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 Boeing (NYSE: BA) -- he hasn't specifically mentioned anything about it to me -- but we can discover whether it's the sort of stock that might interest him. Answering that question could also reveal whether it's a stock that should interest us.

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:

  1. Consistent earnings power.
  2. Good returns on equity with limited or no debt.
  3. Management in place.
  4. Simple, non-techno-mumbo-jumbo businesses.

Does Boeing 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 Boeing's earnings and free cash flow history.

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Over the past five years, Boeing's earnings have fluctuated a bit with economic volatility, though the company has managed to remain profitable.

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 is.

Since competitive strength is a comparison between peers, and various industries have different levels of profitability and require different levels of debt, it helps to use an industry context.


Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Return on Equity

5-Year Average Return on Equity

Boeing 204% 71% 106%
United Technologies (NYSE: UTX) 48% 22% 23%
Honeywell (NYSE: HON) 69% 23% 19%
Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) 239% 82% 55%

Source: S&P Capital IQ.

Boeing produces extraordinarily high returns on equity, though part of that is due to the company's above-average debt-to-equity ratio. (Return on capital is a more modest but still impressive 18%).

3. Management
CEO James McNerney has been at the job since 2005 after spending years at industrial conglomerates 3M and General Electric.

4. Business
While aviation requires constant research and development, it hasn't been particularly subject to technological disruption for some time.

The Foolish conclusion
Regardless of whether Buffett would ever buy Boeing, we've learned that while its earnings can be somewhat volatile, and the company employs considerable leverage, it does exhibit many of the characteristics of a quintessential Buffett investment: high returns on equity, tenured management, and a technologically straightforward business. To stay up to speed on the top news and analysis on Boeing or any other stock, simply add it to your stock watchlist. If you don't have one yet, you can create a watchlist of your favorite stocks.

Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter, where he goes by @TMFDada. The Motley Fool owns shares of Lockheed Martin. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.