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 school of investing known as value investing. In this series, I'll examine a specific business from both a quality and pricing standpoint. Hopefully, in doing so, we can get 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 vary 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.

In order 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's 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 percent of cash a company keeps from its operations. I prefer using EBIT to 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 that in mind, let's take a look at Tiffany & Co. (NYSE: TIF) and some of its closest peers.

Company

Return on Equity (5-year avg.)

EBIT Margin (5-year avg.)

EBIT Growth (5-year avg.)

Total Debt / Equity

Tiffany & Co. 16.87% 18.00% 11.17% 30.15%
Target (NYSE: TGT) 17.68% 7.71% 4.66% 103.63%
Blue Nile (Nasdaq: NILE) 30.29% 6.36% 5.89% 1.44%
Coach (NYSE: COH) 42.70% 34.22% 18.33% 1.83%

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

These firms looks pretty sound on paper (some more than others, though). Tiffany produced an above average ROE, although the weakest among these four companies. Its operating margin and growth also look like definite pluses to me.

Target looks compelling by ROE. However, both its EBIT margins and ability to grow its core business leave something to be desired. It carries far and away the most leverage among these retailers as well.

Blue Nile generated an awesome past average ROE despite its somewhat anemic operating margins and growth. It has very little debt as well.

Coach looks like the far and away strongest candidate out of this peer group. It has an astounding historical return on equity, very strong operating margins, and impressive growth. With essentially no debt, the company scores a 4 out of 4 in our quick quality acid test.

How cheap does Tiffany look?
To look at pricing, I chose to look at 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. This 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

Tiffany & Co. 50.80 25.51
Target 17.20 12.06
Blue Nile 17.66 51.52
Coach 20.50 22.19

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

Given the quality of these companies, it shouldn't surprise you their shares command decent premiums. Target looks the cheapest, but probably deservedly so. With its incredible figures, Coach looks fairly valued at its 20-ish multiples (but that doesn't necessarily make it a buy).

Depending on your faith in these retailers to reproduce their largely impressive performances, they could make for stocks to buy for your portfolio. However, none of them scream BUY! at these multiples.

While Tiffany could make for a stock for your portfolio right now, the search doesn't end here. In order to really get to know a company, you need to keep digging. If any of the companies mentioned here today pique your interest, further examining a company's quality of earnings, management track record, or analyst estimates all make for great ways to further 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 click HERE to add them to My Watchlist.

Andrew Tonner holds no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Blue Nile and Coach. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Blue Nile and Coach. 

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