In the daily noise machine of CNBC, analyst estimates, and quarterly announcements, investors are inundated with talking heads obsessing over earnings-per-share figures.
Earnings, or net income, is an accounting construction that is the basis for the price-to-earnings ratio, the most popular way of measuring how cheap or expensive a stock is.
But free cash flow -- the amount of cash a company earns on its operations minus what it spends on them -- is another, oftentimes more accurate measure of earnings that can give you an advantage.
How YRC stacks up
If YRC tends to generate more free cash flow than net income, there's a good chance earnings-per-share figures understate its profitability and overstate its price tag. Conversely, if YRC consistently generates less free cash flow than net income, it may be less profitable and more expensive than it appears.
This graph compares YRC's historical net income to free cash flow. (I omitted various gains and charges such as tax deferrals, restructurings, and benefits related to stock options.)
Source: Capital IQ (a division of Standard & Poor's) and author's calculations.
As you can see, YRC has a tendency to produce more free cash flow than net income. This means that the company may be more profitable than investors think.
There can be a variety of reasons to disregard such a discrepancy; for example, free cash flow can overstate earnings in businesses with volatile working capital needs, or understate earnings in high growth companies that are reinvesting capital in the business.
Alternatively, in cases where free cash flow more accurately measures earnings, such a discrepancy can indicate a company that is more -- or less -- expensive than investors realize.
Let's examine YRC alongside some of its peers for additional context:
Earnings (in millions)
Free Cash Flow (in millions)
J.B. Hunt Transport Services
Old Dominion Freight Line
YRC doesn’t have a price-to-earnings or a price-to-free-cash-flow multiple because the company was unprofitable on both measures over the past 12 months.
However, unlike its peers, YRC has a tendency to generate much more free cash flow than net income, suggesting the beleaguered and restructuring trucking company is not as unprofitable as many investors might think. That being said, I'm not suggesting investors rush out to buy this stock -- the problems the company faces are very real.
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Ilan Moscovitz doesn’t own shares of any company mentioned. 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.