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Is Merck a Cash King?

By Jim Royal - Apr 24, 2013 at 1:40PM

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Check out the cash king margin.

As an investor, it pays to follow the cash. If you figure out how a company moves its money, you might eventually find some of that cash flowing into your pockets.

In this series, we'll highlight four companies in an industry, and compare their "cash king margins" over time, trying to determine which has the greatest likelihood of putting cash back in your pocket. After all, a company can pay dividends and buy back stock only after it's actually received cash -- not just when it books those accounting figments known as "profits."

Today, let's look at Merck (MRK -0.01%) and three of its peers.

The cash king margin
Looking at a company's cash flow statement can help you determine whether its free cash flow actually backs up its reported profit. Companies that can create 10% or more free cash flow from their revenue can be powerful compounding machines for your portfolio. A sustained high cash king margin can be a good predictor of long-term stock returns.

To find the cash king margin, divide the free cash flow from the cash flow statement by sales:

Cash king margin = Free cash flow / sales

Let's take McDonald's as an example. In the four quarters ending in December, the restaurateur generated $6.97 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $3.05 billion in property, plant, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract McDonald's investment from its operating cash flow. That leaves us with $3.92 billion in free cash flow, which the company can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.

Taking McDonald's sales of $25.5 billion over the same period, we can figure that the company has a cash king margin of about 14% -- a nice high number. In other words, for every dollar of sales, McDonald's produces $0.14 in free cash.

Ideally, we'd like to see the cash king margin top 10%. The best blue chips can notch numbers greater than 20%, making them true cash dynamos. But some businesses, including many types of retailing, just can't sustain such margins.

We're also looking for companies that can consistently increase their margins over time, which indicates that their competitive position is improving. Erratic swings in margins could signal a deteriorating business, or perhaps some financial skullduggery; you'll have to dig deeper to discover the reason.

Four companies

Here are the cash king margins for four industry peers over a few periods.


Cash King Margin (TTM)

1 Year Ago

3 Years Ago

5 Years Ago






Novartis (NVS 1.11%)





Teva Pharmaceutical Industries (TEVA 0.36%)





Amgen (AMGN 0.33%)





Source: S&P Capital IQ.

All four companies far exceed or 10% threshold for attractiveness. However, Merck's margins are lower than they were five years ago, and Teva has seen fluctuations in its margins over the five-year period. Novartis doubles our 10% threshold for attractiveness, but its current cash king margins are the lowest they've been in five years, and Amgen puts up the highest numbers pretty consistently.

Merck has seen its revenues decline now that the patent has expired for its Singulair asthma drug. However, it has a promising pipeline that may be able to bring in drugs that can replace those lost revenues. Some promising candidates include a cholesterol treatment called Vytorin and two diabetes treatments, Januvia and Janumet.

Novartis is involved in both the proprietary and the generic drugs markets, which provides it some advantages. Its involvement in the high-profit, high-growth proprietary drug market gives it a good deal of upside. On the other hand, its involvement in the generic drug market offers a more stable revenue stream and puts it in a position to profit from regulatory changes that may lead consumers to lower-cost options.

Amgen has faced some fierce competition from Teva Pharmaceutical as the latter has developed biosimilar drugs competing with Amgen's Neulasta/Neupogen drugs. However, its recent acquisition of deCODE genetics may help it build a strong niche as it works to use patients' genetic codes to develop personalized medicine options.

The cash king margin can help you find highly profitable businesses, but it should only be the start of your search. The ratio does have its limits, especially for fast-growing small businesses. Many such companies reinvest all of their cash flow into growing the business, leaving them little or no free cash -- but that doesn't necessarily make them poor investments. Conversely, the formula works better for slower-growing blue chips. You'll need to look closer to determine exactly how a company is using its cash.

Still, if you can cut through the earnings headlines to follow the cash instead, you might be on the path toward seriously great investments.

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Stocks Mentioned

Merck & Co., Inc. Stock Quote
Merck & Co., Inc.
$92.09 (-0.01%) $0.01
McDonald's Corporation Stock Quote
McDonald's Corporation
$229.00 (-0.89%) $-2.05
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited Stock Quote
Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Limited
$8.31 (0.36%) $0.03
Amgen Inc. Stock Quote
Amgen Inc.
$244.77 (0.33%) $0.81
Novartis AG Stock Quote
Novartis AG
$88.65 (1.11%) $0.97

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

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