Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide if St. Jude Medical (NYSE: STJ) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.

Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure a company is able to turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at St. Jude.

Factor What We Want to See Actual Pass or Fail?
Growth 5-year annual revenue growth > 15% 12.9% Fail
  1-year revenue growth > 12% 8.8% Fail
Margins Gross margin > 35% 73.6% Pass
  Net margin > 15% 17.7% Pass
Balance sheet Debt to equity < 50% 47.4% Pass
  Current ratio > 1.3 4.41 Pass
Opportunities Return on equity > 15% 22.9% Pass
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 17.27 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 0% Fail
  5-year dividend growth > 10% 0% Fail
  Total Score   6 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

St. Jude manages a score of six, which is a fairly good result, especially for a stock that doesn't pay dividends. Given the market's general distaste for health-care-related stocks lately, it's definitely worth a closer look to see if St. Jude is getting the appreciation it deserves.

St. Jude focuses on heart-related products, including defibrillators and pacemakers. With an aging population, that's clearly a growth industry. But it's also a tough one right now, with a sagging economy and health-care regulation combining to hurt medical device makers across the board, including competitors Medtronic (NYSE: MDT) and Boston Scientific (NYSE: BSX). Still, demand can't stay pent-up forever, and as the baby boom generation approaches retirement age, that demand could skyrocket.

On its financials, St. Jude has good margins and a healthy balance sheet, looking quite similar to Medtronic. Unlike St. Jude, though, Medtronic pays a healthy dividend. And St. Jude's growth rates can't keep up with up-and-coming competitor Intuitive Surgical (Nasdaq: ISRG).

One positive, though, is that St. Jude consistently finds ways to top analyst earnings estimates. That can bode well for a company's stock, setting the stage for quarterly bumps as the company beats expectations.

St. Jude is an interesting stock in a cheap sector right now. If you like value plays, St. Jude looks more like a smart stock than a value trap.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

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