Buffett On Economic Moats

Buffett On Economic Moats

September 15, 2015 Value Investing Research
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In 2007, Warren Buffett gave an extended talk to a group of MBA students at the University of Florida.

During it, Buffett spends some time talking about his famous concept of the “economic moat,” or a business’s sustainable competitive advantage allowing high profits and discouraging would-be competitors.

economic moat picture

We believe in the concept of an economic moat. If you can buy companies with an economic moat at a low price, that’s often a good investment. Our quantitative value philosophy does just this by focusing on cheap firms with historical evidence for an economic moat, which we measure using long-run (8 yrs) return on assets and capital, margin strength, and cumulative free cash flow.

But why should these reflect the presence of a moat?

Below are some observations by Buffett on his famous idea, and we provide some more discussion on market dynamics and why these accounting measures might reflect Buffett’s moat characteristics:

Question: Will you talk to the students about companies that you like? I don’t mean names, I mean what makes the company something that you like.

Buffett: I like businesses I can understand. We’ll start with that. That narrows it down about 90% [laughter]…There’s all kinds of things I don’t understand, but fortunately there’s enough I do understand. You got this big, wide world out there. Almost every company is publicly owned…You got all American business, practically, available to you. Now, to start with, it doesn’t make sense to go with things you think you can[‘t] understand. But you can understand some things. I can understand this [Picks up can of Coca Cola]. I mean you can understand this. Anybody can understand this. I mean this is a product that basically hasn’t been changed much…since 1886…and it’s a simple business. It’s not an easy business. I don’t want a business that’s easy for competitors. I want a business with a moat around it. I want a very valuable castle in the middle. And then I want…the Duke who’s in charge of that castle to be honest and hard working and able. And then I want a big moat around the castle, and that moat can be various things.

The moat in a business like our auto insurance business at GEICO is low cost. I mean people have to buy auto insurance, so everybody’s going to have one auto insurance policy per car basically, or per driver. And…I can’t sell them twenty…but they have to buy one. What are they going to buy it on? They’re going to buy it based on service and cost. Most people will assume the service is fairly identical among companies, or close enough, so they’re going to do it on cost, so I gotta be the low cost producer. That’s my moat. To the extent my costs get further lower than the other guy, I’ve thrown a couple of sharks into the moat.

GEICO’s business model offers a great example of how a cost advantage can create moat, or sustainable competitive advantage. The company’s cost advantage is that it sells direct to the consumer, via the internet and phone, rather than employing an army of costly agents, which adds a huge layer of operating expense. If prices are set by its competitors with all their expensive agents, GEICO will consistently enjoy higher margins and returns than its competitors, and will earn a return in excess of its cost of capital. That’s the definition of a better business. And Buffett likes those.

But all the time, if you’ve got a wonderful castle, there are people out there who are going to try and attack it, and take it away from you. And I want a castle that I can understand, but I want a castle with a moat around it.

When you are making high returns, your castle attracts attention, since competitors want to earn them too. Yet it’s hard to invade GEICO’s castle. Existing competitors can’t drive GEICO out of the market in a price war, since GEICO will always win a price war. It’s also scary for new competitors to enter the market, since GEICO can lower prices and drive them out, while maintaining its own profitability.

Thirty years ago, Eastman Kodak’s moat was just as wide as Coca Cola’s moat. I mean if you were going to take a picture of your six month old baby, and you’re going to want to look at that picture 20 years from now, and you’re going to want to look at it 50 years from now. And you’re never going to get a chance — I mean you’re not a professional photographer — so that you can evaluate what’s going to look good 20 or 50 years from now. What is in your mind about that…photography company is what counts because they are promising you that the picture you take today is going to be terrific to look at 20 or 30 or 50 years from now about something that’s very important to you. Maybe your young child or whatever it may be. Well, Kodak had that in spades, 30 years ago, they owned that. They had what I call share of mind. Forget about share of market – share of mind. They had something in everybody’s mind around the country, around the world – the little yellow box and everything – that said, “Kodak is the best.” That’s priceless.

Buffett refers to “a promise,” and to “share of mind.” A corporate brand is often an implicit promise about the degree of quality consumers can expect. It’s about trust and reputation. These characteristics reduce risk for consumers, and can also reduce search costs, so people will often pay more for these products. Or if prices are the same, people will simply go with the name they trust. Good brands establish lasting relationships with loyal customers who keep coming back, generating predictable and steady cash flows for the business.

These attributes serve as competitive advantages in the marketplace. Want to enter the market with a new chocolate bar but charge more than for a Hershey bar? No one will buy it! Want to launch a new detergent that will go on the shelf next to Tide? Good luck with that! Firms with strong brands and entrenched customers can earn high returns on capital, and maintain high and stable margins. Firms let their brands erode at their peril.

They’ve [Kodak] lost some of that. They haven’t lost it all…but they let that moat narrow. They let Fuji come and start narrowing the moat in various ways. They let them get into the Olympics and take away that special aspect that only Kodak was fit to photograph the Olympics. So Fuji gets there and immediately in people’s minds Fuji becomes more on a parity with Kodak. You haven’t seen that with Coke. Coke’s moat is wider now than it was 30 years ago. You can’t see the moat day by day, but every time…the infrastructure gets built in some country that isn’t yet profitable for Coke but will be 20 years from now, the moat is widening a little bit. Things are all the time changing that moat in one direction or another. Ten years from now you can see the difference. Our managers of the businesses we run, I’ve got one message to them, which is to widen the moat. And we want to throw crocodiles and sharks and everything else, gators, I guess, into the moat to keep away competitors. And that comes about through service, it comes about through quality of product, it comes about through cost, it comes about sometimes through patents, it comes about through real estate location.

Buffett refers to patents, which can contribute powerfully to economic moat. Patents can serve many purposes: they can protect cash flows of existing products, they can be developed as new products, or they can be licensed or sold.  In each case, the company’s competitive advantage is protected by the patent. Real estate location is another great example. If you have a property in an area where development is restricted, or which has unique proximity to a commercial asset (e.g., a freeway), this can discourage competitors who might otherwise want to build.

So that’s the business I’m looking for…And that’s what it’s all about…it’s not complicated.


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About the Author

David Foulke

Mr. Foulke is currently an owner/manager at Tradingfront, Inc., a white-label robo advisor platform. Previously he was a Managing Member of Alpha Architect, a quantitative asset manager. Prior to joining Alpha Architect, he was a Senior Vice President at Pardee Resources Company, a manager of natural resource assets, including investments in mineral rights, timber and renewables. He has also worked in investment banking and capital markets roles within the financial services industry, including at Houlihan Lokey, GE Capital, and Burnham Financial. He also founded two technology companies: E-lingo.com, an internet-based provider of automated translation services, and Stonelocator.com, an online wholesaler of stone and tile. Mr. Foulke received an M.B.A. from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and an A.B. from Dartmouth College.