A couple of recent events got me thinking about price elasticity and how a savvy investor can capitalize on producers of inelastic products. Price elasticity refers to the change in consumer demand when price changes occur. Items that are less elastic will experience a smaller change in demand when prices change than will more elastic goods and services.
Elastic goods are typically found in highly competitive industries or segments, where products are similar across different brands. Restaurants are a good example of a highly competitive industry with high price elasticity. Given the industry’s lower barriers to entry, consumers have a wide variety of restaurant choices. For example, all things being equal, if Five Guys hikes its prices, customers will flock to Smashburger.
In a volatile stock market like we’re experiencing, investors can gain some portfolio stability by owning shares of companies that produce inelastic goods. Investors can expect steady revenue and earnings from these companies, as well as potential expansions during market downturns.
My local cable provider was recently purchased by Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX), and consequently my bill has grown each month. One month my cable and Internet magically became “unbundled,” and my bill went up $5. The next month, I began to get charges for some tiny receiver box I have never seen to the tune of $3.50. And so on and so forth.
This led the cheapskate in me to look for alternative cable and Internet providers in my area. But what Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX) knows, and what I now know, is that there are no alternatives in my area that provide similar Internet speed and variety of cable programming — not a one.
Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX) can raise its price as high as it wants, and I will continue to pay as long as I want to watch ESPN on cable while researching stocks on my iPad using broadband. This monopolistic pricing may be terrible for consumers, but it can be rewarding for investors in Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX) shares. In Time Warner’s latest 10-Q, it reports an increase of 5% in U.S. subscription revenue, “driven largely by higher domestic rates.” While cable revenue continues to increase, Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX) continues to acquire cable providers (like my previous provider, Insight), knowing that this inelastic demand will keep sales growing.
Investors looking for steady growth in a long-term portfolio (or wishing to hedge increases in their cable bill) should consider establishing a position in Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX). With $29 billion in annual revenue, Time Warner is reasonably priced at an enterprise value of less than two times sales and a forward P/E of 17. Look for the company to continue growing revenue through acquisition, add-on sales, and, of course, price hikes for current customers.
Piggybacking Time Warner
One company benefiting from Time Warner’s monopolistic pricing is Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX). Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) has very elastic pricing, as was evidenced by the loss of nearly 1 million customers during 2011’s Qwikster debacle, which would have raised prices by 60% (from $9.99 to $15.99) for its DVD-plus-streaming customers. However, the inelastic pricing model of cable companies is the main reason for Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX)’s success.
Imagine (in a parallel universe) there are a huge number of available cable companies to choose from. Because of such competition and variety, consumers have a broad choice of broadband providers and television content. Prices are low, access to content is unlimited, and price elasticity is very high. In this alternate universe, Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) could not exist, or it would be just one of hundreds of content providers — like our burger joint.