As the world's third-richest person and most celebrated investor, Warren Buffett attracts a lot of attention. Thousands try to track his investments and glean what they can from his thinking processes.

Although we can't know for sure whether Buffett is about to buy ITT (NYSE: ITT) -- he hasn't specifically mentioned anything about it to me -- we can discover whether it's the sort of stock that might interest him. Answering that question could also inform us whether it's a stock that should interest us.

In his most recent 10-K, Buffett lays out the qualities he looks for in an investment. In addition to adequate size, proven management, and a reasonable valuation, he demands:

  1. Consistent earnings power.
  2. Good returns on equity with limited or no debt.
  3. Simple, non-techno-mumbo-jumbo businesses.

Does ITT meet Buffett's standards?

1. Earnings power
Buffett is famous for betting on a sure thing. For that reason, he likes to see companies with demonstrated earnings stability.

Let's examine ITT's earnings history.


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Free cash flow is adjusted based on author's calculations.

ITT exhibited stable earnings over the five-year period.

2. Return on equity and debt
Return on equity is a great metric for measuring both management's effectiveness and the strength of a company's competitive advantage or disadvantage -- a classic Buffett consideration. When considering return on equity, it's important to make sure a company doesn't have an enormous debt burden, because that will skew your calculations and make the company look much more efficient than it actually is.

Since competitive strength is a comparison between peers, and various industries have different levels of profitability and require different levels of debt, it helps to use an industry context.


Debt-to-Equity Ratio

Return on Equity (LTM)

Return on Equity (5-Year Average)

ITT 38% 15% 17%
General Dynamics (NYSE: GD) 24% 20% 20%
Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) 23% 18% 10%
Teledyne Technologies (NYSE: TDY) 35% 17% 19%

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

ITT earned a below-average return on equity over the past 12 months. Over the past five years, its return on equity has been in line with its peers. Though not enormous, ITT's debt-to-equity is a bit higher than that of its peers.

3. Business
Although technology plays a critical role, aerospace and defense isn't the most prone to technological disruption -- we're not talking astro-nanorobotics here.

The Foolish conclusion
Regardless of whether Buffett would ever buy ITT, we've learned that although the company operates in a fairly disruption-free industry and has stable earnings, it doesn't exhibit another important characteristic of a quintessential Buffett investment: huge returns on equity.

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Ilan Moscovitz doesn't own shares of any company mentioned. ITT is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.