Last week's question and answer
Based in Dallas and 30 years old, I'm one of the world's biggest restaurateurs, with nearly 1,600 units. Under my roofs you'll find the following chains: Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, On The Border Mexican Grill & Cantina, Corner Bakery Cafe, and Rockfish Seafood Grill. I rake in about $4 billion annually. My ticker symbol is a three-letter synonym of masticate, wolf and bolt. My stock has split six times since 1989, and it has nearly quadrupled over the past decade. Who am I?
(Answer: Brinker International)
New rules for Roth IRA
Beginning in 2005, a little-known change in the tax law will allow more people, primarily older and wealthier retirees, to move funds from their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
For many, a Roth IRA is preferable to a traditional IRA primarily because of the tax-free earnings on distributions if the Roth IRA is established for at least five years and the distributions are taken after age 59 1/2.
It's also beneficial if you think you'll be in a higher income tax bracket in future years. Additionally, if you have earned income, Roth IRA contributions can be made indefinitely, regardless of age. And Roth IRAs, unlike regular IRAs, have no required minimum distributions once you reach age 70 1/2.
Most retirees fund their Roth IRA by moving (converting) funds from their traditional IRA to their Roth IRA. A conversion isn't allowed if modified adjusted gross income is greater than $100,000. Because of this limitation, many who were taking required minimum distributions from their traditional IRAs were finding that those distributions were pushing them over the $100,000 limitation and were then barred from converting those funds to the Roth IRA.
The new law allows you to ignore the amount of the required minimum distribution when computing your threshold income. Therefore, many older individuals will be able to grow their Roth IRAs by converting traditional IRA funds.
Of course, most funds converted from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA are treated as taxable income. Because of the taxability of the conversion, some shy away from moving funds from their IRA to a Roth IRA. But this might be shortsighted. It's possible to plan your conversions in years when your income in minimized. The use of a Roth IRA as part of an overall estate plan can be very powerful, since the Roth IRA funds can pass through to beneficiaries tax-free. Also, since there is no required minimum distribution, the Roth IRA can be passed on and continue to grow tax-free, possibly for decades.
What's in a name
Want to invest for the wrong reason? Try going into it because you like the company's name - or because a friend works for the company. International Harvester was a name I remembered from various films at school about farming. I decided that since we needed farms and it was a great name, I would buy it. Wouldn't you know, the company soon changed its name, to Navistar. There was a reverse split, too. My 100 shares became 10 and were worth less and less as time went by. I sold at a loss. Meanwhile, my friend had a great job with a company she really liked. I asked if she would buy stock in the company and she said yes, she already had. So I bought 100 shares of Calpine at $35. Earlier this year I sold it for about $3.50 (I think it's less than that now). Like location is to a business, research is to investment. - Dorothy Miller, Pittsburg, Calif.
The Fool Responds: Right you are. Before investing, study a company's health, growth prospects, track record, management and competitive strengths.
Too many hybrids?
When it comes to cars, hybrids are hot. High gas prices and plenty of press coverage have created the right conditions for an explosion in U.S. hybrid sales during the past year or so. Now every automaker wants a piece of the market. But the influx of new players may have a cooling effect as the laws of supply and demand take over.
The coming year could test the depth and resiliency of the hybrid car market. Japanese automaker Nissan (Nasdaq: NSANY) expects to begin selling a gas-electric version of its Altima next year. It's reportedly planning to build the sedan in the U.S., a move that could appeal to people inclined to buy American.
Still, national origins or even economics appear to have little effect on the dynamics of the hybrid car market. The Toyota (NYSE: TM) Prius remains far and away the segment's biggest seller. Prius represented 73 percent of hybrid sales in May, according to Green Car Congress. Meanwhile, sales of Honda's (NYSE: HMC) hybrid Accord and Civic and Ford's Escape have been growing, but more slowly and less consistently during the past several months.
Perhaps the most ominous possibility is that with more hybrids in the showroom and on the road, consumers' fascination with the technology will wear off. In that case, as Nissan and others jump into the hybrid game, they may not find the growth they were hoping for.
You recently referred to a company's fair value. How do you find out what that is? - G.T., Canton, Ohio
A stock's true value is not easy to determine. Smart analysts often disagree when they do their complex calculations. They often use a "discounted cash flow" analysis, which involves projecting future free cash flows and assigning them present values based on a chosen discount rate, which is often the weighted-average cost of capital. (See? We told you it was complex.)
There are simpler ways of estimating a stock's value, though they remain just that - estimates, based on educated guesses. One very rough method is comparing a firm's price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio to its growth rate. If the growth rate is much higher, the stock may be undervalued. You also might determine the relationship between the company's average P/E and the average P/E of the S&P 500 index. If the stock has historically traded at 150 percent of the S&P 500's P/E, which is currently 10, you might conclude that the stock should eventually hit a fair P/E of 15, assuming that nothing changes.
A simpler approach is just to look up the company's historical P/E ratio range, which you can do at http://moneycentral.msn.com/investor/invsub/results/compare.asp. If the stock's P/E usually has been between 15 and 20 and it's 25 now, there's a good chance it's overvalued.
Don't rely on any of these methods alone. Always gather lots of information and look at many factors.