The Investor’s North Star For The Next Twenty Years

Aside from the usual recommendations to own companies with dominant market positions, strong balance sheets, and high earnings growth, what is something that investors should keep in mind over the next 20+ years of investing that maybe didn’t matter as much in the past?

My view is that investors should be taking to heart the 1970s recommendations of Peter Drucker who predicted that one of the endings of perpetual technological development is that friction will cease to exist between the original source of a product and the consumer. This means that you should be wary about investing in companies that act as middlemen.

Take something like Dick’s Sporting Goods (DKS). It’s a $5.3 billion company that is divided into 114 million pieces that trade at $47 per share each. It earns a profit of $350 million, or $3.07 per share. The valuation of 15x earnings is pretty low for a company that has ten-year top-line growth of 11.5%, ten-year earnings per share growth of 16.5%, and a valuation of 19-23x earnings during that time. Since the $3 per share IPO in October 2002, the stock has grown a $10,000 investment into $151,000 in just fourteen years. That is especially impressive when you consider that the current valuation of the stock is competitive with the recession-level P/E ratio level and is otherwise the cheapest opportunity to buy Dick’s Sporting Goods since the IPO.

Yet, when I study Dick’s Sporting Goods, there is a limitation on the type of way it should be considered. It’s not something like General Electric, Coca-Cola, Colgate-Palmolive, Nestle, or Brown Forman where you can buy the shares, and then set it and collect the dividends for the rest of your life knowing with a high probability that something will be there decades from now.

There will come an expiration date for the company because the original source goods–the Nike and Under Armour products that get customers through the door–are now beginning to contact customers directly without the need for a vendor middleman like Dick’s Sporting Goods to act as an intermediary to connect Nike shoes and golf clubs to the consumer.

At first, I noticed that Nike and Under Armour were beginning to sell their own products directly to consumers online. That was something that would compete with Dick’s Sporting Goods, but not necessarily in a mutually exclusive way–it is conceivable to think of a world where Nike and Under Armour’s online sales grow while Dick’s Sporting Goods also earns a tidy growing profit selling those goods to customers as well. That’s because shoes, jackets, shirts, pants, and so on are the type of good you like to see firsthand and get a feel for–it’s distinguishable from buying a book on Amazon because there is a certain in-person customization that enough customers will require.

But what has bothered me, from the perspective of someone studying the business model at Dick’s Sporting Goods, is that Nike and Under Armour have successfully opened their open stores that sell their products directly to consumers. If there is a pair of Nike shoes that you want, why not just go to Nike instead of an intermediary that will have to raise the price enough to own their own keep as well? The coherence of the intermediary’s business model takes on a substantial impairment when the end products that a customer desires can be purchased through the end company itself.

There are three reasons why a business earns a profit over the long term. You may buy something because it is cheap, you may buy something because it is convenient, and you may buy something because you want the specific product itself.

An example of the first category is airlines–unless you belong to a frequent flyer program, you will choose which airline to travel based on price. If Delta tickets cost $139, and Southwest tickets cost $129, you’re going to choose Southwest unless there is some other externality weighing on your decision–e.g. maybe you had a bad experience flying Southwest before, maybe the Delta routes are more timely, etc. Absent an intervening externality, price wins out.

Convenience is the second moat, and this is the weakest of them all. You might frequent a grocery store because it’s by your house–you wouldn’t actively choose it based on price, and you don’t seek out the grocery store for it’s own sake, but it’s only a five minute drive away so you go there anyway.

And the third type of business is the strongest–when you want the specific product itself. You don’t just want shoes–you want Nike shoes. You don’t just want soda–you want something sold through Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper. You don’t just want acetaminophen–you want Johnson & Johnson’s Tylenol.

Using our Dick’s Sporting Goods example, you can see that the profits are built on convenience. People don’t want Nike shoes because they bought them at Dick’s Sporting Goods; they buy them at Dick’s Sporting Goods because that is the most convenient way to get Nike shoes with the immediate knowledge that they fit. This is the type of business model that is the most vulnerable to disruption.

It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t buy Dick’s Sporting Goods–the current price around $47 per share does offer some protection, but it’s the kind of company that you may not want to hold beyond five years. A quick 40% pop, or the spotting of a branded company with a similar valuation to Dick’s, is enough justification to get out of the company because firms built on convenience exclusively are not inherently meant to be lifetime holdings.

This observation usually leads to a follow-up like: So what do you do if you own Wal-Mart stock?

There are three things that Wal-Mart has going for it that might distinguish from an investment in a firm like Dick’s Sporting Goods. It sells products that don’t face competition from the branded source; it has the additional benefit of cost advantages in addition to convenience advantages; and the firm is 50% owned by the Walton family which reduces the inherent conflict of self-interests that exists in a corporation where there is a disunity between management and shareholders.

Although Wal-Mart faces convenient and price competition from Amazon, and in some instances, Aldi and Kroger, it still offers enough of a price advantage on a decent number of offerings that it may be the preferred choice of customers not only because it is close by but also because you want to see the oranges and bananas before you buy them and there’s probably not a better price if you look elsewhere either. The Wal-Mart business model isn’t just built on convenience; it’s built on the mixture of cost and convenience.

Also, anytime you buy stock in a company, you also face the disadvantage of not fully knowing what’s going on inside the company. When you buy a few hundred or a few thousand shares of a billion-dollar corporation, you can’t quite measure the management team’s survivalist instinct and know the specifics of how that instinct (if it exists) translates into a sound strategy that will serve shareholders well.

With the Walton family collectively owning over $100 billion of the company’s $214 billion in market value, you can strongly presume that the survivalist instinct exists at the management level (because the Walton family’s control of the board permits them to choose officers) so the only unknown is whether the survivalist instinct translates into a strategy that permits shareholders to prosper. It’s one set of unknowns instead of a double set of unknowns.

The most straightforward way to solve this problem–recognizing that Wal-Mart has a strong cost and convenience advantage but unsure whether it is built to withstand the decades–is to take your Wal-Mart dividends if Wal-Mart is a meaningful position you hold and then invest them in companies that more clearly have generational-holding characteristics. If the Wal-Mart business model is only meant to grow earnings for 23 more years, well, you get at least 92 dividend payments to mitigate that final outcome.

But if you’re trying to figure out what should be your investing north star for the next two decades, and have concerns about the rate of disruption brought about by technological change, then you should focus on companies where people seek it out to specifically acquire the products that they sell. Strong brands should be your first priority, and can easily fill two thirds of a portfolio. Then, you focus on the low-cost producers in an industry that have some type of cost advantage–companies with the GEICO, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp, Exxon business model. That can take up anywhere from 10% to 30% of your selections. And lastly, you should aim to keep less than 10% of your wealth that is earmarked for long-term business ownership towards those companies that are exclusively about convenience. Those are the businesses most susceptible to shareholder wipeout, and therefore, should be a disfavored investment category.