Tesco, Coke and IBM, three Buffett blowups

Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway fame is perhaps the best-known equity investor in the United States.

What made his reputation is that Buffett was the first to understand the investment value of intangible assets like brand names, distribution networks, training that develops a distinctive corporate culture.

Take a soft drinks company (I’m thinking Coca-Cola (KO), but don’t want to dig the actual numbers out of past annual reports).  Such a company doubtless has a secret formula for making tasty drinks.  More important, it controls a wide distribution network that has agreements that allow it to deliver products directly to supermarkets and stacks them on shelves.  The company has also surely developed distinctive packaging and has spent, say, 10% of pretax income on advertising and other marketing in each of the past twenty (or more) years to make its name an icon.  (My quick Google search says KO spent $4 billion on worldwide marketing in 2010.  Think about twenty years of spending like that!!!)

Presumably if we wanted to compete with KO, we would have to spend on advertising and distribution, as well.  Maybe all the best warehouse locations are already taken.  Maybe the best distributors already have exclusive relationships with KO.  Maybe supermarkets won’t make shelf space available (why should they?).  And then there’s having to advertise enough to rise above the din KO is already creating.

 

What Buffett saw before his rivals of the 1960s was that none of this positive stuff appears as an asset on the balance sheet.  Advertising, training, distribution payments only appear on the financials as expenses, lowering current income, and, in consequence, the company’s net worth, even though they’re powerful competitive weapons and formidable barriers to entry into the industry by newcomers.

Because investors of his day were focused almost totally on book value–and because this spending depressed book value–they found these brand icons unattractive.  Buffett had the field to himself for a while, and made a mint.

 

This week two of Mr.Buffett’s biggest holdings, IBM and KO, have blown up.  They’re not the first.  Tesco, the UK supermarket operator, another firm right in the Buffett wheelhouse, also recently fell apart.

what I find interesting

Every professional investor makes lots of mistakes, and all of the time.  My first boss used to say that it takes three good stocks to make up for one mistake.  Therefore, she concluded, a portfolio manager has to spend the majority of his attention on finding potential blowups in his portfolio and getting rid of them before the worst news struck.  So mistakes are in themselves part of the territory.

Schadenfreude isn’t it, either.

Rather, I think

1.  Mr. Buffett’s recent bad luck illustrates that in an Internet world structural change is taking place at a much more rapid pace than even investing legends understand

2.  others have (long since, in my view) caught up with Mr. Buffett’s thinking.  Brand icons now trade at premium prices, not discounts, making them more vulnerable to bad news, and

3.  I sense a counterculture, Millennials vs. Baby Boom element in this relative performance, one that I believe is just in its infancy.

 

 

 

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