Choosing the businesses with strong economics- Part 1: avoiding poor economics businesses

October 15th, 2008

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Yesterday, in Two uncertainties of valuing a business- risk & earnings, we mentioned that risk and earnings are the two uncertainties in valuing a business. As we said in that article,

However, not all businesses are the same. Some are so straightforward that it is very easy to have a very accurate estimate of their future earnings. Others are so complicated that any attempts at estimating their future earnings are at best rough guesstimates.

Today, we will start off with a mini-series about choosing businesses that have strong economics. Such businesses have relatively lower uncertainties regarding their earnings and are also much less risky. Businesses with weak economics are much more difficult to value because of their higher risks and earnings uncertainties. For today’s article, we will look at identifying such businesses to avoid.

First, what are businesses with poor economics? They are the ones in price-competitive industries. As this book, The New Buffettology explains,

A price-competitive type of business manufactures or sells a product or service that many other businesses sell and competes for customers solely on the basis of price.

Example of such business is steel making, agriculture and manufacturing of mass generic products like clothes hangers. If you see a businesses in which its customers’ strongest motivation to buy is price, then you know it has poor economics. For such businesses to survive and defeat their competitors, they have to beat their competitors in costs. To beat their competitors in costs, they have to continuously engage in ruthless cost-cutting measures and improvements in techniques to keep their businesses competitive. This often requires additional capital expenditures and energy to keep the wheels running non-stop, which translate to more long-term debt and less distribution of profits to shareholders. Often, cost-cutting measures and improvement techniques are easily replicated. Therefore, businesses in price-competitive industries end up under-cutting each other continuously, which erodes profit over time. For such businesses, good quality and intelligent management is crucial to keep the business profitable. Also, they are more prone to strokes of bad luck.

So, to be a successful investor, the first step is to avoid businesses with poor economics.

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