Margins matter. The more Suntech Power Holdings (NYSE: STP) keeps of each buck it earns in revenue, the more money it has to invest in growth, fund new strategic plans, or (gasp!) distribute to shareholders. Healthy margins often separate pretenders from the best stocks in the market. That's why I check on my holdings' margins at least once a quarter. I'm looking for the absolute numbers, comparisons to sector peers and competitors, and any trend that may tell me how strong Suntech's competitive position could be.

Here's the current margin snapshot for Suntech and some of its sector and industry peers and direct competitors.

Company TTM Gross Margin TTM Operating Margin TTM Net Margin
Suntech Power Holdings 19.3% 10.8% (3%)
Trina Solar (NYSE: TSL) 31.7% 22% 14.1%
JA Solar Holdings (Nasdaq: JASO) 22.4% 17.1% 12.3%
MEMC Electronic Materials (NYSE:WFR) 15.7% (0.9%) 0.8%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. TTM = trailing 12 months.

Unfortunately, that table doesn't tell us much about where Suntech has been, or where it's going. A company with rising gross and operating margins often fuels its growth by increasing demand for its products. If it sells more units while keeping costs in check, its profitability increases. Conversely, a company with gross margins that inch downward over time is often losing out to competition, and possibly engaging in a race to the bottom on prices. If it can't make up for this problem by cutting costs -- and most companies can't -- then both the business and its shares face a decidedly bleak outlook.

Of course, over the short term, the kind of economic shocks we recently experienced can drastically affect a company's profitability. That's why I like to look at five fiscal years' worth of margins, along with the results for the trailing 12 months (TTM), the latest fiscal year, and the latest fiscal quarter (LFQ). You can't always reach a hard conclusion about your company's health, but you can better understand what to expect, and what to watch.

Here's the margin picture for Suntech over the past few years.


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Dollar amounts in millions. FY= fiscal year. TTM = trailing 12 months.

(Because of seasonality in some businesses, the numbers for the last period on the right -- the TTM figures -- aren't always comparable to the FY results preceding them.)

Here's how the stats break down:

  • Over the past five years, gross margin peaked at 30.3% and averaged 23.2%. Operating margin peaked at 18.9% and averaged 14.5%. Net margin peaked at 17.7% and averaged 9.8%.
  • TTM gross margin is 19.3%, 390 basis points worse than the five-year average. TTM operating margin is 10.8%, 370 basis points worse than the five-year average. TTM net margin is minus 3%, 1,280 basis points worse than the five-year average.

With recent TTM operating margins below historical averages, Suntech has some work to do.

If you take the time to read past the headlines and crack a filing now and then, you're probably ahead of 95% of the market's individual investors. To stay ahead, learn more about how I use analysis methods like this to help me uncover the best returns in the stock market. Got an opinion on the margins at Suntech? Let us know in the comments below.