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

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Allegheny has risen by 21.9% versus an S&P 500 return of 13.7%. Investors 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, and the market may be just beginning to realize Allegheny's true, intrinsic value. For historical context, let’s compare Allegheny'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

Allegheny Technologies $58.26 $59.41 $119.70
AK Steel Holding (NYSE: AKS) $15.10 $25.29 $73.10
AM Castle (NYSE: CAS) $17.09 $19.29 $44.30
Alcoa (NYSE: AA) $15.75 $16.72 $48.80

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

Allegheny is basically at its 52-week high, so we need to dig into the valuation to ensure that these new highs are justified.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of Allegheny's valuation. I'm comparing Allegheny's recent P/E ratio of 62.3 with where it's been over the past five years. 

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

Allegheny Technologies’ P/E is higher than its five-year average, a potential indication that the stock is overvalued. A high P/E isn't always a bad sign, since the company's growth prospects may also be increasing alongside the market's valuation. However, it definitely indicates that, on a purely historical basis, Allegheny looks expensive.

Now 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 Allegheny's gross margin over the past five years.

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

Allegheny 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 Allegheny. 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)

Allegheny Technologies 4 13.7
AK Steel Holding 4 12.5
AM Castle 4 2.7
Alcoa 4 5.0

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

The Fool community is rather bullish on Allegheny Technologies. 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 Allegheny's stock-pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a high 13.7%. A number like this typically indicates that large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now let's study Allegheny'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.

Allegheny has been taking on some additional debt over the past five years. With total equity increasing over the same time period, debt-to-equity has consequently decreased, as the above chart shows. Based on the trend alone, that's a good sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though the number varies by industry. Allegheny is currently above this level, at 51.8%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Allegheny 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 3.04. 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 Allegheny 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 Allegheny Technologies.

The final recap

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

Remember to add Allegheny Technologies 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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