Wednesday, 28 March 2018

NET EARNINGS: What Warren is looking for


                              Income Statement

($ in millions)  

         Cost of Goods Sold
         Gross Profit

Operating Expenses

         Selling, General & Admin
         Research & Development
         Operating Profit

         Interest Expense
         Gain (Loss) Sale Assets
         Income Before Tax
         Income Taxes Paid
         Net Earnings

After all the expenses and taxes have been deducted from a company's revenue, we get the company's net earnings. This is where we find out how much money the company made after it paid income taxes. There are a couple of concepts that Warren uses when he looks at this number that help him determine whether the company has a durable competitive advantage, so why don't we start there.

First on Warren's list is whether or not the net earnings are showing a historical upward trend. A single year's entry for net earnings is worthless to Warren; he is interested in whether or not there is consistency in the earnings picture and whether the long-term trend is upward---both of which can be equated to "durability" of the competitive advantage. For Warren the ride doesn't have to be smooth, but he is after a historical upward trend.

But note: Because of share repurchase programs it is possible that a company's historical net earnings trend may be different from its historical per-share earnings trend. Share repurchase programs will increase per-share earnings by decreasing the number of shares outstanding. If a company reduces the number of shares outstanding, it will decrease the number of shares being used to divide the company's net earnings, which in turn increases per-share earnings even though actual net earnings haven't increased. In extreme examples the company's share repurchase program can even cause an increase in per-share earnings, while the company is experiencing an actual decrease in net earnings.

Though most financial analysis focuses on a company's
per-share earnings, Warren looks at the business's net earnings to see what is actually going on.

What he has learned is that companies with a durable competitive advantage will report a higher percentage of net earnings to total revenues than their competitors will. Warren has said that given the choice between owning a company that is earning $2 billion on $10 billion in total revenue, or a company earning $5 billion on $100 billion in total revenue, he would choose the company earning the $2 billion. This is because the company with $2 billion in net earnings is earning 20% on total revenues, while the company earning $5 billion is earning only 5% on total revenues.

So, while the total revenue number alone tells us very little about the economics of the business, its ratio to net earnings can tell us a lot about the economics of the business compared with other businesses.

A fantastic business like Coca-Cola earns 21% on total revenues, and the amazing Moody's earns 31 %, which reflects these companies' superior underlying business economics. But a company like Southwest Airlines earns a meager 7%, which reflects the highly competitive nature of the airline business, in which no one airline holds a long-term competitive advantage over its peers. In contrast, General Motors, in even a great year---when it isn't losing money---earns only 3% on total revenue. This is indicative of the lousy economics inherent in the super-competitive auto industry.

A simple rule (and there are exceptions) is that if a company is showing a net earnings history of more than 20% on total revenues, there is a real good chance that it is benefiting from some kind of long-term competitive advantage. Likewise, if a company is consistently showing net earnings under 10% on total revenues it is---more likely than not---in a highly competitive business in which no one company holds a durable competitive advantage. This of course leaves an enormous gray area of companies that earn between 10% and 20% on total revenue, which is just packed with businesses ripe for mining long-term investment gold that no one has yet discovered.

One of the exceptions to this rule is banks and financial companies, where an abnormally high ratio of net earnings to total revenues usually means a slacking-off in the risk management department. While the numbers look enticing, they actually indicate an acceptance of greater risk for easier money, which in the game of lending money is usually a recipe for making quick money at the cost of long-term disaster. And having financial disasters is not how one gets rich.

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