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 Force Protection (Nasdaq: FRPT) 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.

Force has a P/E ratio of 22.5 and an EV/FCF ratio of 8.9 over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch and compare current valuations to the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, Force Protection has a P/E ratio of 14.5 and a negative five-year EV/FCF ratio of -47.7.

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

Force Protection has a mixed performance in 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

Force Protection 22.5 8.9 14.5 NM
Textron (NYSE: TXT) 87.2 14.6 18.2 15.5
Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) 9.9 10.8 9.8 9.5
General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) 10.6 10.5 12.2 11.4

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

Numerically, we've seen how Force Protection'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, Force's net income margin has ranged from 0.9% to 9.3%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from -16.5% to 3.9%.

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

Frptmarginrangesv

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

Additionally, over the last five years, Force Protection has tallied up five 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, Force Protection's past EPS growth rates aren't meaningful. However, Wall Street's analysts expect future growth rates of 28.7%.

Here's how Force Protection compares to its peers for trailing five-year growth:

Frpttrailing

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:

Frpt

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 Force Protection 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 22.5 P/E ratio and we see that cash flows are stronger than earnings for the last year but weaker over a 5-year period. We also see some high expectations for future growth from analysts. 

But these initial numbers are just a start. If you find Force Protection's numbers or story compelling, don't stop. Continue your due diligence process until you're confident one way or the other. As a start, add it to My Watchlist to find all of our Foolish analysis. And if you're interested in the defense industry in general, check out some cheap defense stocks I recently highlighted.

Anand Chokkavelu owns shares of Raytheon and General Dynamics. The Fool owns shares of General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Textron. 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.