When choosing a stock to buy, don't overlook the PEG ratio; The figurative earnings can indicate a bargain; Stocks; Dollars & Sense


Bankers are sticklers for the details. It's their business to invest money in loans to individuals and businesses, and they expect to be repaid, on time and in full -- no excuses.

As stockholders, we should think like bankers. When we buy shares in a company, we're making an investment, and we should be paid back, too. The payback for shareholders is figurative, of course, but consider how much a company would have to earn before its cumulative earnings equal its current stock price. That period is called the PEG payback period, and it's based on the PEG ratio: a firm's price/earnings ratio divided by its expected growth rate. The PEG payback period is the time it would take a company to pay back its investors with earnings.

Take Schlumberger, the oil- and gas-services company. It has a PEG payback period of 15.3 years, so at the company's expected growth rate, Schlumberger would have to add up its earnings per share for 15.3 years straight before those earnings would equal its current stock price. (Morningstar includes each stock's PEG payback period in the "stock valuation" portion of its Quicktake report.)

The PEG payback period is good for gauging whether a company's expected earnings justify its current stock price. A high PEG payback period generally means shareholders are paying for a company with relatively low earnings. Stocks with low PEG payback periods aren't risk-free, but they're cheaper based on expected future earnings.

For this week's analyst picks, we stayed with companies that have PEG payback periods of less than 11 years. One company worth noting is Alltel, the nation's fifth-largest wireless telephone carrier. The Little Rock, Ark.-based company has a PEG payback period of 10.6 years -- a figure that has increased recently with Alltel's stock price.

Alltel's appeal comes from its growing wireless network. The company recently inked a deal to buy wireless assets from Bell Atlantic and GTE, two companies that have been forced by regulators to divest some assets in conjunction with their merger this spring.

The deal will give Alltel customers inexpensive access to Bell Atlantic and GTE's wireless networks so Alltel phones may "roam," or operate on the other companies' infrastructures, at a low cost. Alltel's sales growth has been outpacing the telecommunications-industry average. The company has also posted strong profitability ratios, which earns it B-plus grades from Morningstar for profitability.

Another PEG-payback qualifier is Tyco, the conglomerate that fell out of favor last year due to questions about past accounting practices. Those still-unproven accusations tarnished Tyco's reputation, but with a PEG payback period of 8.1 years and an otherwise solid track record, this company may be worth a look.

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