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As part of our process, we perform a rigorous discounted cash-flow methodology that dives into the true intrinsic worth of companies. In United Continental's (UAL) case, we think the firm is fairly valued at $52 per share, significantly higher than where it is currently trading. Our report on United Continental and hundreds of other companies can be found here.

For some background, we think a comprehensive analysis of a firm's discounted cash-flow valuation, relative valuation versus industry peers, as well as an assessment of technical and momentum indicators is the best way to identify the most attractive stocks at the best time to buy. This process culminates in what we call our Valuentum Buying Index (click here for more info on our methodology), which ranks stocks on a scale from 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.

If a company is undervalued both on a DCF and on a relative valuation basis and is showing improvement in technical and momentum indicators, it scores high on our scale. United Continental posts a VBI score of 3 on our scale, reflecting our 'fairly valued' DCF assessment, neutral relative valuation versus peers, and bearish techinicals. United Continental has a low VBI score like most other major airlines in this peer group: Delta (DAL), Southwest (LUV), and US Airways (LCC).

Our Report on United Continental

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Investment Considerations

Investment Highlights

United Continental earns a ValueCreation™ rating of EXCELLENT, the highest possible mark on our scale. The firm has been generating economic value for shareholders for the past few years, a track record we view very positively. Return on invested capital (excluding goodwill) has averaged 15.7% during the past three years.

The company looks fairly valued at this time. We expect the firm to trade within our fair value estimate range for the time being. If the firm's share price fell below $18, we'd take a closer look.

United Continental's cash flow generation is robust, but its financial leverage could potentially be concerning down the road. If cash flows begin to weaken, we'd become more cautious on the firm's overall financial health.

The firm's share price performance has trailed that of the market during the past quarter. However, it is trading within our fair value estimate range, so we don't view such activity as alarming.

The firm experienced a free cash flow CAGR of about 3.1% during the past 3 years. We expect its free cash flow growth to be better than its peer median during the next five years.

Economic Profit Analysis

The best measure of a firm's ability to create value for shareholders is expressed by comparing its return on invested capital (NASDAQ:ROIC) with its weighted average cost of capital (OTC:WACC). The gap or difference between ROIC and WACC is called the firm's economic profit spread. United Continental's 3-year historical return on invested capital (without goodwill) is 15.7%, which is above the estimate of its cost of capital of 8.1%. As such, we assign the firm a ValueCreation™ rating of EXCELLENT. In the chart below, we show the probable path of ROIC in the years ahead based on the estimated volatility of key drivers behind the measure. The solid grey line reflects the most likely outcome, in our opinion, and represents the scenario that results in our fair value estimate.

Cash Flow Analysis

Firms that generate a free cash flow margin (free cash flow divided by total revenue) above 5% are usually considered cash cows. United Continental's free cash flow margin has averaged about 5.1% during the past 3 years. As such, we think the firm's cash flow generation is relatively STRONG. The free cash flow measure shown above is derived by taking cash flow from operations less capital expenditures and differs from enterprise free cash flow (FCFF), which we use in deriving our fair value estimate for the company. We make available fully-populated discounted cash-flow valuation models to our financial advisor clients here. At United Continental, cash flow from operations increased about 149% from levels registered two years ago, while capital expenditures expanded about 121% over the same time period.

Valuation Analysis

Our discounted cash flow model indicates that United Continental's shares are worth between $18.00 - $86.00 each (an absolutely huge range of outcomes). The margin of safety around our fair value estimate is driven by the firm's VERY HIGH ValueRisk™ rating, which is derived from the historical volatility of key valuation drivers. The estimated fair value of $52 per share represents a price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio of about 23.7 times last year's earnings and an implied EV/EBITDA multiple of about 7 times last year's EBITDA. Our model reflects a compound annual revenue growth rate of 1.6% during the next five years, a pace that is lower than the firm's 3-year historical compound annual growth rate of 31.5%. Our model reflects a 5-year projected average operating margin of 9.8%, which is below United Continental's trailing 3-year average. Beyond year 5, we assume free cash flow will grow at an annual rate of 2% for the next 15 years and 3% in perpetuity. For United Continental, we use a 8.1% weighted average cost of capital to discount future free cash flows.

Margin of Safety Analysis

Our discounted cash flow process values each firm on the basis of the present value of all future free cash flows. Although we estimate the firm's fair value at about $52 per share, every company has a range of probable fair values that's created by the uncertainty of key valuation drivers (like future revenue or earnings, for example). After all, if the future was known with certainty, we wouldn't see much volatility in the markets as stocks would trade precisely at their known fair values. Our ValueRisk™ rating sets the margin of safety or the fair value range we assign to each stock. In the graph below, we show this probable range of fair values for United Continental. We think the firm is attractive below $18 per share (the green line), but quite expensive above $86 per share (the red line). The prices that fall along the yellow line, which includes our fair value estimate, represent a reasonable valuation for the firm, in our opinion.

Future Path of Fair Value

We estimate United Continental's fair value at this point in time to be about $52 per share. As time passes, however, companies generate cash flow and pay out cash to shareholders in the form of dividends. The chart below compares the firm's current share price with the path of United Continental's expected equity value per share over the next three years, assuming our long-term projections prove accurate. The range between the resulting downside fair value and upside fair value in Year 3 represents our best estimate of the value of the firm's shares three years hence. This range of potential outcomes is also subject to change over time, should our views on the firm's future cash flow potential change. The expected fair value of $75 per share in Year 3 represents our existing fair value per share of $52 increased at an annual rate of the firm's cost of equity less its dividend yield. The upside and downside ranges are derived in the same way, but from the upper and lower bounds of our fair value estimate range.

Pro Forma Financial Statements

Source: United May Have Upside But A Huge Margin Of Safety Is Required