As investors, we always want our investments to generate a healthy return. However, investors often forget that returns stem from two, not one, extremely important factors:

  1. The business' ability to generate profits.
  2. The price you pay for one share of those profits. 

This idea of price versus returns provides the bedrock for the approach known as value investing. In this series, I'll examine a specific business from both a quality and pricing standpoint. In doing so, I hope to provide a better sense of its potential as an investment right now. 

Where should we start to find value?
As we all know, the quality of businesses varies widely. A company that has the ability to grow its bottom line faster (or much faster) than the market, especially with any consistency, gives its owner greater value than a stagnant or declining business (duh!). However, many investors also fail to understand that any business becomes a buy at a low enough price. Figuring out this price-to-value equation drives all intelligent investment research. 

To do so today, I selected several metrics that will evaluate returns, profitability, growth, and leverage. These make for some of the most important aspects to consider when researching a potential investment. 

  • Return on equity divides net income by shareholder equity, highlighting the return a company generates for its equity base. 
  • The EBIT (short for earnings before interest and taxes) margin provides a rough measurement of the percentage of cash a company keeps from its operations. I prefer using EBIT over other measurements because it focuses more exclusively on the performance of a company's core business. Stripping out interest and taxes makes these figures less susceptible to dubious accounting distortions
  • The EBIT growth rate demonstrates whether a company can expand its business.
  • Finally, the debt-to-equity ratio reveals how much leverage a company employs to fund its operations. Some companies have a track record of wisely managing high debt levels. Generally speaking, though, the lower the better for this figure. I chose to use five-year averages to help smooth away one-year irregularities that can easily distort regular business results.

Keeping all that in mind, let's take a look at Western Union (NYSE: WU) and some of its closest peers. 

Company

Return on Equity (5-Year Average)

EBIT Margin (5-Year Average)

EBIT Growth (5-Year Average)

Total Debt / Equity

Western Union 1268.41% 26.99% 1.62% 1279.52%
Paychex (Nasdaq: PAYX) 34.51% 38.19% 7.00% 0.00%
Fidelity National Information Services (NYSE: FIS) 3.59% 12.42% 28.50% 75.32%
Broadridge Financial Solutions (NYSE: BR) 24.65% 16.50% 4.49% 81.50%

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

Western Union illustrates some interesting dynamics here. Its mind-bogglingly high ROE results mostly from generating a 4,314% ROE in 2008. This figure also demonstrates how companies can use leverage to vastly enhance its returns. Don't let these impressive return numbers distort from the extreme debt burden Western Union carries, and (more importantly) the risks that come along with such massive leverage.

On the more normal end of the spectrum, Paychex generates an impressive ROE, especially in the absence of debt. t has a robust margin and OK growth.

Fidelity International Information has by far the smallest ROE and margins of the bunch. It separates itself from this group through its very impressive growth figures. It has a fair, but not perfect, debt-to-equity ratio.

Broadridge Financial Solutions also looks like an intriguing business. It generates an above-average historical return on equity and fairly strong margins, but somewhat anemic growth. Approaching triple digits, its debt-to-equity ratio still looks safe but probably deserves some monitoring during your research process.

How cheap does Western Union look?
To look at pricing, I chose to examine two important multiples: price-to-earnings and enterprise value-to-free cash flow. Similar to a P/E ratio, enterprise value (essentially debt, preferred stock, and equity holders combined minus cash) to unlevered free cash flow conveys how expensive the entire company is versus the cash it can generate. The resulting figure gives investors another measurement of cheapness when analyzing a stock. For both metrics, the lower the multiple, the better.

Let's check this performance against the price we'll need to pay to get our hands on some of the company's stock.

Company

Enterprise Value / FCF

P / LTM diluted EPS before Extra Items

Western Union 12.80 14.76
Paychex 19.71 22.63
Fidelity National Information Services 15.59 23.66
Broadridge Financial Solutions 10.56 17.24

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

In examining their multiples, we find that only Western Union looks cheap both in terms of earnings and cash flow, but remember that debt. Broadridge looks cheap from a cash-flow perspective only. Both Paychex and Fidelity National Information look too expensive for the value-oriented crowd.

But Western Union, the only company looking truly cheap on paper, probably deserves an even cheaper multiple when considering the extreme leverage the company employs. In the final analysis, all the companies here look pretty much alike from where I'm sitting.

Although Western Union stock doesn't look like a stock for your portfolio right now, the search doesn't end here. To really get to know a company, you need to keep digging. If any of the companies I've mentioned here today piques your interest, further examining quality of earnings, management track records, or analyst estimates all make for great ways to continue your search. You can also stop by The Motley Fool's CAPS page, where our users come to share their ideas and chat about their favorite stocks. Or you can add the stocks mentioned here to My Watchlist.

Andrew Tonner holds no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Broadridge Financial Solutions. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Paychex and Western Union and have also recommended creating a write covered strangle position in Western Union. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.