Margins matter. The more Unilever (NYSE: UL) 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 I check on my holdings' margins at least once a quarter. I'm looking for the absolute numbers, comparisons to sector peers and competitors, and any trend that may tell me how strong Unilever's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for Unilever and some of its sector and industry peers and direct competitors.

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 Unilever

52.3%

13.0%

9.6%

 Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT)

37.2%

13.9%

9.0%

 Del Monte Foods (NYSE: DLM)

33.1%

13.7%

6.6%

 Ralcorp Holdings (NYSE: RAH)

27.2%

12.0%

6.3%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Unfortunately, that table doesn't tell us much about where Unilever 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. 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 Unilever over the past few years.

Ul


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. 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 49.3% and averaged 48.6%. Operating margin peaked at 14.1% and averaged 13%. Net margin peaked at 12.4% and averaged 10.5%.
  • TTM gross margin is 52.3%, 370 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 13%, about the same as the five-year average. TTM net margin is 9.6%, 90 basis points worse than the five-year average.

With recent TTM operating margins around historical averages, Unilever looks like it is doing fine.

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 Unilever? Let us know in the comments below.

Seth Jayson had no position in any company mentioned here at the time of publication. You can view his stock holdings here. He is co-advisor of Motley Fool Hidden Gems, which provides new small-cap ideas every month, backed by a real-money portfolio. Unilever is a Motley Fool Global Gains pick and a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. 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.