

Enterprise-Value-to-Free-Cash-Flow Ratio

Ford

7.0

4.5

12.2

Toyota (NYSE: TM)

N/A

N/A

N/A

Honda (NYSE: HMC)

9.4

2.4

2.6

Harley Davidson (NYSE: HOG)

51.9

6.5

11.9

Ford's free cash flow multiple is considerably less expensive than its earnings multiple. Although we see in the table above that this is not unusual for its industry (Toyota, which showed losses in both net income and free cash flow over the past 12 months being the exception), Ford is the only member that has consistently generated more free cash flow than net income. Of course, such low multiples may be partially due to the company's large debt obligations -- the multiple rises considerably in the final column, which takes debt into account.

Still, Ford's outsized cash-generating ability means it may be much cheaper than investors realize.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. Ford is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. 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 Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.