Margins matter. The more PerkinElmer (NYSE: PKI) 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. Healthy margins often separate pretenders from the best stocks in the market. 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 PerkinElmer's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for PerkinElmer and some of its sector and industry peers and direct competitors.

Company TTM Gross Margin TTM Operating Margin TTM Net Margin
 PerkinElmer 42.9% 10% 7.1%
 Waters (NYSE: WAT) 60% 26.9% 21.8%
 Harvard Bioscience (Nasdaq: HBIO) 47.9% 10.7% 9.1%
 Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO) 40.6% 12% 9%
 Bio-Rad Laboratories 56.1% 13.8% 7.9%

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

Unfortunately, that table doesn't tell us much about where PerkinElmer 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 (TTM), the last fiscal year, and last fiscal quarter (LFQ). 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 PerkinElmer over the past few years.

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Dollar amounts in millions. FY= fiscal year. TTM = trailing 12 months.

(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 43.1% and averaged 42%. Operating margin peaked at 11% and averaged 10%. Net margin peaked at 18.2% and averaged 9%.
  • TTM gross margin is 42.9%, 90 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 10%, about the same as the five-year average. TTM net margin is 7.1%, 190 basis points worse than the five-year average.

With recent TTM gross margins exceeding historical averages, PerkinElmer looks like it's doing fine, although its weaker net margins are a cause for some concern.

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 best returns in the stock market.  Got an opinion on the margins at PerkinElmer? Let us know in the comments below.