Archive for the ‘Competitive advantage’ Category.


Starting note: This is a long post and I am going to cover a lot of ground. I have tried to cover a vast topic in a few pages, which is usually the subject of entire books. As a result, I have tried to simplify and generalize in several cases to make a point.

In the previous post, I tried to make the point that it is not enough to say that a company has a moat and then rush to your broker to put in an order. One needs to answer a couple of questions

– Does the company really have a sustainable competitive advantage or a durable moat? A high return on capital is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to demonstrate the presence of a moat
– It is also important to judge the depth and durability of the moat. Deeper the moat and longer it survives, more valuable is the company

Do not focus too much on the math
I received a few emails asking me about the calculations on how I arrived at the PE ratios. As I said in my previous post, the math is not important for the point I am making – longer a company earns above its cost of capital, higher is its intrinsic value.

I would suggest that you use the standard DCF model and apply whatever assumptions you like for growth, ROE, free cash flow etc and just play around with the duration of the moat or the period for which the company can earn above the cost of capital. It should be quite obvious that longer the duration, higher is the value of the company.

For the really curious, I have uploaded my calculations here. Prepare to be underwhelmed!

Market implied duration
The other point i would like to make is by turning around the equation – If the company has a high PE ratio, the market is telling you that it expects the company to earn above its cost of capital for a long time.

For illustration, let’s take the example of Page industries (past numbers from money control, future numbers are my guess).

Future expected ROE = 50% (roughly 53% in 2014)
Future growth rate = 30% (40% growth in 2010-2014)
Terminal PE = 15
Current price = 14000 (approximately)

If I put in these numbers into DCF formulae, I get a Moat period of around 10 years.

So the market expects the company to grow its profit by 30% per annum for the next 10 years and maintain its current return on capital. This means that the company will earn a profit of 2000 crs by 2025.

So do I think that page industries will maintain its moat for 10 years or longer and grow at 30%?

I don’t know !

However if I did own the stock or planned to buy it, my next step would be to analyze the competitive strength of the company and see if the moat would survive 10 years and beyond, because if it didn’t I would be in trouble as a long term investor.

Precision not possible
In the previous example I used a fancy formulae and a long list of assumptions to suggest that the market considers page industries to have a competitive advantage period or moat (CAP for short) of 10 years.

Once you put a number to some of these fuzzy concepts, it appears that you have solved the problem and are ready to execute.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Anytime someone tries to give you a precise number on intrinsic value of a company, look for the assumptions behind it. As you may have read, the best tool for fiction is the spreadsheet.

The above calculation should be the starting and not the end point of your thinking. I typically do the above kind of analysis to look at what the market is assuming and put it into three broad buckets

2-5 years : Market assumes a short duration moat
5-8 years : Market assumes a medium duration moat
8+ years : Market assumes a long duration moat (bullet proof franchise)

Let’s look at some way to analyze the moat and bucket it in some cases

Measuring the moat
A substantial part of my post has been picked up from this note by Michael Mauboussin. The first version of this note was published in around 2002 and the revised one in 2013 (download from here)

If you are truly interested in learning how to discover and measure moats, I cannot stress this note enough (some important parts in the note have been highlighted by me) . Read it and then re-read it a couple of times. The only point missing from this note is the application of the concepts – Michael mauboussion does not provide any detailed examples of applying the concepts to a real life example.

Model 1: Porter’s five forces analysis
I am not going to write a detailed explanation of this model – you can find this here. I have used this model to analyze IT companies in the past – see here. A few more posts on the same topic can be found here and here.

Let me try to explain my approach using an example from the past. Lakshmi machine works was an old position for me (I no longer hold it). As part of the analysis, I did the five forces review of the company/ industry which can be downloaded from here

A few key points about the analysis
– The entry barriers were quite high in the textile machinery industry. Once a company like LMW has established itself and achieved a market share in excess of 50%, it was difficult for a new competitor to achieve scale. A textile mill with only LMW machines finds it easy to maintain and repair these machines (due to accumulated learning) or get this done from LMW which has a large service network. LMW, due to a large install base, is able to provide a high level of service (network effect) at a low cost (due to scale of operations). So we have a case of positive loop here– Largest company is able to provide a cost effective solution and high levels of service and still earn a good return on capital

– The other factors such as Supplier power, substitute products etc are not critical to evaluate the industry

– There is a certain level of buyer concentration, but the machinery segment has far higher concentration and hence the balance of power is still with LMW

– Finally rivalry is muted as LMW has a level of customer lockin . A satisfied customer will prefer to continue with the same supplier (Who is also cost effective) as it allows it to achieve a higher uptime in operations and lower cost of maintenance (maintenance team needs to maintain only one brand of machines)

The above is also visible in the form of a very high return on capital for LMW – The company had a negative working capital for 10+ years and earned 100% + on invested capital at the time of this analysis

As I analyzed the company in 2008, I felt strongly that the company had a medium (5-8) or a long duration moat. It was not important to arrive at a precise number then, as the company was selling at close to cash on books and the business was available for free. Surely a business with a medium term moat was worth more than 0 !

Model 2: Sources of added value
The second mental model i frequently use is the sources of added value – production advantages, customer advantages and government (pages 34-41 of the note)

I have uploaded the analysis for CERA sanitary ware (current holding), I had done in 2011. Look at the rows 14-19 for the details.

A few points to note
-The company enjoys scale advantages from demand, distribution, advertising etc. As the company gets bigger, these cost advantages would increase ensuring that the company will be able to price its product at the same level as its competitors and still earn a good profit

– The company also enjoys customer side advantages from brand/ trademarks and availability

As you run through this checklist/ template, you will notice that a company could have either production or customer advantages due to various factors. However a company which has both has a powerful combination. If these two sources of value are working together and growing, then we may be able to say that the company has a medium or long duration moat

In case you are curious, I thought that CERA had a small to medium moat in 2011. This has expanded since then and the company most likely has a long duration moat now.

Model 3: High pricing power
Another key indicator of competitive advantage is the presence of pricing power. The following comment from warren buffett encapsulates it

“The single most important decision in evaluating a business is pricing power. If you’ve got the power to raise prices without losing business to a competitor, you’ve got a very good business. And if you have to have a prayer session before raising the price 10 percent, then you’ve got a terrible business.”

How do you evaluate this ? Look for clues in the annual report or management responses to questions in conference calls. Does the management talk of margins being impacted severely due to cost pressures ?

For example – Companies like Page industries or asian paints are generally able to pass through cost increases to customer without losing volumes. When the input costs drop they can either increase their margins or use this excess profit in advertising and promotions and thus strengthen their competitive position. Can steel or cement companies do the same ?

Other miscellaneous models
1. Is the competitive advantage structural (based on the business) or the management. An advantage based on the management is a weak moat and can change overnight if the same team is not in charge
2. Industry structure : A duopoly or an industry with limited competition is more likely to have companies with competitive advantage. Look at batteries, two wheelers or sanitaryware for example. One is likely to find companies with medium or long duration moats in such industry structures.
3. Govt regulation : This can be due to special ‘connections’. If you find a moat due to this factor, be very careful as this can disappear overnight

A brief synthesis
I have laid out various models of evaluating the competitive advantage of a company. Once you go through this exercise, you can arrive at a few broad conclusions

– No moats: A majority of the companies do not have a moat. As you go through the above models and are hard pressed to find anything positive, it is an indicator that the company has no competitive advantage. Even if the company has been earning a high return on capital in the recent past, it could be a cyclical or temporary phenomenon. Look at several commodity companies which did well in the 2006-2008 time frame, only to go down after that.

– Weak moats : If the moat depends on single a production side advantage such as access to key raw material or government regulation, it’s a weak moat (think mining or telecom companies). The company can lose the advantage at the stroke of a pen, law or whims and fancy of our politicians. In addition the pricing power of such companies is very low. I would categorize such a moat as a weak one and not give it a duration of more than 2-3 years.

– Strong, but not quite : If the moat depends on customer advantages such as brands or distribution network, the moat is much stronger. A company with a new brand which is either no.1 or no.2 has a much stronger moat. I tend to give the moat a medium duration (5-8 years). The reason for being cautious at this stage is that the company clearly has a competitive advantage, but the strength has not been tested over multiple business cycle. In addition, in some case the business environment is subject to change and one cannot be too confident of the durability of the moat. The example of LMW or CERA in the past is a good one for this bucket

– The bullet proof franchise :These are companies with multiple customer and production (scale related) advantages. These companies are able to command high margins, can raise prices and at the same time have a very competitive cost structures due to economies of scale. These companies have demonstrated high returns of capital over 10+ years and continue to do so. In such cases, one can assume that duration of the moat is 10+ years. These cases are actually quite easy to identify – asian paints, nestle, Unilevers, pidilite, HDFC twins and so on.

Moats are not static
A key point to keep in mind is that moats are not static, but changing constantly. In some cases the moat can disappear overnight if it depends on the government regulation (such as mine licenses), but usually the change is slow and imperceptible and hence easy to miss.

If you can identify the key drivers of a company’s moat, then you can track those driver to evaluate if the management is strengthening or weakening the moat. For example, the moat of an FMCG company is driven by its brands and distribution network. As a result, it is important to track if the management is investing in the brand and deepening/ widening the distribution network.

In the case of LMW, I think the moat has slowly shrunk due to the entry of Reiter ltd. Reiter was the technology partner and equity holder in LMW. The two companies have since parted ways and Reiter is now competing aggressively in the same space.

LMW has repeatedly indicated that they are now facing a higher level of competition in India and consequently there has been a slow drop in operating profit margins. In addition one can see an increase in the working capital usage too. I cannot precisely state that the moat duration has shrunk from 10.7 years to 6.3 years, but there is increasing evidence that the moat is under pressure. As a result, I exited the stock a few years back.

Putting it all together
Let’s assume that you have done a lot of work and figured out that company has moderate moat possibly 5-8 years. At this point, you can plug in the required variables into a DCF model and analyze the market implied duration of the moat (the way we did for Page industries)

If the market thinks that the company has no moat or a minimal moat, than you have a probable buy. If however the market implied moat is 10+ years, then the decision would be to avoid buying the stock, not matter how good the company

The above sounds simple in theory, but is far more difficult in practice – I never promised that I will be giving you a neat, fool proof formulae of making a lot of money by doing minimal work 🙂

The moat of a long term investor
If the all of the above sounds too fuzzy and cannot be laid out in a neat formulae, you should actually feel very happy about it. Think about it for a moment – if something is fuzzy and requires a combination of a wide experience, insight and some thinking, it is unlikely to be done successfully by a computer or fresh out of college analysts.

Can a research analyst go and present this fuzzy thinking to his head of research, who wants a precise target price for the next month ?

So any investor who has a long term horizon and is ready to invest the time and effort to do this type of analysis will find very little competition. It is a general rule of business that lower competition leads to higher returns – the same is true for investing too.

If you buys stocks, the way most people buy shoes, TV or fridges – after due research on features, durability (how long will the consumer durable last) and then finally price, the result will be much better than average


This is a commonly used, but rarely defined word. I am going to argue in this post that the sole purpose of investing is wealth creation.

What is wealth creation ?
Let’s take a numerical example. Let’s say you have 100 Rs. You can invest it in an FD at around 9-10%. At the end of 5 years, you will have around 161 Rs. We can call this the baseline level of return.

However putting money in a Bank FD is not a riskless transaction. If the inflation during this period turns out to be 11%, then you would have lost 5% of your buying power. On the other if we take the average inflation of the last 20 odd years, then the buying power would have risen by 15% over the same period.

Have you created wealth in the above case ? I would say yes, as you have been able to increase your buying power over the investing period, but not by much (15% at best on average).

Let’s say one were to invest in the stock market (via index funds) for a 5 year period. On average, the market has returned around 15-17% per annum over the last 20+ years. If you back out an inflation assumption of 7%, then the buying power would rise by 61% for the period. Now we are talking of some serious wealth creation !

However the above example has a catch – I spoke about an average return of 15-17%. The reality is that the stock market returns are lumpy and you can have a period of 2003-08 of 30%+ returns and then a period of 2% returns for the next 6 years (2008-2013). So in this case, one is talking of wealth creation with an added level of risk.

The above examples are quite obvious , but ignored by many. We need to concentrate on post tax, post inflation returns to evaluate the wealth creation potential of an investment option. If you have a higher buying power after taxes and inflation, then you have created wealth.

The aspect of time
I arbitrarily considered a time period of 5 years in my example. What is the correct period? 1 month, 1 year or 20 years?

I would argue that the time period for wealth creation should be driven by your personal goals. Are you saving (and creating wealth) for the purpose of buying a house or retirement? If that is the case, then the period should be upwards of 10 years.

Let’s put the above two point together – One needs to make a level of post tax, post inflation returns over the investment horizon (10 years +) such that you can meet your personal goals. Why else would you put your money at risk?

Now there a lot of people who invest for the thrill of it (for 100% return in days !!) or to boast of their investing prowess to their friends and impress the other sex , mostly women – who from my personal experience,   don’t care about such silly things  🙂 ).

It is fine to put your money in the stock market to feel macho about yourself – but let’s not call that investing. Bungee jumping off a cliff is also done for thrills, but no one calls its investing !

Following the logic
If you agree that the purpose of investing is wealth creation over a long period of time, it is important not only to earn high returns, but to also do it consistently over a period of time. There is no point earning 30%+ returns for four years and then losing 50% in the 5th (Which will translate into an 8% annual return)

Why is consistency important ? If you can earn 15% consistently for 20 years, you will have 16 times your starting capital and 40 times if the rate rises to 20% per annum. This is simply the magic of compounding.

Now If you shift your focus from high returns (to feel good or boast about it) to consistent returns (to create maximum wealth), the investing approach changes.

Implication of consistent returns
If you are looking for above average, but consistent returns for the long run what should one look for ? If you are looking at earning a 15-20% return over a 10-20 year period , I would suggest looking for companies which are earning this kind of return on capital now and have the capability to do so for a long period of time.

If you can find a company which has a sustainable competitive advantage (sustainable being the key) or a deep and wide moat, then it is likely to maintain its current high return on capital. If you buy such a company at a reasonable price (around the median PE value for the company), the results are likely to be good over time.

Let’s look at an example here – This is a current holding for me and not a stock tip. The name is Crisil.

You can read the analysis here.

Following is a table of price, and annual return/ CAGR for the last 10 years


As you can see, even if you purchased the company on 31st December each year (blindly without worry about valuation), you would have done well.  This result boils down to the following reason

–          The company has a wide and deep moat in the ratings industry due to government mandated entry barriers (none can just start a ratings agency),  Buyer power (Companies have to pay to get their debt rated and the cost is usually a small percentage of the debt) and lack of substitutes (even banks insist on company ratings now based on RBI directive).
–          The deep and wide moat has enabled the company to maintain a high return on capital of 50%+ for the last 10 years. The company has been able to re-invest a small portion of its profits to fund its growth and has returned the excess capital to shareholders via dividends and buybacks.

A strong competitive position and good management with rational capital allocation approach has resulted in a very good result for the shareholders.

The catch
There always a catch in investing – nothing is as easy as it looks. For starters, this approach requires a huge dose of patience.

How many active investors (me included) would like to select a stock once in a few years and then do absolutely nothing  for a long period of time ? In every other profession, progress is measured by level of activity – except investing, where sometimes doing nothing is much better.

The other catch is that this approach is very boring. You find a few companies like crisil and then spend maybe 1 hr each quarter and a few hours every year end reviewing the progress. If the company is still performing as it always has, you have no further work left. If you are a professional investor, what are you going to do with the rest of your time ??

The last catch is that this approach has a level of survivorship bias. If you select a wrong company or if the competitive advantage is lost during the holding period, then the returns are likely to be poor or even negative.

Returns over entertainment
Although this ‘rip van winkle’ approach makes a lot of sense, I am unlikely to follow it fully. I enjoy the process of investing, looking for new ideas and doing all kinds of experiments. At the same time, a major portion of my portfolio is slowly moving towards such long term ‘wealth creation’ ideas.

In the final analysis, investing should be about wealth creation and achieving your financial goals.

Stocks discussed in this post are for educational purpose only and not recommendations to buy or sell. Please contact a certified investment adviser for your investment decisions. Please read disclaimer towards the end of blog.


I received a list of companies to analyse based on my earlier post. In order to do a better analysis, I am trying to club all the stocks from the same industry. As there are several cement companies in the list, I decided to take a stab at the cement stocks first.

My earlier analysis of the cement industry is here and here. In addition I have analysed the industry and updated my analysis in the file business analysis in the google group. Please have a look under the column commodity – cement.

The cement industry is a cyclical commodity industry where the profit and return on capital is dependent on the demand cycle picture. From the mid 90’s to 2002-2003 period, there was an excess of supply and hence prices were depressed. Most companies had poor to non-existent profits and accordingly the stock prices suffered. Since 2003, the demand has increased rapidly and so have the prices . The profit margins are now in excess of 20% for some companies and ROE in excess of 40% for companies such as ambuja cements. I personally think these are fairly high returns for this industry and the best of the companies in the industry would earn around a max of 20% over a business cycle.

Valuation of cement companies should not be done on the basis of peak earnings alone. This holds true for most commodity companies. Case in point – sugar companies. In 2006-2007, these companies appeared cheap based on their peak earnings. However when the cycle turned downwards, the stock prices got wacked. The economics of the cement industry are not as bad (there is lesser government intervention), however the valuation approach should be similar to the sugar industry. One has to be careful in extrapolating the peak earnings and assuming that the stock is undervalued.

Due to the cyclicality and commodity nature of the industry, analysis and valuation of  cement companies is more diffcult as one has to figure out where the industry stands in terms of the business cycle . High returns can be made if one can predict the key turnaround points in the business cycle.

Mysore cement –
This is an interesting company. The company was taken over by the heidelberg group and made a tender offer to buy shares from the public at 54 Rs/ share in 2006 . SEBI directed the group to set the price at 72.5 per share. This was recently overturned by SAT and the heidelberg group can now initiate a tender offer to buy the shares from the public at Rs54 per share.

In addition the company alloted 66.5 Million shares at Rs 54 per share in 2006 to the group. This capital was used to pay off the accumulated debts and wipe out the accumulated losses. The company has also become profitable from 2007 since the new management took over.

In addition a recent news, indicates that indorama cement would be merging with mysore cement taking the capacity to 2.8 Million tonnes. The company further plans to expand the capacity to 5.9 Million tonnes.

The financials look good, with the company solidly in the black, no debt and cash of almost 180 crs on the books. The impact of the new management can clearly be seen from the P&L account, balance sheet improvement and aggressive plans of the company to expand capacity through mergers and greenfield projects.

So if everything is so good, then one should go and buy the stock? I would hold on that before I can figure out the following
–        Cement is a cyclical industry. Currently the industry is on an upswing and hence all cement companies are making good money. How will mysore cement fare when the cycle turns south (supply exceeds demand)
–        What is the cost structure for mysore cement? Cost is critical in a commodity industry such as cement.
–        Future plans of the management. Scale is important in the industry. Mysore cement is still at 2.8 Million tonnes and even after capacity expansion would still be one of the smaller companies

One interesting development is the tender offer. The stock is quoting at around 30 Rs and the tender offer should be around 54 Rs. The stock may be a good arbitrage opportunity, even if the long term prospects of the company needs a more thorough analysis.

Ambuja cements
Ambuja cements has been one of most profitable cement companies in india and has made money even during the downturns. They have the highest net profit margins in the industry at 30% and ROE of almost 40%. Net profit margins have grown from 10% to around 30% and the profit as a result has grown by 8 times in the last 5 years.

The company sells at around 560 Crs/ Million tons of capacity compared to say 170 Crs/ Million tons of capacity for Mysore cement. The difference is high and understandable as Ambuja cement is a well run company with huge capacity and a very efficient cost structure.

The company is currently selling at a PE of 7 based on last year’s net profit numbers. Based on normalised profit margins of around 12-15%, the company is selling at a PE of around 12-13. I would say the company is undervalued by 20-25% at best.

If you believe that the net margins are sustainable, consider the following fact : Net margins in 2003 and before were around 10% and have expanded to around 30% in the last 2 years.

Grasim, ACC, Ultratech etc
Grasim has a blend of cement, VSF and other businesses. The cement business seems to be doing well in line with industry. The other companies such as ACC and ultratech have also been performing well in the last 2-3 years. Most of the top cement companies now have margins in the range of 18-22%, ROE in excess of 30% and high profit growth rates in excess of 20-30%.

The valuations of these companies are fairly close. Most of these tier I companies are selling at 7-8 times profit in comparison to the smaller companies which are selling at 4-5 times or lesser.

I am reaching the following conclusions after looking at the complete sector

–  The cement industry has enjoyed very high growth rates and great profits for the last few years. The profits margins are not sustainable. New capacity, cost pressure and competition are bound to drive the margins to long term averages of around 10-12% in the next few years

–  Most of the companies appear undervalued in terms of the last 2 years profits. However on the basis of normalized profits they are selling at 12-13 times earnings. At best, these companies appear undervalued by 20-25%. There may be a bit of undervaluation, but not by a huge amount.

–  Considering the level of undervaluation in some sectors such as pharma, IT etc and the better economics enjoyed by those industries compared to Cement, I am personally not too keen on investing in the cement sector. If I had to pick up one cement company to put my money in for the long term, I would prefer ambuja cement (if I had to that is !!)