There's an old joke about airlines that goes something like this:

Q: How do you make a small fortune in the airlines?

A: Start with a large fortune!

The general rule of thumb in any competitive business is that if there's profit to be made, someone with much deeper pockets is probably already trying to get in on the action. That's one reason Southwest (NYSE:LUV) is one of a few generally profitable standouts in the airline business, in spite of being known for its low prices. Its balance sheet, touting more cash than debt, is exceptionally strong for its industry, and the lack of a heavy debt anchor allows it to charge less for essentially the same service as its competitors. As a result, it thrives in an industry where major players such as Delta, Northwest, United (NASDAQ:UAUA), and U.S. Airways routinely suffer bankruptcies.

Not just an airline problem
The same rule of deep pockets chasing profits applies to just about any company. Especially vulnerable are companies that, like the airlines, suffer from an ugly combination of high capital costs and relatively light non-financial barriers to entry.

Take the company with this financial history:



Net Earnings

Long-Term Debt

Shares Outsdg.































Note how this company's 2005 revenues were higher than its total costs of operating in 2002, or even 2000 and 2001 combined, yet its losses have simply gotten larger and larger as time has gone by. The ugly truth is that, even with its rapid growth, it's unable to cover its costs. Even if it more than doubled in size in 2006, with no additional expenses (highly unlikely), it'd still lose money.

Add to those outrageously escalating costs an ever-increasing debt and an exceptionally dilutive share count, and you have yourself a recipe for a financial disaster. Ignoring the company name for a minute and just looking at the numbers, tell me: Is that the kind of business you would want to own? Me, neither. In fact, this type of ever-deeper money pit is exactly the type of company we avoid at Motley Fool Inside Value. Yet somebody thinks this particular company is worth more than $5.3 billion, since that's where recent stock trades value the business.

Pull back the curtain
So what exactly is this company? None other than digital satellite radio pioneer XM Satellite Radio (NASDAQ:XMSR). If you think differently of the business now than before I revealed its name, ask yourself why. Frankly, XM has more in common with the troubled legacy airlines than you'd probably expect. First, there's the large and ever-growing debt, needed to support those expensive and fragile satellites. Then there's the company's ugly inability to turn a profit. Plus, let's not forget the sniping competition. Sure, there's archrival Sirius (NASDAQ:SIRI). But while we're naming names, what about traditional AM/FM radio and Podcasts? Don't forget, too, that even cell-phone provider Verizon (NYSE:VZ) is getting into the fight, with its new V Cast service.

The ugly truth is, even if XM survives, it probably won't ever be amazingly profitable. There are just too many reasonable alternatives, available at lower price points. For a closer parallel than the airlines, look no further than radio's kissing cousin -- television. Remember the now-defunct Voom satellite television service? How about now-bankrupt Adelphia cable? Even among the players that have survived, their businesses have not thrived. Take a look at this chart comparing cable TV giants Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Time Warner (NYSE:TWX) with the market over the past five years. Their less-than-stellar business performance is fully reflected in their below-market returns to investors.

Follow the money
If you're serious about making money with your investments, you need to ignore the hype, hysteria, and hoopla. Focus on the cash the business generates, what the risks are to that cash, and what the company is doing to protect its wealth-generating operations. Over time, a business is valued based on nothing more than its ability to create cash for its owners. Avoid the companies that constantly drain cash and stick with the ones that throw it off in abundance, and you'll do just fine.

Even better, if you buy those cash-generators on sale while the market is focused on the next big thing, you will earn an excess profit, thanks to your discounted purchase price. That is exactly what we do at Inside Value: We look for companies that are making money hand-over-fist, yet still trading shares at closeout-rack prices, as if the companies were going out of business. When we find those stocks, we pick them. Then we simply wait for the market to realize its mistake and bid those firms back up to their true value. It's an amazingly straightforward strategy, though one that has withstood the test of time.

If you're tired of being burned by investments that have overpromised and underdelivered, and are ready to stop throwing good money after bad, Inside Value is for you. Click here to start your 30-day, no-obligation free trial, and see for yourself just how we do it. Subscribe today, and we'll not only take $50 off the regular price, but we'll also throw in the Fool'sStocks 2006and Benjamin Graham's The Intelligent Investor absolutely free.

XM is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation, and Time Warner is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick.

At the time of publication, Fool contributor and Inside Value team member Chuck Saletta had no ownership stake in any of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.