Numbers can lie -- yet 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.
- The amount of growth we can expect.
Let's see what those numbers can tell us about how expensive or cheap United Parcel Service
The current price multiples
First, we'll look at most investors' favorite metric: the price-to-earnings ratio. It divides the company's share price by its earnings per share (EPS). The lower the P/E, the better.
Then we'll take things up a notch with a more advanced metric: enterprise value to unlevered free cash flow. This tool 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). As with 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.
UPS has a P/E ratio of 16.1 and an EV/FCF ratio of 26.8 over the trailing 12 months. If we stretch and compare current valuations with the five-year averages for earnings and free cash flow, we see that UPS has a P/E ratio of 24.8 and a five-year EV/FCF ratio of 26.3.
A positive one-year ratio of less than 10 for both metrics is ideal. For a five-year metric, less than 20 is ideal.
UPS is 0-for-4 on hitting the ideal targets, but let's see how it stacks up against some of its competitors and industry mates.
Expeditors International of Washington
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; NM = not meaningful.
Numerically, we've seen how UPS's 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, UPS's net income margin has ranged from 0.4% to 8.5%. In that same time frame, unlevered free cash flow margin has ranged from -0.4% to 10.4%.
How do those figures compare with those of the company's peers? See for yourself:
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; margin ranges are combined.
In addition, over the past five years, UPS has tallied up five years of positive earnings and four 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 even though you should definitely take the analysts' prognostications with a grain of salt, they can still provide a useful starting point when compared with similar numbers from a company's closest rivals.
Let's start by seeing what this company's done over the past five years. In that time period, UPS has put up past EPS growth rates of 2.0%. Meanwhile, Wall Street's analysts expect future growth rates of 12.9%.
Here's how UPS compares with its peers for trailing five-year growth:
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:
Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's; estimates for EPS growth.
The bottom line
The pile of numbers we've plowed through has shown us the price multiples that shares of UPS 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 16.1 P/E ratio, and we see that its five-year P/E multiple isn't as cheap as its one-year multiple and that its EV/FCF multiples are higher than both. We expect to see lower one-year multiples (versus five-year) in growing businesses, but it's important to note that UPS's trailing 12 months' earnings are actually slightly lower than they were for 2006. A rough economy and a pension-related expense in 2007 depressed UPS's earnings. To pay these multiples for UPS, you have to believe UPS's future growth will be closer to what the analysts believe than what's happened recently. If you find UPS's numbers or story compelling, don't stop here. 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.
See the stocks that I've researched beyond the initial numbers and bought in my public real-money portfolio.