Everyone would love to find the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that gives you everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: If you don't look, you'll never find truly great investments. So let's first take a look at what you'd want to see from a perfect stock, and then decide if First Solar (Nasdaq: FSLR) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
When you're looking for great stocks, you have to do your due diligence. It's not enough to rely on a single measure, because a stock that looks great based on one factor may turn out to be horrible in other ways. The best stocks, however, excel in many different areas, which all come together to make up a very attractive picture.

Some of the most basic yet important things to look for in a stock are:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales don't mean anything if a company can't turn them into profits. Strong margins ensure a company is able to turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. Debt-laden companies have banks and bondholders competing with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Companies need to be able to turn their resources into profitable business opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding those opportunities.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. Earnings multiples are simple, but using normalized figures gives you a sense of how valuation fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Investors are demanding tangible proof of profits, and there's nothing more tangible than getting a check every three months. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at First Solar.


What We Want to See


Pass or Fail?

Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% 131.5% pass
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% 39.6% pass
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 44.5% pass
  Net Margin > 15% 25.0% pass
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 7.6% pass
  Current Ratio > 1.3 3.53 pass
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 22.6% pass
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 22.66 fail
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 0.0% fail
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% 0.0% fail
  Total Score   7 out of 10

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard and Poor's. Total score = number of passes.

With a score of 7, First Solar puts in a strong showing. Whether the company's future is equally bright depends on its ability to deal with strong competition.

In an industry that still relies largely on government subsidies, First Solar has managed to come from nearly no sales in 2005 to being a sales leader, with nearly $2.6 billion in revenue over the past 12 months. Although Wall Street is concerned that solar sales could stagnate next year, the company has already sold the majority of next year's production, and competitors JA Solar (Nasdaq: JASO) and Suntech Power (NYSE: STP) reported equally strong demand.

Other companies are trying to distinguish themselves from First Solar. Sunpower (Nasdaq: SPWRA), for instance, focuses on higher-efficiency panels that justify premium prices. Consolidation in the solar industry could also help second-tier providers like Yingli Green Energy (NYSE: YGE) or Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL) catch up to First Solar.

For now, though, First Solar has the leadership edge. And with the exception of a somewhat rich valuation and its failure to pay a dividend, First Solar comes closer to perfection than many of the other stocks we've looked at. If it continues on its winning ways, First Solar may well improve on its already excellent score.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate out the best investments from the rest.

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Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. First Solar and Suntech Power Holdings are Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations. 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 Fool has a disclosure policy.