Here's why Copart (NYSE: CPRT) may be cheaper (or pricier) than you think.

In the daily noise machine of CNBC, analyst estimates, and quarterly announcements, investors are inundated with talking heads obsessing over earnings-per-share figures.

Earnings, or net income, is an accounting construction that is the basis for the price-to-earnings ratio, the most popular way of measuring how cheap or expensive a stock is.

But free cash flow – the amount of cash a company earns on its operations minus what it spends on them – is another, oftentimes more accurate measure of earnings that can give you an advantage.

How Copart stacks up
If Copart tends to generate more free cash flow than net income, there's a good chance earnings-per-share figures understate its profitability and overstate its price tag. Conversely, if Copart consistently generates less free cash flow than net income, it may be less profitable and more expensive than it appears.

This graph compares Copart's historical net income to free cash flow. (I omitted various gains and charges such as tax deferrals, restructurings, and benefits related to stock options.)

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's, and author's calculations.

As you can see, Copart has a tendency to produce LESS free cash flow than net income. This means that the standard price-to-earnings multiple investors use to judge companies may understate its price tag.

There can be a variety of reasons to disregard such a discrepancy; for example, free cash flow can overstate earnings in businesses with volatile working capital needs, or understate earnings in high growth companies that are reinvesting capital in the business.

Alternatively, in cases where free cash flow more accurately measures earnings, such a discrepancy can indicate a company that is more -- or less -- expensive than investors realize.

Let's examine Copart alongside some of its peers for additional context:


Price-to-Earnings Ratio

Adjusted Price-to-Free-Cash-Flow Ratio

Copart    19.9    24.7
KAR Auction Services (NYSE: KAR)    29.6    11.0
LKQ (Nasdaq: LKQX)    20.6    53.7
Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers (NYSE: RBA)   (150.1)    42.6

On a P/E basis, Copart looks quite a bit cheaper than its pricey peers. But Copart's free cash flow multiple is more expensive than its earnings multiple, suggesting that, whether it's a great stock or not, Copart might be a little more expensive than many investors realize.

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Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. Copart is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick. Copart is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers is a Motley Fool Hidden Gems 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.