Investors know that 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 Frontier Communications Corp (NASDAQ:FTR) 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 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 Corporation (NYSE:MCD) as an example. In the four quarters ending in December, the restaurateur generated $6.97 billion in operating cash flow. It invested about $3.05 billion in property, plant, and equipment. To calculate free cash flow, subtract McDonald’s investment from its operating cash flow. That leaves us with $3.92 billion in free cash flow, which the company can save for future expenditures or distribute to shareholders.
Taking McDonald’s sales of $25.5 billion over the same period, we can figure that the company has a cash king margin of about 14% — a nice, high number. In other words, for every dollar of sales, McDonald’s produces $0.14 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.
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|
|Frontier Communications Corp||15.0%||14.3%||23.0%||22.1%|
|Windstream Corporation (NASDAQ:WIN)||11.0%||12.3%||27.5%||20.6%|
|CenturyLink, Inc. (NYSE:CTL)||17.1%||11.7%||16.5%||26.5%|
|Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ)||13.2%||12.2%||13.5%||9.7%|
CenturyLink offers the highest cash king margins at 17.1%, but its margins have declined by nearly 10 percentage points from five years ago. Frontier has the next highest margins, but those margins have also declined dramatically over the same period. However, its dividend stands out with a whopping 10.1% yield. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ) also surpasses our 10% threshold, with 13.2% margins, and it’s the only one of the listed companies that has seen those margins grow from five years ago. It also offers a 4.2% yield. Windstream has the lowest margins at 11%, and its margins have declined by nearly half from five years ago. However, its dividend yield is even higher than Frontier’s, at 11.3%. Also, while Frontier Communications Corp (NASDAQ:FTR) has cut its dividend twice over the past few years, Windstream has managed to maintain its dividend. CenturyLink offers a 6.3% yield, following a recent dividend cut.