Should you sell Force Protection (Nasdaq: FRPT) 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 Force Protection, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Force Protection is down 30.3% versus an S&P 500 return of 13.7%. Investors in Force Protection are no doubt disappointed with their returns, but is now the time to cut and run? Not necessarily. Short-term underperformance alone is not a sell sign. The market may be missing the critical element of your Force Protection investing thesis. For historical context, let's compare Force Protection'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

Force Protection $4.53 $6.56 $31.20
TransDigm Group (NYSE: TDG) $78.56 $85.38 $85.40
Triumph Group (NYSE: TGI) $81.01 $97.29 $97.30
Hexcel (NYSE: HXL) $18.78 $20.90 $27.90

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

As you can see, Force Protection 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 Force Protection's valuation. I'm comparing Force Protection's recent P/E ratio of 20.5 to where it's been over the past five years. 

Frptperatios

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

Force Protection's P/E is lower than its four-year average, which could indicate 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. It does indicate that, on a purely historical basis, Force Protection looks cheap.

Now, let's look at the gross margins 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 Force Protection's gross margin over the past five years:

Frptgrossmargins

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

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

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

Force Protection 3 2.6
TransDigm Group 4 3.5
Triumph Group 3 12.3
Hexcel 4 3.8

Source: Capital IQ (a division of Standard & Poor's) and Motley Fool CAPS.

The Fool community is in the middle of the road on Force Protection. 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 Force Protection's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a mere 2.6%. This typically indicates few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Force Protection'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.

Frpttotaldebttoequity

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

Force Protection has had only a miniscule amount of total debt over the past five years, and they have since wiped that out. Combine that with the increasing total equity over the same time period, and it's a great sign for investors.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Force Protection 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, Force Protection has a current ratio of 2.74. This is 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 Force Protection 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 Force Protection.

The final recap
Frptsellingrecap

Force Protection has failed one of the quick tests that would make it a sell. This is great, but does it mean you should hold your Force Protection shares? Not necessarily. Just keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

Remember to add Force Protection 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 over $100,000 in gains through wrong-headed selling.

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned. TransDigm Group is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems pick. 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.