If you want to find winning -- or losing -- stock ideas, you'll need to understand what lies beneath a company's reported revenue. Many investors screen on metrics like net income or related measurements such as EBIT, EBITDA, or operating cash flow. But companies know that Wall Street is closely monitoring these factors, and they can sometimes attempt to massage their numbers in hopes of providing a "good story" for investors.

Investors can get a much better picture of a company's true revenue or cash flow story by looking into the quality of earnings instead. Diligent Fools will play the role of forensic accountant, reading all of a company's SEC filings and financial statements in search of accounting tricks that might be masking deteriorating company performance. To help your investigation, I've uncovered a powerful shortcut: subtracting net income from operating cash flow.

Let's test how well this shortcut works by rounding up a clutch of companies in the food and staples retailing sector with five-year annualized growth rates greater 10%. Then we'll rank these contenders with my quality-of-earnings metric, divided by each company's market cap to normalize the candidates' different sizes.

Here are the top two and bottom two companies in my quality-of-earnings screen:

The highest:

Company

5-Year Revenue Growth

The Andersons (Nasdaq: ANDE)

22.26%

The Pantry (Nasdaq: PTRY)

16.95%

The lowest:

Company

5-Year Revenue Growth

United Natural Foods (Nasdaq: UNFI)

15.90%

CVS Caremark (NYSE: CVS)

28.20%

Let's examine how these companies have performed over the last decade when ranked by my simple quality-of-earnings metric. In the following charts, quantile 1 represents stocks with the highest earnings quality, while quantile 5 represents the lowest:

G

The graphs don't lie
Companies with higher quality of earnings significantly outperform those with lower quality. Stocks in quantile 1 stocks generated more than 20% annualized returns, while the bottom-feeders of quantile 5 stocks returned about 5% over the same time period.

Clearly, the revenue growth story for the food and staples retailing companies above isn't enough to fully evaluate these companies. Our earnings quality screen (and a decade of corroborating evidence!) suggests that The Andersons and The Pantry are our buy candidates, while United Natural Foods and CVS Caremark might be potential shorting opportunities. Of course, before pulling the trigger, investors should do their own homework, to get an even better and more comprehensive picture of quality of earnings and earnings growth.

Finding companies to short 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. 

John Keeling has no position in any company mentioned. 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.