Understanding what lies beneath a company's reported revenue is a key to finding winning or losing stock ideas. Many investors screen on metrics like net income or related measurements such as EBIT, EBITDA, or operating cash flow. Revenue, profitability, and cash flow growth equals opportunity, right? Not necessarily. Companies know that Wall Street is closely monitoring these factors and do their level best to provide a "good story" for investors.

Investors can get a much better picture of a company's revenue or cash flow story by also looking into the quality of earnings. Ideally, you can play the role of forensic accountant, reading all of a company's Securities and Exchange Commission filings and financial statements in search of accounting tricks that might tend to mask deteriorating company performance. Or one powerful shortcut that you can use is to measure operating cash flow-net income.

I'm going to test how well this shortcut works in a series of articles that look at whether quality of earnings can help us find the buys and shorts within an industry, looking only at companies with five-year annualized growth rates greater than 10%. I'll then rank companies by my quality-of-earnings metric, normalized to account for companies of different sizes: (operating cash flow - net income) / market cap).

Finding the longs and shorts in professional services
Here are the top two and bottom two companies in my quality-of-earnings screen:

Top quality of earnings


5-Year Revenue Growth

On Assignment (Nasdaq: ASGN)




Bottom quality of earnings


5-Year Revenue Growth

Towers Watson (NYSE: TW)


Hill International (NYSE: HIL)


And let's look at how industrials companies have performed over the last decade when ranked by my simple quality-of-earnings metric:

The graphs tell the story
Higher quality-of-earnings companies significantly outperform lower quality-of-earnings companies. Quantile 1 stocks (with the highest earnings quality) generated more than 22% annualized returns while Quantile 5 stocks (lowest earnings quality) returned about 7%.

Clearly, the revenue growth story for the professional services companies above is an inadequate measure to evaluate these companies.  Our earnings quality screen (and decade of corroborating evidence!) suggests that On Assignment and IHS are our buy candidates, and Towers Watson and Hill International might potentially even be shorting opportunities. Of course, before pulling the trigger, investors should do their homework to get an even better and more comprehensive picture of quality of earnings and earnings growth.

Finding companies to short using a quality-of-earnings screen will take more than my simple quality-of-earnings shortcut. That's why John Del Vecchio, CFA, a leading forensic accountant and The Motley Fool's shorting specialist, put together a detailed report that shows you how to spot five serious red flags that can help you detect time bombs in your portfolio and lead you to the next big short. You can get the entire report free by clicking here or by entering your email address in the box below.