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How to identify stocks with a competitive advantage

Financial Analyst
Keelan Cooper
Financial Analyst

In medieval times, the most impregnable castles were those surrounded by the widest and deepest moats, effectively safeguarding them from sieges. On the investment battlefields of the stock market, these moats symbolise the strongest and most durable companies. Warren Buffett popularised the concept of the 'economic moat' to describe businesses that possess durable competitive advantages. For private investors, identifying companies with such moats can lead to superior long-term returns.

Economic Moat - Warren Buffett quote

An economic moat refers to a company's ability to maintain competitive advantages over its competitors to protect its long-term profits and market share. Buffett’s investment in companies like Kraft Heinz, known for its low costs, exemplifies how moats can lead to sustained market dominance. However, moats are not limited to cost advantages; they can stem from various factors, including strong brands, unique products, regulatory protections, and network effects.

Economic moats - 7 Powers

Types of Economic Moats

1. Intangible Assets

Intangible assets include brands, patents, and regulatory approvals. These assets provide competitive advantages that are difficult for competitors to replicate.

  • Brands: A strong brand creates customer loyalty and allows companies to charge premium prices. Brands like Coca-Cola and Apple are excellent examples. Coca-Cola's brand strength allows it to dominate the beverage market, commanding higher prices due to customer loyalty. Similarly, Apple’s brand loyalty enables it to maintain premium pricing and a significant market share in the tech industry.

  • Patents: Patents provide monopoly-like conditions, enabling companies to reap significant profits until the patents expire. Pharmaceutical companies are a prime example of how patents can protect market share and profitability. However, investors should be cautious of companies relying on a single patent, as its expiration can significantly impact profitability.

  • Regulatory Approvals: High regulatory barriers can protect firms from new entrants. Industries like waste disposal, where obtaining necessary permits is challenging, or financial services, where regulatory approval is stringent, benefit from this type of moat. Credit rating agencies like Moody’s also benefit from high regulatory barriers, maintaining their market position with less competition.

2. Switching Costs

Switching costs are the costs that customers incur when changing from one product or service to another. High switching costs can create significant customer loyalty and make it difficult for competitors to lure customers away.

  • Customer Inconvenience: High switching costs can deter customers from changing providers. For example, banks benefit from the hassle customers face when switching accounts, leading to customer retention and higher profitability. Similarly, software companies like Stripe, which offers integrated financial software solutions, benefit from high switching costs due to the complexity and effort involved in switching to a competitor’s software.

3. Network Effects

Network effects occur when the value of a product or service increases as more people use it. This type of moat is particularly powerful in the digital and technology sectors.

  • Increased Value with More Users: Platforms like Facebook and eBay become more valuable as more users join, making it difficult for new entrants to compete. Facebook’s vast user base creates a powerful network effect, as users are more likely to stay on the platform where their friends and family are. Similarly, eBay’s extensive buyer and seller network makes it the go-to platform for online auctions.

  • Payment Networks: Credit card companies like Visa and Mastercard benefit from network effects. As more merchants accept these cards, more consumers will use them, reinforcing the network and creating a barrier for new entrants.

4. Cost Advantages

Cost advantages allow companies to produce goods or services at a lower cost than competitors, leading to higher profitability and market share.

  • Cheaper Processes: Companies that can produce goods more efficiently than their competitors can sustain cost advantages. British American Tobacco, one of the largest tobacco companies globally, employs advanced manufacturing techniques and efficient supply chain management to produce high-quality tobacco products at lower costs compared to smaller competitors. Additionally, BAT's significant purchasing power allows it to negotiate better terms with suppliers, further reducing raw material costs.

  • Better Locations: Firms with advantageous locations, such as local quarries, can outcompete due to lower transportation costs. A local quarry’s proximity to construction sites, for instance, gives it a cost advantage over distant competitors.

  • Unique Assets: Ownership of low-cost natural resources or other unique assets can provide lasting cost advantages. Companies like Saudi Aramco, with access to some of the world's lowest-cost oil reserves, enjoy significant cost advantages over competitors.

5. Greater Scale

Scale advantages arise when a company’s size allows it to operate more efficiently and cost-effectively than smaller competitors.

  • Distribution Networks: Companies with extensive distribution networks, such as FedEx, benefit from economies of scale. FedEx’s vast delivery network allows it to spread fixed costs over a large volume of packages, reducing per-unit costs and improving profitability.

  • Manufacturing Scale: Large-scale manufacturing operations, like those of BP, allow for lower unit costs. BP’s massive upstream oil refining scale enables it to operate more efficiently than smaller competitors.

  • Niche Markets: Dominance in specialised, small markets can also create a moat. Companies that serve niche markets, like local cable networks or specialised software providers, can achieve high profitability due to limited competition.

Economic moat - Company examples

Financial Indicators of Economic Moats

Identifying companies with durable economic moats involves a combination of quantitative financial analysis and qualitative assessment. Here are several robust screening options to help you spot these high-quality investments:

High Free Cash Flow generation (FCF)

  • Indicator: Free Cash Flow to Sales Ratio ≥ 5%

  • Explanation: High free cash flow after capital expenditures indicates a company's ability to generate cash that can be reinvested, paid as dividends, or used for share buybacks. This flexibility is a hallmark of strong financial health and suggests the presence of a moat.

  • Action: Screen for companies with a free cash flow to sales ratio of 5% or higher. Look for consistent FCF growth over multiple years to confirm sustainability.

High Returns on Capital 

  • Indicator: Return on Capital Employed ≥ 12%

  • Explanation: Sustained high returns on capital indicate that a company is efficiently using its resources to generate profits, a sign of competitive advantages. Ensure these returns are not driven by excessive leverage.

  • Action: Screen for companies with a ROIC of 12% or higher. Analyse the components of ROCE to ensure profitability stems from operational efficiency rather than financial engineering. To take this a step further, look at the 5-year average ROCE to make sure the company is able to consistently deliver high levels of profitability. 

Gross Profit Margin

  • Indicator: Gross Profit Margin ≥ 1.5 industry median 

  • Explanation: A high gross profit margin indicates that a company can charge premium prices or has low production costs, both of which suggest strong pricing power and cost advantages. 

  • Action: Screen for companies with a gross profit margin which is superior to the market average. Consistent high margins across economic cycles indicate that beat the the industry norm are a good indicator of a durable moat.

Consistent Revenue Growth

  • Indicator: Annual Revenue Growth ≥ 10% over the past 5 years

  • Explanation: Consistent revenue growth indicates market demand and effective business strategies. It suggests the company is expanding its market share or increasing sales within its existing markets.

  • Action: Screen for companies with annual revenue growth of 10% or more over the past five years. Look for steady, predictable growth rather than volatile spikes.

Qualitative Traits of Economic Moats

  • Scalable Business Models: Simple and scalable models often lead to sustainable growth. Companies with scalable business models can expand operations without proportionately increasing costs, leading to higher margins and profitability.

  • Consistent Operations: Proven operational models indicate reliability. Companies with consistent operational performance are more likely to sustain their competitive advantages and continue generating strong returns.

  • Competitive Advantage: Look for clear advantages such as brand strength, network effects, or unique assets. Companies with distinct competitive advantages are better positioned to fend off competitors and maintain market share.

  • Smart Capital Allocation: Effective reinvestment of profits into growth opportunities is crucial. Companies that allocate capital wisely, investing in high-return projects or strategic acquisitions, can enhance their competitive positions and drive long-term growth.

  • Positive Surprises: Companies that frequently exceed expectations can be indicative of strong performance and potential moats. Positive earnings surprises often reflect underlying business strength and effective management.

Avoiding False Moats and Bad Economics

False Moats

  • Management Hype: Great management alone does not constitute a moat. Beware of companies that overemphasise managerial skills without other competitive advantages. Effective management is important, but it cannot substitute for fundamental competitive strengths.

  • Temporary Products: Products that currently dominate the market may not sustain their position. Companies relying on a single product may face significant risks if competitors develop superior alternatives or if customer preferences change.

  • Market Share Myths: Large market share does not always equate to a durable moat. Companies can lose market share quickly if they lack sustainable competitive advantages. Historical examples like Kodak and BlackBerry illustrate how dominant market positions can erode rapidly.

Industries to Avoid

  • Poor Economics: Certain industries, often have low switching costs and high competition, leading to poor economic moats. These industries are characterised by high capital intensity, price competition, and cyclical demand, making it difficult to sustain high returns on capital.

Conclusion

Investing in companies with durable competitive advantages, or economic moats, is a proven strategy for achieving superior returns over the long-term. By focusing on businesses with strong brands, high switching costs, network effects, cost advantages, and greater scale, private investors can build a resilient portfolio. Remember, the key is to find companies that not only perform well today but are also equipped to fend off competitors and thrive in the future. As Buffett suggests, betting rarely but heavily on such companies can harness the power of compounding returns, leading to investment success.


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