Every investor would love to stumble upon the perfect stock. But will you ever really find a stock that provides everything you could possibly want?

One thing's for sure: You'll never discover truly great investments unless you actively look for them. Let's discuss the ideal qualities of a perfect stock, then decide if Universal Insurance (ASE: UVE) fits the bill.

The quest for perfection
Stocks that look great based on one factor may prove horrible elsewhere, making due diligence a crucial part of your investing research. The best stocks excel in many different areas, including these important factors:

  • Growth. Expanding businesses show healthy revenue growth. While past growth is no guarantee that revenue will keep rising, it's certainly a better sign than a stagnant top line.
  • Margins. Higher sales mean nothing if a company can't produce profits from them. Strong margins ensure that company can turn revenue into profit.
  • Balance sheet. At debt-laden companies, banks and bondholders compete with shareholders for management's attention. Companies with strong balance sheets don't have to worry about the distraction of debt.
  • Money-making opportunities. Return on equity helps measure how well a company is finding opportunities to turn its resources into profitable business endeavors.
  • Valuation. You can't afford to pay too much for even the best companies. By using normalized figures, you can see how a stock's simple earnings multiple fits into a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. For tangible proof of profits, a check to shareholders every three months can't be beat. Companies with solid dividends and strong commitments to increasing payouts treat shareholders well.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at Universal Insurance.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

Growth 5-Year Annual Revenue Growth > 15% 42.2% Pass
  1-Year Revenue Growth > 12% 5% Fail
Margins Gross Margin > 35% 50.4% Pass
  Net Margin > 15% 12.1% Fail
Balance Sheet Debt to Equity < 50% 36.3% Pass
  Current Ratio > 1.3 1.26 Fail
Opportunities Return on Equity > 15% 19.5% Pass
Valuation Normalized P/E < 20 5.15 Pass
Dividends Current Yield > 2% 8% Pass
  5-Year Dividend Growth > 10% 6.7% Fail
       
  Total Score   6 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at Universal Insurance last year, the insurance company has lost three points. A really bad 2011 for insurers generally hit Universal's dividend growth, current ratio, and sales growth in the past year.

Most of us know all too well just how calamitous the past year has been in terms of natural disasters. Hurricane Irene's trip up the East Coast in particular hurt many insurers. Tower Group (NAS: TWGP) had to take a big catastrophe charge during the quarter that Irene hit, while larger insurer Travelers (NYS: TRV) had a massive net charge of more than $600 million. Meanwhile, Aflac (NYS: AFL) suffered from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

But with its concentration in Florida, Universal's catastrophe losses haven't been bad. Instead, the insurer has had substantial unrealized losses on investments that have pulled down earnings, especially during the third quarter when the stock market plunged.

As the company expands more into the Carolinas as well as Hawaii, Universal will run into increased competition. But really, Universal's biggest need is for financial markets to stabilize and start contributing more to the company's bottom line. If it can get those tailwinds working for it again, Universal could move back toward its near-perfect status in 2012 and beyond.

Keep searching
No stock is a sure thing, but some stocks are a lot closer to perfect than others. By looking for the perfect stock, you'll go a long way toward improving your investing prowess and learning how to separate the best investments from the rest.

Universal Insurance may not be a perfect stock, but we've got some ideas you may like better. Let me invite you to learn about three smart long-term stock plays in the Fool's latest special report. It's yours for the taking and is absolutely free, but don't miss out -- click here and read it today.

Click here to add Universal Insurance to My Watchlist, which can find all of our Foolish analysis on it and all your other stocks.

At the time this article was published Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Aflac. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Aflac. 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 Fool has a disclosure policy.

Copyright © 1995 - 2012 The Motley Fool, LLC. All rights reserved. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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