Warren Buffett made the bulk of his fortune by paying low prices for companies with durable competitive advantages. Though he is universally considered to be one of the greatest investors of all time, few investors follow in his footsteps by purchasing great businesses at low prices. The allure of popular companies like Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ:TSLA), and Lululemon Athletica inc. (NASDAQ:LULU) distract investors from the opportunities where money is really made. If, instead of buying the hot stocks of the day, investors focused on buying companies with durable competitive advantages, their returns would look a lot more like Buffett’s.
Before an investor can buy great companies at low prices, she must first understand how to identify a durable competitive advantage. Although a thorough understanding of a business and its customers is necessary to fully vet a competitive advantage, this article focuses on evidence of a durable competitive advantage as it is likely to appear in a company’s operating results.
Although many investors search for companies with high margins or efficient working capital management, the two biggest clues that a company has a durable competitive advantage are (1) a high return on capital and (2) stable market share. Both attributes should have been maintained for at least a decade, preferably several decades, for it to be likely that the company has a durable competitive advantage.
Return on capital is the amount of money a company earns for each dollar it invests in the business. So, if a company buys a plant for $10 million and it earns $1 million in profit each year, the company earns a 10% return on capital.
You do not need to be an expert in any field to determine the difference between a high return on capital and a low return on capital. If someone earns a 25% return in the stock market each year for a decade, anyone can recognize that is a high return. A low return is something like a 5% annual return. Businesses are no different than any other investor; they simply aim to invest their money at the highest possible rate of return. A 25% return on capital is high, a 5% is low. Just like in the stock market.
The reason a high return on capital is evidence of a durable competitive advantage is that everyone wants a high return on capital. Everyone wishes that they could earn Buffett’s returns, but they can’t. Village Super Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:VLGEA) wishes it could earn returns on capital as high as The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO), but it is not insulated from competition to the extent The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) is. If there were a way for Village Super Market, Inc. (NASDAQ:VLGEA) to break into the soft drink business and earn high returns, it would. But it cannot because The Coca-Cola Company (NYSE:KO) has durable competitive advantages that prevent it from doing so.
The second giveaway is stable market share. A company that has stable market share does not necessarily have a durable competitive advantage, but all companies that have durable competitive advantages have stable or growing market share.
Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) is an example of a well-known company that does not have a durable competitive advantage. Over the last decade, the company has averaged a return on capital close to 0%. In 2012, its return on capital was 2.5%. In other words, shareholders would have been better off if, instead of investing in new plants and equipment, Ford had simply put all excess cash in 30 year U.S. treasury bonds. Most investors earned a higher return on their capital over the last decade than Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) did, so it is hard to believe Ford has any semblance of a competitive advantage.