One of the better known investment rules of Mr. Buffett is to only invest in companies with sufficiently wide economic moats. By that, he means companies that have a strong edge over their peers. This edge can present itself in many forms. It could be a business with extremely high barriers to entry, or it could be a brand whose loyal fans will never desert in favor of another brand (did anyone say Coke?). Investing in such businesses has been the ultimate practice of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A), and that’s why it owns iconic brands such as The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) and Heinz. But recognizing a business with a strong economic moat isn’t an easy task because everyone thinks that they have a wide economic moat. That’s just the way it is.
Berkshire knows how to recognize them
The best guiding rule on how to go out and find the next best business is to simply look at its margins, particularly its operating margins. A business that exhibits a particularly high operating margin is usually the best of breed. You see, in a perfect world with an economic equilibrium, high operating margins shouldn’t exist. That’s because if a certain company operated in an exceptionally lucrative businesses, other companies would take note and join the party. In time, competition will erode prices and margins will shrink. But we operate in an imperfect world. Certain businesses have become extremely dominant in their fields, have gained customer loyalty or are virtual monopolies. Since it’s fairly trivial to discuss the case for American Express or The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO), I prefer to pick a more difficult example. I’ll explain why years ago, Berkshire chose to invest in Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO).
Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO) rates securities, mostly bonds. Investors use Moody’s ratings to judge the relative risk in various bond issues. The safest bonds are thought to be those rated BBB and higher. They’re called investment-grade. The thing about Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO) is that it’s out of favor with many investors because in the years leading up to the financial crisis, the company gave securities made of junky subprime mortgages a pristine AAA rating. It’s been assumed by short sellers that Moody’s would be litigated out of existence, or at least into a less competitive position. But neither has happened. Moody’s continues to provide ratings and gush free cash flow. The SEC has investigated and has found no smoking gun and no fraud. Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO) has litigated more than 20 times and won every time.
Moody’s operates in a terrific sector. It sells a highly desirable product its customers will always want. And this product is insurance from our own mistakes. Institutional financial managers want to be able to say, “Moody’s told me it wasn’t a risky bond.” In essence, its customers rely on Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO) ratings so that if they make a mistake, they can point the finger at Moody’s rather than at themselves. Moody’s doesn’t attempt to predict market trends and it couldn’t care less whether the stock market rises or falls. It simply sells a service to an army of hungry market followers. Since there’s never a shortage of people who you wish to blame for your unsuccessful bond picks…Moody’s Corporation (NYSE:MCO) is never out of work.