Numbers can lie -- but they're the best first step in determining whether a stock is a buy. In this series, we use some carefully chosen metrics to size up a stock's true value based on the following clues:

  • The current price multiples
  • The consistency of past earnings and cash flow
  • How much growth we can expect

Let's see what those numbers can tell us about how cheap radio frequency component and compound semiconductor maker RF Micro Devices (Nasdaq: RFMD) might be.

The current price multiples
First, we'll look at most investors' favorite metric: the P/E ratio. It divides the company's share price by its earnings per share (EPS) -- the lower, the better.

Then, we'll take things up a notch with a more advanced metric: enterprise value to unlevered free cash flow. This divides the company's enterprise value (basically, its market cap plus its debt, minus its cash) by its unlevered free cash flow (its free cash flow, adding back the interest payments on its debt). Like the P/E, the lower this number is, the better.

Analysts argue about which is more important -- earnings or cash flow. Who cares? A good buy ideally has low multiples on both.

RF Micro Devices has a P/E ratio of 18.5 and an EV/FCF ratio of 8.7 over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch and compare current valuations to the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, RF Micro Devices has a negative P/E ratio and a five-year EV/FCF ratio of 25.3.

A one-year ratio of less than 10 for both metrics is ideal. For a five-year metric, less than 20 is ideal.

RF Micro Devices has a mixed performance in hitting the ideal targets, but let's see how it compares against some competitors and industry mates. 

Company

1-Year P/E

1-Year EV/FCF

5-Year P/E

5-Year EV/FCF

RF Micro Devices

18.5

8.7

NM

25.3

Broadcom (Nasdaq: BRCM)

28.6

17.0

54.2

20.9

Skyworks Solutions (Nasdaq: SWKS)

24.9

23.5

68.5

40.1

Cree (Nasdaq: CREE)

38.0

57.7

82.7

66.7

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; NM = not meaningful.

Numerically, we've seen how RF Micro Devices's valuation rates on both an absolute and relative basis. Next, let's examine ...

The consistency of past earnings and cash flow
An ideal company will be consistently strong in its earnings and cash flow generation.

In the past five years, RF Micro Devices' net income margin has ranged from -99.8% to 9.3%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from -6.3% to 19.5%.

How do those figures compare with those of the company's peers? See for yourself:


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; margin ranges are combined.

Additionally, over the last five years, RF Micro Devices has tallied up three years of positive earnings and three years of positive free cash flow.

Next, let's figure out ...

How much growth we can expect
Analysts tend to comically overstate their five-year growth estimates. If you accept them at face value, you will overpay for stocks. But while you should definitely take the analysts' prognostications with a grain of salt, they can still provide a useful starting point when compared to similar numbers from a company's closest rivals.

Let's start by seeing what this company's done over the past five years. In that time period, RF Micro Devices hasn't put up meaningful EPS growth rates, because it had negative earnings before extraordinary items five years ago. Meanwhile, Wall Street's analysts expect future growth rates of 14.6%.

Here's how RF Micro Devices compares it its peers for trailing five-year growth:


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; EPS growth shown.

And here's how it measures up with regard to the growth analysts expect over the next five years:


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; estimates for EPS growth.

The bottom line
The pile of numbers we've plowed through has shown us how cheap shares of RF Micro Devices are trading, how consistent its performance has been, and what kind of growth profile it has -- both on an absolute and a relative basis.

The more consistent a company's performance has been and the more growth we can expect, the more we should be willing to pay.

Still, the numbers are just a start ... especially with high-tech stocks. For example, despite high earnings and cash flow multiples, my fellow Fool Tim Beyers thinks Skyworks Solutions is a buy. For what it's worth (not much usually), analysts expect almost as much upcoming growth from RF as they do Skyworks, all at lower trailing multiples.

If you find RF Micro Devices's numbers or technology compelling, don't stop. Continue your due diligence process until you're confident that the initial numbers aren't lying to you.

If you want more stock ideas, check out our featured articles. Or sign up for our latest free report in the box below.

Anand Chokkavelu doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. 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.