Should you sell Precision Castparts (NYSE: PCP) 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 Precision Castparts, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Precision Castparts has risen 43.4% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors in Precision Castparts 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 Precision Castparts. For historical context, let's compare Precision Castparts' recent price to its 52-week and five-year highs. I've also included a few other businesses in related industries:

Company

Recent Price

52-Week High

5-Year High

Precision Castparts $137.17 $141.21 $160.70
Reliance Steel & Aluminum (NYSE: RS) $42.35 $55.47 $76.89
Valmont Industries (NYSE: VMI) $78.70 $88.08 $120.90
United States Steel (NYSE: X) $43.29 $70.95 $196.00

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

Precision Castparts 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 Precision Castparts' valuation. I'm comparing Precision Castparts' recent P/E ratio of 20.7 to where it's been over the past five years.


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

Precision Castparts' 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, Precision Castparts 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 Precision Castparts' gross margin over the past five years:


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

Precision Castparts has been able to grow its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is great news; however, Precision Castparts 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 Precision Castparts. We love the contrarian view here at Fool.com, but we don't mind cheating off of 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)

Precision Castparts ***** 2.4
Reliance Steel & Aluminum **** 1.6
Valmont Industries **** 6.7
United States Steel **** 18.2

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

The Fool community is rather bullish on Precision Castparts. 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 Precision Castparts' stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a mere 2.4%. This typically indicates few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Precision Castparts' 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.

Precision Castparts has done a good job of reducing its debt over the past five years. When we take into account increasing total equity over the same time period, this has caused debt-to-equity to decrease, as seen in the above chart. Based on the trend alone, that's a good sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though it varies by industry.  Precision Castparts is currently below this level, at 4.1%.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether Precision Castparts 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 Precision Castparts

The final recap

 

Precision Castparts has failed only one of the quick tests that would make it a sell. This is great, but does it mean you should hold your Precision Castparts shares? Not necessarily. Just keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

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

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned.

Precision Castparts is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.