Monday, February 6, 2012

We Like Good Companies, Maria

If we’ve heard it once, we’ve heard it a hundred times. A money manager, being interviewed on CNBC, describes his or her investment philosophy: “we like good companies.” Akin to the politician who is for “the American Dream,” it’s a statement so benign it’s hard to argue with.

What is a good business? And can that be an objective standard, or is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Our sense is that most people, having been trained to think like efficient-market investors and not like in-the-trenches businesspeople, don’t really get—or care about—the distinction. Good or bad, a company’s stock price already fully reflects its future prospects, so instead of trying to distinguish between them, you should just buy an index fund and hit the beach.

But if owning stocks is really owning fractional interests in real businesses (as we think it is), as opposed to pieces of paper to be traded for quick profit (as most peoples’ behavior seems to imply), the distinction is everything. Here are a few of our thoughts on just what defines a “good business.”

Perhaps the place to start is to first define the ideal business. If you were to start a business tomorrow and it could look like anything you wanted, you would want it to look like this:

1. Customers are required to buy your product
2. You are the only one who can provide it
3. There is unlimited demand

4. Little or no capital is required to start the business or grow it

Since we are financial guys and the objectivity of numbers gets us going, here’s how we would describe the same characteristics but in financial terms:

1. Consistent, predictable revenues
2. High profit margins
3. Steady growth over long periods of time
4. High and consistent returns on capital

Sounds pretty good, eh? Of course, no business enjoys all of these characteristics perfectly or completely; and if so, not for very long. But a unique few share many of these elements to a startling degree. Once one of these diamonds in the rough is uncovered, the question then becomes: how likely are these characteristics to persist? That is where the real work of research and analysis begins, and we spend much of our time trying to answer that question for ourselves.

Although markets are not perfectly efficient, they are quasi-efficient much of the time. Superior businesses usually carry superior valuations, giving credence to the old saying “good companies don’t always make for good stocks.” We agree wholeheartedly and avoid buying into “the hype” at all costs, except in two important cases: (1) when markets are distressed and the distinction between good businesses and bad ones becomes less important to other investors and (2) when superior businesses are too small to gain the attention of a majority of investors.

We believe the great advantage to being small- and micro-cap investors is that we are often early to the party. We traffic in a part of the stock market that doesn’t get much traffic and as a result get a crack at investing in some pretty exceptional businesses before they even show up on other investors’ Bloomberg screens. The absence of hype or even attention gives us the opportunity on a regular basis to buy truly great businesses at attractive prices.

Yes, Maria, we do like good companies.