How to choose which shares to buy

With many options and variables to consider, choosing which shares to buy can be a challenge — for both new and experienced investors.

Hands holding out two apples representing choice between different shares

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Choosing shares to buy can be nerve-racking. There are many options and variables to take into account. Here we look at six key questions for investors to consider when buying shares. 

This list is not exhaustive, and individual investment styles will emphasise different attributes. Nonetheless, it's a handy starting point for anyone wanting to navigate investment markets successfully.

6 questions to ask when choosing shares to invest in

How each person invests will depend on their personal goals, financial situation, investment strategy, attitude to investment risk, and time horizon. This means individual investors will seek investment options with different attributes. 

Some investors may look for capital growth by investing in growth stocks. Others may chase an income stream, seeking shares with a decent dividend yield

Whatever you want to achieve, whether you are looking to invest in Australian shares or international shares, it is worth considering the questions below and how they apply to your investments.

1. Is the company growing its earnings?

Growth in company earnings is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing shares to invest in. Company earnings represent net profit, which is the income earned by a business minus running costs. Earnings growth is a good indication of a healthy and profitable business. 

We can distinguish earnings from revenue, as revenue growth indicates increasing sales. While this is usually a positive, earnings can suffer if expenses increase. Earnings take account of the business's costs, so they are a better indicator of overall profitability. 

When you buy a share, you purchase part ownership of a company. This gives you the right to share in the company's future profits. If earnings are growing, returns to shareholders should increase in the long term. 

Earnings growth is often reflected in a rising share price. The price of a share in part reflects the current value of future cash flows accruing to the shareholder. If earnings are growing, shareholders should be in line for more significant cash flows. This, in turn, means an individual stock is likely to be valued more highly by the share market.  

2. Is the company generating cash?

A business needs cash to survive and thrive. Cash flow refers to the inflow and outflow of money. Funds flow in as revenue and out as expenses. 

Positive cash flow indicates a company has money left over after paying its expenses. This is a good sign, as it allows the business to invest in new opportunities and even return capital to shareholders through dividends or share buybacks. Negative cash flow indicates the liquid assets of the company are being eroded. This could be cause for caution, as a business will be considered insolvent if it cannot pay its debts.  

Cash flow differs from earnings and profits. A business could record profits but still have trouble paying its debts if money is tied up in illiquid assets or accounts owing. Alternatively, a company could see strong cash flow but no corresponding profit increase if expenses rise or it has significant debts to service. 

This means it's important that investors monitor both cash flow and earnings. Cash flow allows companies to manage debt, invest in growth, and pay dividends. Companies may be able to borrow or raise capital to fill short-term gaps in cash flow, but they cannot survive with insufficient cash flows forever. 

3. How much debt does the company have?

Debt can be a good source of capital to fund growth, but too much debt can quickly become crippling if things don't go to plan. Debt financing allows businesses to leverage small amounts of money into much larger sums, enabling rapid growth. Interest payments are also generally tax deductible. 

But companies that carry debt need to generate cash to service that debt. Interest payments must be made regardless of the company's actual cash flow. This can be risky for businesses with inconsistent cash flows. 

A company carrying a large amount of debt may have less ability to withstand a downturn than a company with less debt. This is because interest payments will have to be made even if revenues or cash flows decline. Where a company carries debt, it must be able to service that debt.

4. What is the share's P/E ratio?

A stock's price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio is its share price divided by its statutory earnings per share (EPS). The P/E ratio measures the relative value of a company's shares. At a basic level, the P/E ratio reveals the price the share market is currently prepared to pay for a particular company's earnings. 

Investors can use this to compare different companies in the same industry. For example, if Coles Group Ltd (ASX: COL) had a P/E ratio of 21 and Woolworths Group Ltd (ASX: WOW) had a P/E ratio of 29, Coles would be 'cheaper'. This is because you have to pay less for each dollar of Coles earnings than for each dollar of Woolworths earnings. 

But the ratio has limitations – it doesn't work well for newer companies and those not yet generating earnings. Companies with high P/E ratios, such as growth assets, tend to be those investors expect to grow their earnings in the future., Inc (NASDAQ: AMZN) is a classic example — it has traded at a P/E ratio above 1,000 in the past. 

5. What is management's track record?

A company is, at its core, a bunch of individuals working toward a common goal. This means management has a strong ability to influence future direction and profitability. Therefore, the quality of a management team is an essential consideration for the investor. 

Leadership value can be difficult to evaluate given its intangible nature, but it is worth investigating. Management makes strategic decisions and is in charge of creating value for shareholders. Many investors like management to have 'skin in the game' in the form of equity interests in the company. This can help align management interests with those of shareholders. 

Where possible, it can help to examine management's record of returns. One way to do this is to calculate the return on investment of a manager or management team. Return on investment is a profitability ratio that calculates an investment's return relative to its cost. 

Management at Amazon has been able to generate consistently strong returns on investment by operating under a compensation system that closely aligns its interests with those of shareholders. Bonuses are paid exclusively in equity, which generally has a longer-than-usual vesting period. Similarly, the company has opted to reinvest earnings at a high rate of return, increasing overall shareholder value. 

6. Does the company have industry tailwinds or headwinds?

If you're investing long-term, it's worth taking a broader view of your potential investments. You'll need to consider the future prospects of the industries in which your selected companies operate. Is the industry growing or shrinking? Is your investment option an innovator and market leader, or subject to strong competitive forces? 

These factors will all help shape the future performance of your asset. Companies operating in growing industries are more likely to experience growth-related tailwinds that will boost earnings (and potentially the stock price) over the long term. Those in shrinking industries must scramble for market share to grow.  

Companies can also benefit from internal tailwinds, such as a future-proofed culture. Innovative companies that are leaders in their markets tend to benefit from barriers to competition that enhance performance over the long term. 

On the other hand, headwinds provide barriers that companies must overcome on the path to profitability. Regardless of your investment goals, these factors are worth considering when making stock investing decisions. This will help you make an informed assessment of future performance prospects.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Motley Fool contributor Katherine O'Brien has positions in The Motley Fool Australia's parent company Motley Fool Holdings Inc. has positions in and has recommended The Motley Fool Australia has positions in and has recommended Coles Group. The Motley Fool Australia has recommended The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.