Margins matter. The more Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG) keeps of each buck it earns in revenue, the more money it has to invest in growth, fund new strategic plans, or (gasp!) distribute to shareholders. Healthy margins often separate pretenders from the best stocks in the market. That's why we check up on margins at least once a quarter in this series. I'm looking for the absolute numbers, so I can compare them to current and potential competitors, and any trend that may tell me how strong Harley-Davidson's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for Harley-Davidson over the trailing 12 months: Gross margin is 36.8%, while operating margin is 16.4% and net margin is 8.6%.

Unfortunately, a look at the most recent numbers doesn't tell us much about where Harley-Davidson has been, or where it's going. A company with rising gross and operating margins often fuels its growth by increasing demand for its products. If it sells more units while keeping costs in check, its profitability increases. Conversely, a company with gross margins that inch downward over time is often losing out to competition, and possibly engaging in a race to the bottom on prices. If it can't make up for this problem by cutting costs -- and most companies can't -- then both the business and its shares face a decidedly bleak outlook.

Of course, over the short term, the kind of economic shocks we recently experienced can drastically affect a company's profitability. That's why I like to look at five fiscal years' worth of margins, along with the results for the trailing 12 months, the last fiscal year, and last fiscal quarter (LFQ). You can't always reach a hard conclusion about your company's health, but you can better understand what to expect, and what to watch.

Here's the margin picture for Harley-Davidson over the past few years.


Source: S&P Capital IQ. Dollar amounts in millions. FY = fiscal year. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Because of seasonality in some businesses, the numbers for the last period on the right -- the TTM figures -- aren't always comparable to the FY results preceding them. Here's how the stats break down:

  • Over the past five years, gross margin peaked at 39.7% and averaged 36.2%. Operating margin peaked at 25.8% and averaged 18.3%. Net margin peaked at 16.9% and averaged 9.0%.
  • TTM gross margin is 36.8%, 60 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 16.4%, 190 basis points worse than the five-year average. TTM net margin is 8.6%, 40 basis points worse than the five-year average.

With recent TTM operating margins below historical averages, Harley-Davidson has some work to do.

If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're probably ahead of 95% of the market's individual investors. To stay ahead, learn more about how I use analysis like this to help me uncover the best returns in the stock market. Got an opinion on the margins at Harley-Davidson? Let us know in the comments below.