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

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Cliffs Natural Resources has risen 26.5% 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 the true, intrinsic value of Cliffs Natural Resources. For historical context, let's compare Cliffs' 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

Cliffs Natural Resources $95.43 $102.48 $122.00
Mesabi Trust (NYSE: MSB) $36.44 $57.94 $57.90
United States Steel (NYSE: X) $50.85 $64.53 $196.00
Alpha Natural Resources (NYSE: ANR) $53.45 $68.05 $119.30

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

As you can see, Cliffs is down from its 52-week high. If you bought near the peak, now's the time to think back to why you bought it in the first place. If your reasons still hold true, you shouldn't sell based on this information alone.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of Cliffs' valuation. I'm comparing Cliffs' recent P/E ratio of 12.7 with where it's been over the past five years. 

Clfperatios

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

Cliffs' P/E is lower than its four-year average, a potential indication that the stock is undervalued. A low P/E isn't always a good sign, since the market may be lowering its valuation of the company because of less attractive growth prospects. But it does indicate that, on a purely historical basis, Cliffs looks cheap.

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 Cliffs' gross margin over the past five years.

Clfgrossmargins

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

Cliffs has been able to grow its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is great news; however, investors need to keep an eye on this metric over the coming quarters. If margins begin to dip, you'll want to know why.

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

Cliffs 4 4.8
Mesabi Trust 5 7.0
United States Steel 3 16.6
Alpha Natural Resources 4 23.0

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

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

Here, short interest is at a mere 4.8%. A number like this typically indicates that few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Cliffs' 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.

Clftotaldebttoequity

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

Cliffs has been taking on some additional debt over the past five years. Even with increasing total equity over the same time period, debt-to-equity has increased, as the above chart shows. Based on the trend alone, that's a bad sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though the number varies by industry. Cliffs is currently below this level, at 49.9%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Cliffs 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 2.51. 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 Cliffs 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 Cliffs.

The final recap

Clfsellingrecap

Cliffs has failed only one of the quick tests that would make it a sell. Does that mean you should hold your shares? Not necessarily. Just keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

Remember to add Cliffs 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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