Should you sell Pacer International (Nasdaq: PACR) 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 Pacer, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Pacer has risen 78% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors in Pacer 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 Pacer, a transportation copmpany. For historical context, let's compare Pacer's recent price with 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

Pacer $5.57 $9.45 $36.20
C.H. Robinson Worldwide (Nasdaq: CHRW) $72.25 $73.32 $73.30
Expeditors International of Washington (Nasdaq: EXPD) $51.24 $52.29 $58.30
YRC Worldwide (Nasdaq: YRCW) $3.54 $32.50 $1,288.50

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

As you can see, Pacer is down from its 52-week high. If you bought near the peak, now's the time to think back to why you bought it in the first place. If your reasons still hold true, you shouldn't sell based on this information alone.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of Pacer's valuation. I'm comparing Pacer's recent P/E ratio of 15.7 with where it has been over the past five years.

Pacrperatios


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

Pacer'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, because the company's growth prospects may also be increasing alongside the market's valuation. However, it definitely indicates that, on a purely historical basis, Pacer 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 Pacer's gross margin over the past five years:

Pacrgrossmargins


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

Pacer is clearly having issues maintaining its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. Pacer investors need to keep an eye on this troubling trend over the coming quarters.

Next, let's explore what other investors think about Pacer. 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

Short Interest (% of Float)

Pacer *** 14.2
C.H. Robinson Worldwide ** 7.4
Expeditors International of Washington **** 3.0
YRC Worldwide ** 14.8

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

The Fool community is in the middle of the road on Pacer. 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 Pacer's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a high 14.2%. This typically indicates that large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

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

Pacrtotaldebttoequity


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

Pacer has done a good job of reducing its debt over the past five years. When we take into account decreasing total equity over the same time, this has caused debt-to-equity to remain near its five-year average, as seen in the above chart. While this technically gets Pacer its first and only thumbs-up in my screen, the reduction in total equity is concerning.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Pacer had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could the company cover its current liabilities? As of the latest filing, Pacer has a current ratio of 1.06. Pacer could cover its current liabilities, but it's still below a healthy level of 1.5.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether Pacer 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 Pacer.

The recap

Pacrsellingrecap

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

Remember to add Pacer to My Watchlist to help you keep track of all our coverage of the company on Fool.com.

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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