As an investor, it pays to follow the cash. If you figure out how a company moves its money, you might eventually find some of that cash flowing into your pockets.

In this series, we'll highlight four companies in an industry, and compare their "cash king margins" over time, trying to determine which has the greatest likelihood of putting cash back in your pocket. After all, a company can pay dividends and buy back stock only after it's actually received cash -- not just when it books those accounting figments known as "profits."

Today, let's look at Staples (NAS: SPLS) and three of its peers.


The cash king margin
Looking at a company's cash flow statement can help you determine whether its free cash flow actually backs up its reported profit. Companies that can create 10% or more free cash flow from their revenue can be powerful compounding machines for your portfolio. A sustained high cash king margin can be a good predictor of long-term stock returns.

To find the cash king margin, divide the free cash flow from the cash flow statement by sales:

Cash king margin = Free cash flow / sales

Let's take McDonald's as an example. In the four quarters ending in December, the restaurateur generated $7.15 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $2.73 billion in property, plant, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract McDonald's investment ($2.73 billion) from its operating cash flow ($7.15 billion). That leaves us with $4.42 billion in free cash flow, which the company can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.

Taking McDonald's sales of $27.0 billion over the same period, we can figure that the company has a cash king margin of about 16.4% -- a nice high number. In other words, for every dollar of sales, McDonald's produces more than $0.16 in free cash.

Ideally, we'd like to see the cash king margin top 10%. The best blue chips can notch numbers greater than 20%, making them true cash dynamos. But some businesses, including many types of retailing, just can't sustain such margins.

We're also looking for companies that can consistently increase their margins over time, which indicates that their competitive position is improving. Erratic swings in margins could signal a deteriorating business, or perhaps some financial skullduggery; you'll have to dig deeper to discover the reason.

Four companies
Here are the cash king margins for four industry peers over a few periods:

Company Cash King Margin (TTM) 1 Year Ago 3 Years Ago 5 Years Ago
Staples 4.8% 4.2% 5.7% 3.4%
Office Depot 0.6% 0.3% 0.7% 3.2%
OfficeMax (0.2%) (0.1%) 1.0% 2.2%
Wal-Mart Stores 2.4% 2.6% 2.9% 1.3%

Source: S&P Capital IQ. TTM = trailing 12 months.

None of these companies meets our 10% threshold for attractiveness. Staples offers the highest margins at nearly 5%, and has shown some growth in those margins from five years ago. Wal-Mart (NYS: WMT) has even lower cash king margins, and those margins have steadily declined over the past three years. Office Depot's (NYS: ODP) are below 1%, and have declined dramatically from a half-decade ago. OfficeMax (NYS: OMX) has margins slightly in the negative numbers, and has shown steady declines over the five-year period. Compare these returns to the blue chips of software and biotech to get some context.

As a traditional retailer, Staples is facing challenges related to the expense of maintaining more than 2,300 stores throughout the U.S. and abroad. However, Staples has managed to build online sales that are second only to those of Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) , which gives it a competitive advantage over rivals like OfficeMax and Office Depot. Also, fellow Fool Sean Williams points out that the office supply sector is ripe for consolidation to save money associated with advertising.  

The cash king margin can help you find highly profitable businesses, but it should only be the start of your search. The ratio does have its limits, especially for fast-growing small businesses. Many such companies reinvest all of their cash flow into growing the business, leaving them little or no free cash -- but that doesn't necessarily make them poor investments. Conversely, the formula works better for slower-growing blue chips. You'll need to look closer to determine exactly how a company is using its cash.

Still, if you can cut through the earnings headlines to follow the cash instead, you might be on the path toward seriously great investments.

Want to read more about Staples? Add it to My Watchlist, which will find all of our Foolish analysis on this stock.

At the time this article was published Jim Royal owns shares of McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Staples, and Wal-Mart Stores. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Amazon.com, McDonald's, Staples, and Wal-Mart Stores. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart Stores. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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


Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Investing in Emerging Markets

Learn to invest in a globalized world.

View Course »

Forex for Beginners

Learn about trading currencies and foreign exchange transactions

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum