Margins matter. The more IESI-BFC (NYSE: BIN) 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 IESI-BFC's competitive position could be.

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

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 IESI-BFC

42.1%

14.1%

6%

 Waste Connections (NYSE: WCN)

42.5%

20%

9.1%

 Waste Management (NYSE: WM)

37.2%

16%

8.4%

 Republic Services (NYSE: RSG)

41.2%

18.9%

4.7%

 Casella Waste Systems (Nasdaq: CWST)

33.5%

8.5%

(2.7%)

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

Unfortunately, that chart doesn't tell us much about where IESI-BFC 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, the last fiscal year, and last fiscal quarter. 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 IESI-BFC 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 43.5% and averaged 42.1%. Operating margin peaked at 13.1% and averaged 11.5%. Net margin peaked at 5.3% and averaged 4.4%.
  • Fiscal 2009 gross margin was 41.7%, 40 basis points worse than the five-year average. Fiscal 2009 operating margin was 13.1%, 160 basis points better than the five-year average. Fiscal 2009 net margin was 5.3%, 90 basis points better than the five-year average.
  • TTM gross margin is 42.1%, about the same as the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 14.1%, 260 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM net margin is 6%, 160 basis points better than the five-year average.
  • LFQ gross margin is 41.7%, 30 basis points better than the prior year quarter. LFQ operating margin is 14.3%, 190 basis points better than the prior year quarter. LFQ net margin is 6.6%, 60 basis points better than the prior year quarter.

With recent 12-month-period operating margins exceeding historical averages, IESI-BFC 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. To stay ahead, learn more about how I use analysis like this to help me uncover the home run stock you're too afraid to buy.

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. IESI-BRF is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems portfolio candidate. Waste Management is a Motley Fool Inside Value choice. Republic Services and Waste Management are Motley Fool Income Investor selections. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today free for 30 days.

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