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Q. What's the single most important thing to know about a company before you buy its
- Bea, Richmond, Va.
This week's question analyst David Sterman:
A. Bea, that's a great question, and I had to chew on that one because there are several ways to answer that.
In fact, it's probably the single greatest investing factor for investment legend Warren Buffett. Whenever his investment firm, Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A), acquires a company, Buffett is quick to point out the quality of the management team. Indeed, he insists that these managers stick around, and keep running the acquired business.
Of course, most of us don't have the executive-level connections to really assess the quality of management. But here's what you can do. Listen to what management has said in the past, and see if they have delivered on their promises. The easiest way is to listen to the company's three or four most recent conference calls and listen to the goals and expectations that management lays out for the company. In subsequent, management should be explaining how it was able to meet its goals, and not simply apologize for missed targets. "We'll do better next time," is an oft-heard refrain from bad management teams. Seasoned investors know that "next time" never seems to arrive.
But if you don't have the time or inclination to wade through long conference calls, there is one crucial step you can take to find winning investments: In a nutshell, the best companies get high marks for both their balance sheets and their cash flow statements.
Starting with the balance sheet, it's always wise to focus on companies with an ample amount of and a manageable amount of debt. (A good rule of thumb is to look for that is at least twice as much as ). This kind of financial strength ensures that the company be able to weather any economic downturn. Recall that automaker GM (NYSE: GM) carried way too much debt when the global tumbled in 2008, and eventually had to declare bankruptcy.
But you also want to be assured that a company's balance sheetbe getting stronger in the years ahead, and not weaker. And that means a solid history of positive operating flow -- in any economic climate. Positive flow means a company is adding , or subtracting debt from its balance sheet, which provides a company with several investor-friendly options. A company with rising can boost its dividends, buy back or make growth-inducing acquisitions.
Bea, even though you asked about the single most important item that every investor should look at, I would like to add a another item to the list: operating profit margins. This is a company's operating profits divided by its revenues. For example, a company with $150 million in sales and $30 million in operating profits has an operating profit margin of 20% (30/150). The key is to focus on companies with rising operating profit margins. That's a sure sign that the company is able to handle more business without a commensurate rise in expenses. In effect, every new dollar of business is that much more profitable than the last one.
Conversely, falling operating profit margins are a worrisome sign. That means the company is spending too muchchasing the next dollar of . Or it means that the company is cutting prices just to win business.
Thecan clue you into the health of a company. It's best to narrow your investment choices to only those firms which sport bullet-proof balance sheets and expanding levels of profitability.
Thanks for your question!
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