Margins matter. The more Campbell Soup (NYSE: CPB) 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 Campbell Soup's competitive position could be.

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

Company

TTM Gross Margin

TTM Operating Margin

TTM Net Margin

 Campbell Soup

41.0%

17.8%

11.0%

 Lancaster Colony (Nasdaq: LANC)

25.6%

16.7%

10.9%

 Kraft Foods (NYSE: KFT)

37.1%

14%

9.6%

 HJ Heinz (NYSE: HNZ)

36.5%

15.2%

8.5%

 Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE: ADM)

6.2%

4.0%

3.1%

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

Unfortunately, that table doesn't tell us much about where Campbell 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 (TTM), 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 Campbell over the past few years.


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 41% and averaged 40.4%. Operating margin peaked at 17.8% and averaged 16.6%. Net margin peaked at 14.6% and averaged 11.6%.
  • TTM gross margin is 41%, 60 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 17.8%, 120 basis points better than the five-year average. TTM net margin is 11%, 60 basis points worse than the five-year average.

With recent TTM operating margins exceeding historical averages, Campbell Soup 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 Campbell Soup? 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. HJ Heinz is a Motley Fool Income Investor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. True to its name, The Motley Fool is made up of a motley assortment of writers and analysts, each with a unique perspective; sometimes we agree, sometimes we disagree, but we all believe in the power of learning from each other through our Foolish community. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.