Should you sell Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) today?

The decision to sell a stock you've researched and followed for months or years is never easy. If you fall in love with your stock holdings, you risk becoming vulnerable to confirmation bias -- listening only to information that supports your theories, and rejecting any contradictions.

In 2004, longtime Fool Bill Mann called confirmation bias one of the most dangerous components of investing. This warning has helped my own personal investing throughout the Great Recession. Now, I want to help you identify potential sell signs on popular stocks within our 4-million-strong Fool.com community.

Today, I'm laser-focused on Union Pacific, ready to evaluate its price, valuation, margins, and liquidity. Let's get started!

Don't sell on price
Over the past 12 months, Union Pacific has risen 45% versus an S&P 500 return of 11.3%. Investors in Union Pacific have every reason to be proud of their returns, but is it time to take some off the top? Not necessarily. Short-term outperformance alone is not a sell sign. The market may be just beginning to realize the true, intrinsic value of Union Pacific. For historical context, let's compare Union Pacific's recent price to its 52-week and five-year highs. I've also included a few other businesses in the same or related industries:

Company

Recent Price

52-Week High

5-Year High

Union Pacific

$94.55

$94.73

$94.73

CSX (NYSE: CSX)

$64.41

$64.50

$70.70

Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU)

$49.29

$49.48

$55.90

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC)

$62.88

$63.64

$75.50

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

Union Pacific is basically at its 52-week high. This means we need to dig into the valuation to ensure that these new highs are justified.

Potential sell signs
First up, we'll get a rough idea of Union Pacific's valuation. I'm comparing Union Pacific's recent P/E ratio of 18.6 to where it's been over the past five years.

Unpperatios


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

Union Pacific's P/E is lower than its five-year average, which could indicate the stock is undervalued. A low P/E isn't always a good sign, since the market may be lowering its valuation of the company because of less attractive growth prospects. It does indicate that, on a purely historical basis, Union Pacific looks cheap.

Now, let's look at the gross margins trend, which represents the amount of profit a company makes for each $1 in sales, after deducting all costs directly related to that sale. A deteriorating gross margin over time can indicate that competition has forced the company to lower prices, that it can't control costs, or that its whole industry's facing tough times. Here is Union Pacific's gross margin over the past five years:

Unpgrossmargins


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

Union Pacific has been able to grow its gross margin, which tends to dictate a company's overall profitability. This is great news; however, Union Pacific investors need to keep an eye on this over the coming quarters. If margins begin to dip, you'll want to know why.

Next, let's explore what other investors think about Union Pacific. We love the contrarian view here at Fool.com, but we don't mind cheating off our neighbors every once in a while. For this, we'll examine two metrics: Motley Fool CAPS ratings and short interest. The former tells us how Fool.com's 170,000-strong community of individual analysts rate the stock. The latter shows what proportion of investors are betting that the stock will fall. I'm including other peer companies once again for context.

Company

CAPS Rating (out of 5)

Short Interest (% of Float)

Union Pacific

****

1.6

CSX

****

6.4

Kansas City Southern

****

4.2

Norfolk Southern

*****

1.5

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

The Fool community is rather bullish on Union Pacific. We typically like to see our stocks rated at four or five stars. Anything below that is a less-than-bullish indicator. I highly recommend you visit Union Pacific's stock pitch page to see the verbatim reasons behind the ratings.

Here, short interest is at a mere 1.6%. This typically indicates few large institutional investors are betting against the stock.

Now, let's study Union Pacific's debt situation, with a little help from the debt-to-equity ratio. This metric tells us how much debt the company's taken on, relative to its overall capital structure.

Unptotaldebttoequity


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

Union Pacific has been taking on some additional debt over the past five years. Even with increasing total equity over the same time period, debt-to-equity has increased, as seen in the above chart. Based on the trend alone, that's a bad sign. I consider a debt-to-equity ratio below 50% to be healthy, though it varies by industry.  Union Pacific is currently above this level, at 55.7%.

The last metric I like to look at is the current ratio, which lets investors judge a company's short-term liquidity. If Union Pacific had to convert its current assets to cash in one year, how many times over could the company cover its current liabilities? As of the last filing, Union Pacific has a current ratio of 1.23. Union Pacific could cover its current liabilities, but it's still below a healthy level of 1.5.

Finally, it's highly beneficial to determine whether Union Pacific belongs in your portfolio -- and to know how many similar businesses already occupy your stable of investments. If you haven't already, be sure to put your tickers into Fool.com's free portfolio tracker, My Watchlist. You can get started right away by clicking here to add Union Pacific.

The final recap

Unpsellingrecap

Union Pacific has failed only two of the quick tests that would make it a sell. This is great, but does it mean you should hold your Union Pacific shares? Not necessarily. Just keep your eye on these trends over the coming quarters.

Remember to add Union Pacific to My Watchlist  to help you keep track of all our coverage of the company on Fool.com.

If you haven't had a chance yet, be sure to read this article detailing how I missed out on over $100,000 in gains through wrong-headed selling.

Jeremy Phillips does not own shares of the companies mentioned. 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.