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 Commercial Metals (NYSE: CMC) 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 -- 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.

Commercial Metals has negative P/E and EV/FCF ratios over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch and compare current valuations to the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, Commercial Metals has a P/E ratio of 14.2 and a five-year EV/FCF ratio of 26.9.

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

Commercial Metals 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

Commercial Metals

NM

NM

14.2

26.9

Nucor (NYSE: NUE)

48.9

23.5

13.7

12.7

AK Steel Holding (NYSE: AKS)

NM

NM

41.7

NM

United States Steel (NYSE: X)

NM

NM

14.5

34.1

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

Numerically, we've seen how Commercial Metals' 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, Commercial Metals' net income margin has ranged from -3.9% to 4.6%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from -0.8% to 6.1%.

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

Cmcmarginrangesv

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

Additionally, over the last five years, Commercial Metals has tallied up three 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. Because of losses, Commercial Metals' past EPS growth rates aren't meaningful. Two of its three peers are in the same boat. Here's how Commercial Metals compares to its peers for trailing five-year growth:

Cmctrailing

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: Commercial Metals is expected to grow by 8%, Nucor by 15%, AK Steel by 10%, and U.S. Steel by 30%.

The bottom line
The pile of numbers we've plowed through has shown us the price multiples shares of Commercial Metals 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 negative P/E ratio, and we see that its five-year price multiples are more reasonable. This hints at the cyclicality of the steel industry. If you find Commercial Metals' 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.

If you want some more stock ideas, check out my recent article: "7 Great Stocks Some Wall Street Idiots Are Missing."

Anand Chokkavelu doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nucor. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Nucor. 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.