When investor Jeremy Grantham speaks, I listen. He's not afraid to have a contrarian mindset lead him in a different direction from the crowd. Recently, Grantham opined that some high-quality companies are trading at attractive prices. Grantham wasn't sure why the high-quality names were on sale, but he thought they offered the best returns for the next seven years. He has a pretty good long-term track record of sniffing out where the best returns are, so let's see what companies Grantham is rooting out.

What do "high-quality" and "on sale" mean? Certainly they will represent different things to different people. For our purposes, let's say high-quality companies have a strong balance sheet and generate excellent returns on invested capital. We'll use free cash flow yield (free cash flow / market cap) compared to the 10-year Treasury yield as a proxy for value.

The criteria
So a Grantham-like opportunity would have:

1. Net cash position > 0

More cash than debt can indicate a strong balance sheet.

2. ROIC > 15%

Earning a 15% return should be more than a company's cost of capital.

3. FCF/P > 4%

10-year Treasuries are yielding about 3%. We want more return than that.

With the definitions out of the way, let's see if Alcon (NYSE: ACL) can pass our sniff test.

As you can see from the table below, Alcon has a positive net cash position on its balance sheet. What's more, the company currently earns a return on invested capital that is higher than its cost of capital. Fools love companies that take shareholder capital and create value with it.

Company

Net Cash (in billions)

ROIC

FCF/P

Alcon

$2.6

43.3%

4.8%

Merck (NYSE: MRK)

($9.3)

4.6%

2.3%

Pfizer (NYSE: PFE)

($28.8)

8.2%

4.4%

How does it stack up to the competition? Neither Merck nor Pfizer pass our little test. They carry significantly more debt than cash and, right now, their ROICs are too low.

Foolish conclusion

Would Jeremy Grantham buy Alcon? That's really hard to say. After all, he's his own investor. But with quality numbers like the ones above, I have to believe Grantham would certainly give Alcon a good, hard look. And you and I should, too.

Million Dollar Portfolio associate advisor David Meier does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned. Pfizer is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.