Should you sell Novatel Wireless (Nasdaq: NVTL) today?

The decision to sell a stock you've researched and followed for months or years is never easy. But 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 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 Novatel Wireless, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Novatel has risen by 8.7% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors are perhaps disappointed with their returns, but is now the time to cut and run? Not necessarily. Short-term underperformance alone is not a sell sign. The market may be missing the critical element of your investing thesis. For historical context, let's compare Novatel's recent price with its 52-week and five-year highs. I've also included a few other businesses in the same industry or a related one.

Company

Recent Price

52-Week High

5-Year High

Novatel Wireless $9.41 $11.53 $29.10
Motorola (NYSE: MOT) $8.24 $8.74 $26.30
Aviat Networks (Nasdaq: AVNW) $4.48 $8.25 $26.30
Powerwave Technologies (Nasdaq: PWAV) $2.21 $2.28 $15.80

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

As you can see, Novatel Wireless 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, let's look at the gross-margin 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's Novatel's gross margin over the past five years.


 

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

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

Next, let's explore what other investors think about Novatel. 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 portion of our research, 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 rates the stock, and the latter shows what proportion of investors is 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)

Novatel Wireless 3 17.9
Motorola 2 2.1
Aviat Networks 3 3.5
Powerwave Technologies 4 20.4

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

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

Here, short interest is at a high 17.9%. A number like this typically indicates that large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Novatel'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.

Novatel has done a good job of wiping out its already-minuscule debt over the past five years. Combine that with increasing total equity over the same time period, and the trend  is great.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Novatel had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could it cover its current liabilities? As of the last filing, the company had a current ratio of 3.43. That's a healthy sign. I like to see companies with current ratios equal to or greater than 1.5.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether Novatel 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 adding Novatel Wireless.

The final recap


 

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

Remember to add Novatel Wireless 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 owns no shares of the companies mentioned. 

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