Should you sell CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) today?

The decision to sell a stock you've researched and followed for months or years is never easy. If you fall in love with your stock holdings, you risk becoming vulnerable to confirmation bias -- listening only to information that supports your theories, and rejecting any contradictions.

In 2004, longtime Fool Bill Mann called confirmation bias one of the most dangerous components of investing. This warning has helped my own personal investing throughout the Great Recession. Now, I want to help you identify potential sell signs on popular stocks within our 4-million-strong Fool.com community.

Today I'm laser-focused on CenturyLink, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, CenturyLink has risen 17.9% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors in CenturyLink have every reason to be proud of their returns, but is it time to take some off the top? Not necessarily. Short-term outperformance alone is not a sell sign. The market may be just beginning to realize the true, intrinsic value of CenturyLink. For historical context, let's compare CenturyLink's recent price to its 52-week and five-year highs. I've also included a few other businesses in the same or related industries:

Company

Recent Price

52-Week High

5-Year High

CenturyLink $39.46 $40.00 $49.90
AT&T (NYSE: T) $28.60 $29.15 $43.00
Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ) $32.59 $34.13 $46.20
Qwest Communications International (NYSE: Q) $6.27 $6.37 $10.50

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

CenturyLink is basically at its 52-week high. This means we need to dig into the valuation to ensure that these new highs are justified.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of CenturyLink's valuation. I'm comparing CenturyLink's recent P/E ratio of 13.8 to where it's been over the past five years.


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

CenturyLink's P/E is higher than its five-year average, which could indicate the stock is overvalued. A high P/E isn't always a bad sign, since the company's growth prospects may also be increasing alongside the market's valuation. However, it definitely indicates that, on a purely historical basis, CenturyLink looks expensive.

Now, let's look at the gross margins trend, which represents the amount of profit a company makes for each $1 in sales, after deducting all costs directly related to that sale. A deteriorating gross margin over time can indicate that competition has forced the company to lower prices, that it can't control costs, or that its whole industry's facing tough times. Here is CenturyLink's gross margin over the past five years:


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

Despite a choppy performance, CenturyLink has been able to maintain its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is solid news; however, CenturyLink investors need to keep an eye on this over the coming quarters. If margins begin to dip, you'll want to know why.

Next, let's explore what other investors think about CenturyLink. We love the contrarian view here at Fool.com, but we don't mind cheating off our neighbors every once in a while. For this, we'll examine two metrics: Motley Fool CAPS ratings and short interest. The former tells us how Fool.com's 170,000-strong community of individual analysts rate the stock. The latter shows what proportion of investors are betting that the stock will fall. I'm including other peer companies once again for context.

Company

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Short Interest (% of float)

CenturyLink38.2
AT&T31.0
Verizon Communications41.9
Qwest Communications International27.2

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

The Fool community is in the middle of the road on CenturyLink. We typically like to see our stocks rated at four or five stars. Anything below that is a less-than-bullish indicator. I highly recommend you visit CenturyLink's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a high 8.2%. This typically indicates that large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study CenturyLink's debt situation, with a little help from the debt-to-equity ratio. This metric tells us how much debt the company's taken on, relative to its overall capital structure.


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

CenturyLink has been taking on some additional debt over the past five years, specifically in 2009. When we take into account increasing total equity over the same time period, this has caused debt-to-equity to increase, as seen in the above chart. Based on the trend alone, that's a bad sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though it varies by industry. CenturyLink is currently above this level, at 80.4%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If CenturyLink had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could the company cover its liabilities? As of the last filing, CenturyLink has a current ratio of 0.67. This is a bad sign for CenturyLink. The company's liabilities are currently greater than its assets, which means it could have liquidity issues in the short term.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether CenturyLink belongs in your portfolio -- and to know how many similar businesses already occupy your stable of investments. If you haven't already, be sure to put your tickers into Fool.com's free portfolio tracker, My Watchlist. You can get started right away by clicking here to add CenturyLink.

The final recap


CenturyLink has failed five of the quick tests that would make it a sell. Does it mean you should sell your CenturyLink shares today solely because of this? Not necessarily, but keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

If you haven't had a chance yet, be sure to read this article detailing how I missed out on more than $100,000 in gains through wrong-headed selling.

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned.

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