Margins matter. The more Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) 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 Intel's competitive position could be.

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

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 Intel 65.3% 35.8% 24.7%
 Micron Technology (Nasdaq: MU) 32% 19.1% 21.8%
 Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) 45.5% 7.3% 20%
 MIPS Technologies(Nasdaq: MIPS) 98.3% 29.1% 25.3%

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

While Micron competes against Intel in the flash memory category, AMD is more a direct rival and MIPS licenses its chip architecture in a way similar to Arm Holdings.

Unfortunately, that table doesn't tell us much about where Intel 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 latest fiscal year, and the latest 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 Intel over the past few years.

Intc


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 59.7% and averaged 54.9%. Operating margin peaked at 31.5% and averaged 24.4%. Net margin peaked at 22.3% and averaged 16.3%.
  • TTM gross margin is 65.3%, 1,040 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 35.8%, 1,140 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM net margin is 24.7%, 840 basis points better than the five-year average.

With recent TTM operating margins exceeding historical averages, Intel looks like it is doing fine.

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 Intel? Let us know in the comments below.

Seth Jayson had no position in any company mentioned here at the time of publication. You can view his stock holdings here. He is co-advisor of Motley Fool Hidden Gems, which provides new small-cap ideas every month, backed by a real-money portfolio. Intel is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. The Fool owns shares of and has bought calls on Intel. Motley Fool Options has recommended buying calls on Intel. 

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