Warren Buffett's partner, Charlie Munger, once said, "I think I've been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I've underestimated it. And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther."

When corporate boards use bad incentives for management's pay, disaster often ensues. (Think Lehman Brothers.) Incentives based on singular metrics such as revenue growth, EBITDA, ROE, or earning per share are easily manipulated and gamed. Fortunately, there is a better way: EVA momentum.

Creator Bennett Stewart of EVA Dimensions, who also co-created EVA (Economic Value Added), calls EVA momentum "the only percent metric where more is always better than less. It always increases when managers do things that make economic sense."

So what does this mean for investors? A positive reading on EVA momentum means a company has created value by increasing its EVA, a negative EVA momentum means that EVA and thus value have decreased, signaling a destruction of value. EVA momentum is one of the few, if not the only, performance measure with such a clear dividing line between good and bad performance.

The best companies, then, create value in excess of their cost of capital, as reflected by positive EVA momentum. The higher the EVA momentum, the more value management's creating.

Let's look at Visa (NYSE: V) and three of its payment processing industry peers to see how effectively they create value. Here are the trailing four quarters' worth of EVA momentum figures for each company over the past three years, and rankings by percentile versus the Russell 3000 for the past 12 months' EVA momentum.

Company

2008

2009

2010

Industry Percentile

Visa (9.1%) 0.1% 4.1% 72
Mastercard (NYSE: MA) 13.5% 1.9% 3.1% 64
Heartland Payment Systems (NYSE: HPY) 0.2% (1%) (0.6%) 28
eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) 1.2% (5.7%) 2.5% 60

Source: EVA Dimensions LLC.

Visa made more than its cost of capital this past year, creating shareholder value with an EVA momentum of 4.1%, placing it in the 72th percentile of the Russell 3000. Both Mastercard and eBay created value, with Mastercard notably creating value all three years. Heartland Payment Systems was the only one of the four companies to have a negative EVA momentum, also known as destroying shareholder value. Hopefully, it can turn around its lackluster performance.

Businesses with high EVA momentum are effectively creating value. It will be interesting to see how useful this extremely new metric proves for companies and investors. If it lives up to its promise, EVA momentum will be an essential tool in investors' arsenals.

Another tool for better investing
Most investors don't keep tabs on their companies' fundamental value. That's a mistake. If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're in a much better position to spot potential trouble early. Better yet, you'll improve your odds of finding the underappreciated home-run stocks that provide the market's best returns.

We can help you keep tabs on your companies with My Watchlist, our free, personalized stock tracking service.

Dan Dzombak recommends you read The Best Investment Advice You Will Ever Get If You Have Under $100k. He does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. His musings and articles he finds interesting can be found on his Twitter account: @DanDzombak.

eBay is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Heartland Payment Systems is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on eBay. 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.