Numbers can lie -- but they're the best first step in determining whether a stock is a buy. In this series, we use some carefully chosen metrics to size up a stock's true value based on the following clues:

  • The current price multiples.
  • The consistency of past earnings and cash flow.
  • How much growth we can expect.

Let's see what those numbers can tell us about how expensive or cheap TriQuint Semiconductor (Nasdaq: TQNT) might be.

The current price multiples
First, we'll look at most investors' favorite metric: the P/E ratio. It divides the company's share price by its earnings per share (EPS) -- the lower, the better.

Then, we'll take things up a notch with a more advanced metric: enterprise value to unlevered free cash flow. This divides the company's enterprise value (basically, its market cap plus its debt, minus its cash) by its unlevered free cash flow (its free cash flow, adding back the interest payments on its debt). Like the P/E, the lower this number is, the better.

Analysts argue about which is more important -- earnings or cash flow. Who cares? A good buy ideally has low multiples on both.

TriQuint has a P/E ratio of 10.7 and an EV/FCF ratio of 91.7 over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch and compare current valuations to the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, TriQuint has a P/E ratio of 43.0 and a five-year EV/FCF ratio of 243.8.

A positive one-year ratio under 10 for both metrics is ideal. For a five-year metric, under 20 is ideal.

TriQuint is zero for four on hitting the ideal targets, but let's see how it compares against some competitors and industry mates. 

Company

1-Year P/E

1-Year EV/FCF

5-Year P/E

5-Year EV/FCF

TriQuint 10.7 91.7 43.0 243.8
Anadigics (Nasdaq: ANAD) 229.6 25.7 NM NM
Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) 10.0 10.9 9.9 9.6
RF Micro Devices (Nasdaq: RFMD) 13.9 7.5 NM 18.1

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. NM = not meaningful.

Numerically, we've seen how TriQuint's valuation rates on both an absolute and relative basis. Next, let's examine ...

The consistency of past earnings and cash flow
An ideal company will be consistently strong in its earnings and cash flow generation.

In the past five years, TriQuint's net income margin has ranged from (2.5%) to 21.7%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from (9.8%) to 10%.

How do those figures compare with those of the company's peers? See for yourself:

Tqntmarginrangesv

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Margin ranges are combined.

Additionally, over the last five years, TriQuint has tallied up four years of positive earnings and three years of positive free cash flow.

Next, let's figure out ...

How much growth we can expect
Analysts tend to comically overstate their five-year growth estimates. If you accept them at face value, you will overpay for stocks. But while you should definitely take the analysts' prognostications with a grain of salt, they can still provide a useful starting point when compared to similar numbers from a company's closest rivals.

Let's start by seeing what this company's done over the past five years. Due to losses, TriQuint's EPS growth rate isn't meaningful. However, Wall Street's analysts expect future growth rates of 17.5%.

Here's how TriQuint compares to its peers for trailing five-year growth. (The growth rates of Anadigics and RF Micro Devices are similarly not meaningful, because of losses.)

Tqnttrailing

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

And here's how it measures up with regard to the growth analysts expect over the next five years:

Tqnt

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Estimates for EPS growth.

The bottom line
The pile of numbers we've plowed through has shown us the price multiples shares of TriQuint are trading at, the volatility of its operational performance, and what kind of growth profile it has -- both on an absolute and a relative basis.

The more consistent a company's performance has been, and the more growth we can expect, the more we should be willing to pay. We've gone well beyond looking at a 10.7 P/E ratio, and we see a familiar tech story: past profitability issues, but the possibility of a bright future. As with much in tech, the initial numbers only tell a small part of the story. 

Fool tech analyst Eric Bleeker recommended shares of TriQuint earlier this year. If you're interested in its stock, I highly recommend reading his analysis of a recent disappointment. After that, continue your due diligence process until you're confident one way or the other. As a start, add the company to My Watchlist to round up all of our Foolish analysis.

Anand Chokkavelu doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. The Fool owns shares of Raytheon and TriQuint Semiconductor. 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 insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.