"I think I've been in the top 5% of my age cohort all my life in understanding the power of incentives, and all my life I've underestimated it," Warren Buffett's business partner, Charlie Munger, once said. "And never a year passes but I get some surprise that pushes my limit a little farther."

For corporate boards, using bad incentives for management pay can be disastrous. (Think Lehman Brothers.) Incentives based on singular metrics such as revenue growth, EBITDA, return on equity, or earnings per share are easily manipulated and gamed. Fortunately, EVA Momentum provides a better alternative.

Creator Bennett Stewart of EVA Dimensions, who also co-created EVA (Economic Value Added), calls EVA momentum "the only percent metric where more is always better than less. It always increases when managers do things that make economic sense."

So what does this mean for investors? A positive reading on EVA Momentum means a company has created value by increasing its EVA, and a negative EVA Momentum means EVA and, thus, value have decreased, signaling a destruction of value. EVA Momentum is one of the few performance measurements, if not the only one, with such a clear dividing line between good and bad performance.

The best companies, then, create value in excess of their cost of capital, as reflected by positive EVA momentum. The higher the EVA momentum, the more value management is creating.

Let's look at Chico's (NYSE: CHS) and three of its retail-industry peers to see how effectively they create value. Here are the trailing four quarters' worth of EVA momentum figures for each company over the past three years, along with rankings by percentile versus the specialty retail industry for the past 12 months' EVA momentum.

 

Company

2008

2009

2010

Industry Percentile

Chico's (8.0%) 2.6% 4.9% 95
Buckle (NYSE: BKE) 4.5% 3.2% 0.4% 12
Charming Shoppes (Nasdaq: CHRS) (3.3%) (0.7%) 1.1% 37
Bebe Stores (Nasdaq: BEBE) (4.0%) (8.2%) 1.9% 57

Source: EVA Dimensions LLC.

All of these retailers have created value over the past year. Even though Buckle was near the bottom of the industry in terms of creating value in 2010, it's the only one to have consistently created value over the past three years. The other three have at some point or another destroyed shareholder value. With that said, investors can still hope that all these companies will keep up the strong performance.

Businesses with high EVA momentum are effectively creating value. It will be interesting to see how useful this extremely new metric proves to be for companies and investors. If it lives up to its promise, it will be an essential tool in investors' arsenals.

Another tool for better investing
Most investors don't keep tabs on their companies' fundamental value. That's a mistake. If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're in a much better position to spot potential trouble early. Better yet, you'll improve your odds of finding the underappreciated home-run stocks that provide the market's best returns.

We can help you keep tabs on your companies with My Watchlist, our free, personalized stock-tracking service.

Dan Dzombak recommends you read The Best Investment Advice You Will Ever Get If You Have Under $100k. He owns no shares in any of the companies mentioned. Find him on Twitter at @DanDzombak to check out his musings and see what articles he finds interesting.

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