If we are heading into a time of increased risk in the stock market, investors might be well served by owning shares of companies that not only generate a lot of cash but also grow that money rapidly.
Below are two lists of large companies that have shown the highest free-cash-flow growth rates over the past three and five years.
A rapid pace of economic growth is generally a good thing for stock investors. But we’re in a period of unusually aggressive policies by the Federal Reserve to spur that growth. These policies have included a federal funds rate with a target range of zero to 0.25% and a continual increase in the central bank’s holdings of U.S. Treasury securities and mortgage-backed bonds. But with increasing inflation, the Fed may act sooner than previously expected to quell price increases — and that could lead to an uncertain period for stocks.
Three-year cash-flow winners
Many professional investors emphasize cash flow when analysing companies. Earnings can be a tough nut because there are so many one-time noncash items that can affect a company’s bottom line. A company can also book revenue while it is waiting to be paid — this means it shows a profit for selling something even though the cash has not been received.
Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has explained the importance of cash flow in his annual letters to shareholders, including the 2020 letter, when he wrote that the company’s insurance businesses had an important industry advantage:
“Overall, the insurance fleet operates with far more capital than is deployed by any of its competitors worldwide. That financial strength, coupled with the huge flow of cash Berkshire annually receives from its non-insurance businesses, allows our insurance companies to safely follow an equity-heavy investment strategy not feasible for the overwhelming majority of insurers.”
To identify large, stable companies growing their cash flow most quickly, we looked at free cash flow data provided by FactSet and compound annual growth rates (CAGR) for three and five years.
A company’s free cash flow is its remaining cash flow after planned capital expenditures. It is money that can be deployed to expand the business, make acquisitions, buy back shares, raise dividends or for other corporate purposes.
A blind focus on the highest free-cash-flow CAGR would have the problem of highlighting companies that had unusually low cash flows for the beginning period. So for the three-year free-cash-flow CAGR ranking we began with the 50 companies in the S&P 500 Index with the highest free cash flow for calendar 2017, and then ranked them by FCF CAGR for three years through 2020. We used calendar years because many companies have fiscal years that do not match the calendar.
The largest company on the list of 50 was Apple Inc., which had $52.91 billion in free cash flow in calendar 2017. The company’s free cash flow increased to $80.22 billion in 2020, for a three-year CAGR of 14.9%. But Apple didn’t make the top 10 list for 2003 – it was ranked 14th.
Here are the 10 S&P 500 companies from the list described above with the highest free-cash-flow CAGR for three years through 2020. The annual data is in millions of dollars:
You can scroll the table to see how each company’s free cash flow increased or declined over the past three years. The CAGR calculation only uses the 2020 and 2017 year-end numbers.
Amazon Inc. was way out in front for three-year FCF CAGR through 2020 among the 50 companies in the S&P 500 with the highest FCF at the end of 2017. You can see below that it ranked second on the five-year list. For three years, Verizon Communications Inc. ranked second, with CVS Health Corporation in third place.
CVS underlines the imperfection of any one-point stock screen. The company made the three- and five-year lists because of the increase in cash flow from its transformative acquisition of Aetna in November 2018. After a few more years, it will be interesting to see how rapidly the combined company is able to grow its cash flow from a 2019 baseline.
After the five-year list, there are more comments about companies that made the top 10 for both periods.
Five-year cash flow winners
For the five-year free-cash-flow CAGR ranking, we began with the 50 companies in the S&P 500 Index with the highest free cash flow for calendar 2015, and then ranked them by FCF CAGR for three years through 2020.
During calendar 2015, Apple had the highest free cash flow of $63.37 billion among S&P 500 companies. That is much higher than the company’s $52.91 billion in FCF in 2017. It also explains why the company’s five-year FCF CAGR through 2020 was only 4.8% and why its three-year CAGR was so much higher at 14.9%. This illustrates the importance of seeing the data for each year, even though the CAGR calculations only make use of the starting and ending data points.
Here are the five-year CAGR winners, including the FCF figures for six years that you can see if you scroll the table:
- Facebook Inc. is the five-year winner, increasing its free cash flow to $23.63 billion in 2020 from $6.08 billion in 2015 for a CAGR of 31.2%. The company was ranked 19th for three-year FCF CAGR.
- Amazon ranked second for five-year CAGR and was one of several companies making both the five- and three-year top-10 lists:
- CVS ranked sixth for five years and third for three years because of its 2018 acquisition of Aetna.
- Google holding company Alphabet Inc. ranked third for five years with a CAGR of 20.8% and seventh for three years with a CAGR of 21.5%.
- UnitedHealth Group Inc. ranked fourth for five years with a CAGR of 19.7% and ninth for three years with a CAGR of 20.2%.
- AbbVie Inc. ranked fifth for five years with a CAGR of 19.1% and eighth for three years with a CAGR of 21.2%.
- Home Depot Inc. ranked seventh for five years with a CAGR of 16.7% and 10th for three years with a CAGR of 19.2%.
- Intel Corporation ranked 10th for five years with a CAGR of 12.6% and fifth for three years with a CAGR of 26.9%
As explained above, any stock screen based on one element has its limits. It is very important to do your own research and form your own opinion before committing to any investment.