If you're a value investor, there's no "right way" to analyze a stock. Even so, any successful investor will tell you that focusing on certain fundamental metrics is the path to cashing in gains. That's why you need to keep your eye on the metrics that matter.
As a value investor, you already know that when it comes to a company's health, the fundamentals are king. Fundamentals, which include a company's financial and operational data, are preferred by some of the most successful investors in history, including the likes of George Soros and Warren Buffett. That's no surprise, as knowing the ins and outs of a company's financial numbers - like earnings per share and sales growth - can help an in-the-know investor weed out the stocks that are trading for less than they're worth.
But that doesn't mean that all metrics are created equal – some deserve more of your attention than others. Here's a look at the five must-have fundamentals for your value portfolio.
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1. Price-to-Earnings Ratio
While the price-to-earnings ratio (also known as the P/E ratio or earnings multiple) is likely one of the best-known fundamental ratios, it's also one of the most valuable. The P/E ratio divides a stock's share price by its earnings per share to come up with a value that represents how much investors are willing to shell out for each dollar of a company's earnings.
The P/E ratio is important because it provides a measuring stick to compare valuations across companies. A stock with a lower P/E ratio costs less per share for the same level of financial performance than one with a higher P/E. What that essentially means is that low P/E is the way to go.
But one place where the P/E ratio isn't as valuable is when you're comparing companies across different industries. While it's completely reasonable to see a telecom stock with a P/E in the low teens, a P/E closer to 40 isn't out of the line for a high-tech stock. As long as you're comparing apples to apples, though, the P/E ratio can give you an excellent glimpse at a stock's valuation. (Learn more about the P/E ratio in our Investment Valuation Ratios Tutorial.)
2. Price-to-Book Ratio
If the P/E ratio is a good indicator of what investors are paying for each dollar of a company's earnings, the price-to-book ratio (or P/B ratio) is an equally good indication of what investors are willing to shell out for each dollar of a company's assets. The P/B ratio divides a stock's share price by its net assets, less any intangibles such as goodwill.
Taking out intangibles is an important element of the price-to-book ratio. It means that the P/B ratio indicates what investors are paying for real-world tangible assets, not the harder-to-value intangibles. As such, the P/B is a relatively conservative metric.
That's not to say that the P/B ratio isn't without its limitations; for companies that have significant intangibles, the price-to-book ratio can be misleadingly high. For most stocks, however, shooting for a P/B of 1.5 or less is a good path to solid value. (See Digging Into Book Value to learn how book value per share is normally calculated.)
Knowing how a company finances its assets is essential for any investor – especially if you're on the prowl for the next big value stock. That's where the debt/equity ratio comes in. As with the P/E ratio, this ratio, which indicates what proportion of financing a company has received from debt (like loans or bonds) and equity (like the issuance of shares of stock), can vary from industry to industry.
Beware of above-industry debt/equity numbers, especially when an industry is facing tough times – it could be one of your first signs that a company is getting over its head in debt.
4. Free Cash Flow
While many investors don't actually know it, a company's earnings almost never equal the amount of cash it brings in. That's because companies report their financials using GAAP or IFRS accounting principles, not the balance of the corporate checking account. So while a company could be reporting a huge profit for its latest quarter, the corporate coffers could be bare.
Free cash flow solves this problem. It tells an investor how much actual cash a company is left with after any capital investments. Generally speaking, it's a good idea to shoot for positive free cash flow. As with the debt-equity ratio, this metric is all the more significant when times are tough. (Watch out for accounting trickery when looking at free cash flow, see Free Cash Flow: Free, But Not Always Easy to learn more)
5. PEG Ratio
The price/earnings to growth ratio (or PEG Ratio), is a modified version of the P/E ratio that also takes earnings growth into account. Looking for stocks based on their PEG ratios can be a good way to find companies that are undervalued but growing, and could gain attention in upcoming quarters. Like the P/E ratio, this metric varies from industry to industry. (For further reading, check out Move Over P/E, Make Way For The PEG.)
Going Beyond the Numbers
When it comes to investing, the numbers aren't everything. There are times when low valuations are justified, and there are qualitative metrics – like management quality – that also factor into a company's valuation. Just because a stock seems cheap doesn't mean that it deserves to increase in value.
Ultimately, the only way to improve your fundamental analysis skills is to put them into practice. With these five must-have fundamentals under your belt, you're well on your way to finding the most undervalued stocks on the market.
For additional reading on value investing techniques, check out The Value Investor's Handbook.