Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide if Visa (NYSE: V) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.

Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.

  • Margins. Higher sales don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure a company is able to turn revenue into profit.

  • Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.

  • Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.

  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.

  • Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Visa.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?


5-year annual revenue growth > 15%




1-year revenue growth > 12%




Gross margin > 35%




Net margin > 15%



Balance Sheet

Debt to equity < 50%




Current ratio > 1.3




Return on equity > 15%




Normalized P/E < 20




Current yield > 2%




5-year dividend growth > 10%




Total Score


6 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. *Revenue growth since September 2006. **Dividend growth since first dividend in August 2008. Total score = number of passes.

A score of 6 for Visa is pretty good, even if it isn't perfect. Both Visa and its main rival, MasterCard (NYSE: MA), have an enviable business model: establish a network for payment processing and then let profit-hungry financial institutions spread your brand around the world. It has been a recipe for success lately, as the rise of debit cards has added another arrow to Visa's quiver of moneymakers.

Visa knows its moat isn't invulnerable, though. In response to an initiative from Discover Financial (NYSE: DFS) and telecoms AT&T (NYSE: T) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) to explore smartphone-based payment systems, Visa enlisted Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) to join the fray itself.

Where Visa can improve is with profitability and dividends. Its return on equity is well short of MasterCard's. And although the company started paying a dividend soon after going public, it has been slow to grow its quarterly payments despite a rock-bottom payout ratio. All it would take for the company to garner a near-perfect score is continuing dividend growth and a slightly cheaper valuation.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.