Why are investors willing to pay only 10 times earnings for some stocks, but 20, 50, even 100 times earnings for others?

The short answer: growth. Companies that can grow their earnings meaningfully could make lofty current P/E ratios look cheap in hindsight.

Of course, any company can promise a rosy, growth-rich future. Figuring out which companies can actually deliver is far trickier. In this series, I take the first step by identifying companies that have put up the best growth track records in their respective sectors.

Below, I've listed the top sales growers in Internet software and services over the last five years. Here's how to interpret each data column.

  • Five-year sales growth: I rank each company's sales growth, to capture its pure trailing expansion without regard to the vagaries of earnings.
  • Five-year EPS growth: Since sales growth means nothing if it doesn't ultimately fall to the bottom line, I've also included each company's five-year trailing EPS growth rate.
  • Five-year analyst estimates: This column shows us how much EPS growth analysts expect over the next five years. Just keep in mind that analysts tend to grossly overestimate a company's prospects.
  • Five-year ROIC range: Return on invested capital basically shows you how efficiently a company is converting its debt and equity into profits. We want companies that can do a lot with a little. By looking at the five-year range, we can start to gauge both the power and the consistency of a company's profit engine.


5-Year Sales Growth

5-Year EPS Growth

5-Year Analyst Estimates

5-Year ROIC Range

KIT digital (Nasdaq: KITD) 87.6% NM 30.6% (123.0%) / 3.1%
Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU) 78.5% 95.6% 47.8% 19.6% / 34.5%
Velti 67.7% NM 39.8% (3.5%) / 17.2%
Sohu.com (Nasdaq: SOHU) 43.2% 41.1% 18.8% 7.3% / 29.2%
Equinix 41.4% NM 30.8% 0.6% / 4.2%
Bankrate 39.7% NM 33.0% 8.5% / 10.8%
Vistaprint N.V. (Nasdaq: VPRT) 37.7% 29.4% 19.3% 9.7% / 14.7%
LivePerson (Nasdaq: LPSN) 33.8% 39.7% 25.5% 0.3% / 10.9%
Google 29.0% 24.5% 20.9% 13.1% / 16.3%
Web.com Group 28.3% NM 13.4% (2.2%) / 1.6%

Source: S&P Capital IQ. NM = not meaningful; EPS growth that is NM results from losses during the period.

Use the table above as a first step to help you generate ideas for your own further research. Once you identify stocks worth a closer look, the following three steps will help you further assess their growth prospects:

  • Carefully study the table for possible danger signs, such as high sales growth but low EPS growth, analyst growth expectations significantly trailing past growth, and low ROIC figures. Then follow the trail. For example, despite leading the list in topline growth, the Czech Republic-based KIT digital has failed to turn a consistent profit on its video asset management software. Compare that to No. 2 Baidu and No. 4 Sohu, whose EPS growth and ROIC ranges are quite attractive.
  • Find out how the company achieved its prior growth: organically, or via acquisition? Can it sustain that previous growth?
  • Pay attention to how management plans to implement its growth plans. Does its strategy seem prudent and plausible to you?

Remember: The more profitable, efficient, and predictable growth a company can achieve, the more we investors should be willing to pay.

Of these big growers, the ones that look especially attractive are Baidu, Sohu, Vistaprint, LivePerson, and Google. These are the ones whose past growth and profitability metrics are the strongest. Perhaps then, it's not surprising that these five are all Motley Fool newsletter picks. Fellow Fool Sean Sun is bullish on KIT digital, which I noted doesn't fare as well.

And remember, price should be factored in and ultimately, it's the future that matters. Learn more about any of the stocks that interest you by adding them to our My Watchlist tool. You'll get access to all the latest Motley Fool analysis, organized by company.

Anand Chokkavelu holds no position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google, Vistaprint, and KIT digital. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of LivePerson, Baidu, Vistaprint, Google, and Sohu.com. 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.