As the world's third-richest person and most celebrated investor, Warren Buffett attracts a lot of attention. Thousands try to glean what they can from his thinking processes and track his investments.
We can't know for sure whether Buffett is about to buy Alcatel-Lucent
In his most recent 10-K, Buffett lays out the qualities he looks for in an investment. In addition to adequate size, proven management, and a reasonable valuation, he demands:
- Consistent earnings power.
- Good returns on equity with limited or no debt.
- Management in place.
- Simple, non-techno-mumbo-jumbo businesses.
Does Alcatel-Lucent meet Buffett's standards?
1. Earnings power
Buffett is famous for betting on a sure thing. For that reason, he likes to see companies with demonstrated earnings stability.
Let's examine Alcatel-Lucent's earnings and free cash flow history.
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Free cash flow is adjusted based on author's calculations.
Over the past five years, Alcatel-Lucent has had a difficult time generating earnings. The huge losses in 2007 and 2008 were related to writedowns on acquisitions.
2. Return on equity and debt
Return on equity is a great metric for measuring both management's effectiveness and the strength of a company's competitive advantage or disadvantage -- a classic Buffett consideration. When considering return on equity, it's important to make sure a company doesn't have an enormous debt burden, because that will skew your calculations and make the company look much more efficient than it actually is.
Since competitive strength is a comparison among peers, and various industries have different levels of profitability and require different levels of debt, it helps to use an industry context.
Return on Equity (LTM)
Return on Equity (5-Year Average)
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.
Alcatel-Lucent has produced a reasonable return on equity recently, but its long-term track record leaves much to be desired, even as the company employs moderately high amounts of debt.
CEO Ben Verwaayen has been at the job since 2008. His time at Alcatel-Lucent started in 1997, interrupted for a few years when he was CEO of the massive London-based telco BT Group.
Communications equipment requires constant research and development, but the industry isn't particularly susceptible to wholesale technological disruption.
The Foolish conclusion
Regardless of whether Buffett would ever buy Alcatel-Lucent, we've learned that the company doesn't particularly exhibit the other characteristics of a quintessential Buffett investment: consistent earnings, high returns on equity with limited debt, and tenured management.
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