Should you sell Starwood (NYSE: HOT) 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 Starwood, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Starwood has risen 59.8% versus an S&P 500 return of 13.7%. Investors in Starwood 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 Starwood. For historical context, let's compare Starwood's recent price to 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

Starwood $61.31 $62.72 $75.50
Marriott International (NYSE: MAR) $41.13 $42.68 $51.40
Host Hotels & Resorts (NYSE: HST) $18.40 $18.60 $29.00
Choice Hotels International (NYSE: CHH) $37.94 $39.84 $61.80

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

Starwood is basically at its 52-week high. This means we need to dig into the valuation to ensure that these new highs are justified.

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 is Starwood's gross margin over the past five years:

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

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

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

Starwood 1 7%
Marriott International 1 6.6%
Host Hotels & Resorts 2 6.6%
Choice Hotels International 1 8.6%

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

The Fool community is rather bearish on Starwood. 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 Starwood's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a high 7%. This typically indicates that large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Starwood'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.

Hottotaldebttoequity

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

Starwood's total debt is around its 5-year average. When we take into account decreasing total equity over the same time period, this has caused debt-to-equity to increase, as seen in the above chart. Based on the trend alone, that's a bad sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though it varies by industry.  Starwood is currently above this level, at 164.7%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Starwood 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 last filing, Starwood has a current ratio of 0.88. This is a bad sign for Starwood. The company's current liabilities are greater than its current assets, which means it could have liquidity issues in the short term.

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

The final recap
Hotsellingrecap

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

Remember to add Starwood 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. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.