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 CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) 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 CenturyLink.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?

Growth 5-year annual revenue growth > 15% 24.7% Pass
  1-year revenue growth > 12% 183.8% Pass
Margins Gross margin > 35% 66.1% Pass
  Net margin > 15% 13.8% Fail
Balance Sheet Debt to equity < 50% 80.4% Fail
  Current ratio > 1.3 0.66 Fail
Opportunities Return on equity > 15% 13.6% Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 10.64 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 7.2% Pass
  5-year dividend growth > 10% 64.7% Pass
  Total Score   6 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

With a score of 6, CenturyLink puts in a respectable showing. Certainly, its growth looks impressive, but it's important to remember that it came largely from its aggressive acquisition strategy. The company's recent agreement to merge with Qwest (NYSE: Q) will only add to that growth going forward. Clearly, that's a trend in the industry, as fellow rural telecom Frontier Communications (NYSE: FTR) has also sought growth through its purchase of rural telecom assets from Verizon (NYSE: VZ).

The cost of that growth, though, is higher debt. And given that rural telecom is in decline, the big question is whether CenturyLink can earn enough from its acquisitions to pay back its obligations and have something left over for shareholders. Given that investors have come to count on those large dividend payments, any hiccup in cash flow could cause trouble.

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.