Due diligence is defined as an investigation of a potential investment or product to confirm all facts, such as reviewing all financial records, plus anything else deemed material. For individual investors, doing due diligence on a security is voluntary, but recommended.
Imagine then, sitting down at your computer with a fresh cocktail napkin or sticky note that has a single ticker scribbled across it – it's a ticker you've never researched before, but something (or someone) has piqued your interest.
This article will discuss ten steps you should take on your first tour through a new stock. Performing this due diligence will allow you to gain essential information and vet out a possible new investment.
The steps are organized so that each new piece of information will build upon what has been previously learned. In the end, following these steps will give you a balanced view of the pros and cons of your investment idea, and allow you to make a rational, logical decision.
Step 1: Company Capitalization
It really helps to form a mental picture or diagram of a newly researched company and the first step is to determine just how big the company is. The market capitalization says a lot about how volatile the stock is likely to be, how broad the ownership might be and the potential size of the company's end markets. For example, large-cap and mega-cap companies tend to have more stable revenue streams and less volatility. Mid-cap and small-cap companies, meanwhile, may only serve single areas of the market, and may have more fluctuations in their stock price and earnings.
No judgments should be made at this step; we are just accumulating information that will set the stage for everything to come. When you start to examine revenue and profit figures, the market cap will give you some perspective.
You should also confirm one other vital fact on this first check: what stock exchange do the shares trade on? Are they based in the United States (such as New York Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, or over the counter)? Or, are they American depositary receipts (ADRs) with another listing on a foreign exchange? ADRs will typically have the letters "ADR" written somewhere in the reported title of the share listing. This information along with market cap should help answer basic questions like whether you can own the shares in your current investment accounts.
Step 2: Revenue, Margin Trends
When beginning to look at the numbers, it may be best to start with the revenue, profit and margin trends.
Look up the revenue and net income trends for the past two years at a financial news site or app like Yahoo! Finance or CNBC. These sources should have links to quarterly (for the past 12 months) and annual reports (past three years). A quick calculator check could be done to confirm the price-to-sales (P/S) ratio and the price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio. Look at the recent trends in both sets of figures, noting whether growth is choppy or consistent, or if there any major swings (such as more than 50% in one year) in either direction.
Margins should also be reviewed to see if they are generally rising, falling, or remaining the same. This information will come into play more during the next step.
Step 3: Competitors and Industries
Now that you have a feel for how big the company is and how much money it earns, it's time to size up the industries it operates in and who it competes with. Compare the margins of two or three competitors. Every company is partially defined by who it competes with. Looking at the major competitors in each line of business (if there is more than one) may help you nail down just how big the end markets for products are.
Information about competitors can be found in company profiles on most major research sites, usually along with their ticker or direct comparisons that let you review a list with certain metrics filled in for both the company you're researching and its competitors. If you're still uncertain of how the company's business model works, you should look to fill in any gaps here before moving further along. Sometimes just reading about some of the competitors may help to understand what your target company actually does.
Step 4: Valuation Multiples
Now it's time to get to the nitty-gritty of P/Es, price/earnings to growth (PEGs) ratio, and the like – for both the company and its competitors. Note any large discrepancies between competitors for further review. It's not uncommon to become more interested in a competitor during this step, which is perfectly fine, but still look to follow through with the original due diligence while noting the other company for further review down the road.
P/E ratios can form the initial basis for looking at valuations. While earnings can and will have some volatility (even at the most stable companies), valuations based on trailing earnings or on current estimates are a yardstick that allows instant comparison to broad market multiples or direct competitors. Basic "growth stock" versus "value stock" distinctions can be made here along with a general sense of how much expectation is built into the company. It's generally a good idea to examine a few years worth of net earnings figures to make sure the most recent earnings figure (and the one used to calculate the P/E) is normalized, and not being thrown off by a large one-time adjustment or charge.
Not to be used in isolation, the P/E should be looked at in conjunction with the price-to-book (P/B) ratio, the enterprise multiple and the price-to-sales (or revenue) ratio. These multiples highlight the valuation of the company as it relates to its debt, annual revenues, and the balance sheet. Because ranges in these values differ from industry to industry, reviewing the same figures for some competitors or peers is a key step.
Finally, the PEG ratio brings into account the expectations for future earnings growth, and how it compares to the current earnings multiple. Stocks with PEG ratios close to 1 are considered fairly valued under normal market conditions.
Step 5: Management and Ownership
Is the company still run by its founders? Or has management and the board shuffled in a lot of new faces? The age of the company is a big factor here, as younger companies tend to have more of the founding members still around. Look at consolidated bios of top managers to see what kind of broad experiences they have; this information may be found on the company's website or on SEC filings.
Also look to see if founders and managers hold a high proportion of shares, and what amount of the float is held by institutions. Institutional ownership percentages indicate how much analyst coverage the company is getting as well as factors influencing trade volumes. Consider high personal ownership by top managers as a plus, and low ownership a potential red flag. Shareholders tend to be best served when the people running the company have a stake in the performance of the stock.
Step 6: Balance Sheet Exam
Many articles could easily be devoted to just the balance sheet, but for our initial due diligence purposes, a cursory exam will do. Look up a consolidated balance sheet to see the overall level of assets and liabilities, paying special attention to cash levels (the ability to pay short-term liabilities) and the amount of long-term debt held by the company. A lot of debt is not necessarily a bad thing, and depends more on the business model than anything else.
Some companies (and industries as a whole) are very capital intensive, while others require little more than the basics of employees, equipment and a novel idea to get up and running. Look at the debt-to-equity ratio to see how much positive equity the company has going for it; you can then compare this with the competitors to put the metric into better perspective.
If the "top line" balance sheet figures of total assets, total liabilities and stockholders' equity change substantially from one year to the next, try to determine why. Reading the footnotes that accompany the financial statements and the management's discussion in the quarterly/annual report can shed some light on the situation. The company could be preparing for a new product launch, accumulating retained earnings or simply whittling away at precious capital resources. What you see should start to have some deeper perspective after having reviewed the recent profit trends.
Step 7: Stock Price History
At this point you'll want to nail down just how long all classes of shares have been trading, as well as both short-term and long-term price movement. Has the stock price been choppy and volatile, or smooth and steady? This outlines what kind of profit experience the average owner of the stock has seen, which can influence future stock movement. Stocks that are continuously volatile tend to have short-term shareholders, which can add extra risk factors to certain investors.
Step 8: Stock Options and Dilution
Next, investors will need to dig into the 10-Q and 10-K reports. Quarterly SEC filings are required to show all outstanding stock options as well as the conversion expectations given a range of future stock prices. Use this to help understand how the share count could change under different price scenarios. While employee stock options are potentially a powerful motivator, watch out for shady practices like re-issuing of "underwater" options or any formal investigations that have been made into illegal practices like options backdating.
Step 9: Expectations
This is a sort of a "catch all," and requires some extra digging. Investors should find out what the consensus revenue and profit estimates are for the next two to three years, long-term trends affecting the industry and company specific details about partnerships, joint ventures, intellectual property, and new products and services. News about a product or service on the horizon may be what initially turned you on to the stock, and now is the time to examine it more fully with the help of everything you've accumulated thus far.
Step 10: Risks
Setting this vital piece aside for the end makes sure that we're always emphasizing the risks inherent with investing. Make sure to understand both industry-wide risks and company-specific ones. Are there outstanding legal or regulatory matters, or just a spotty history with management? Is the company eco-friendly? What kind of long-term risks could result from it embracing/not embracing green initiatives? Investors should keep a healthy devil's advocate going at all times, picturing worst-case scenarios and their potential outcomes on the stock.
The Bottom Line
Once you've completed these steps you should be able to wrap your mind around what the company has done so far, and how it might fit into a broad portfolio or investment strategy. Inevitably you'll have specifics that you will want to research further, but following these guidelines should save you from missing something that could be vital to your decision.
Veteran investors will throw many more investment ideas (and cocktail napkins) into the trash bin than they will keep for further review, so never be afraid to start over with a fresh idea and a new company. There are literally tens of thousands of companies out there to choose from.