are high margins better than low ones?

This post is indirectly about Amazon’s retailing business, although it has much wider implications.

My answer:  not necessarily.  It depends on what kind of company we’re talking about.  Note, also, that this is a topic that’s badly misunderstood, particularly in the financial press, which clings to the simple assumption that high margins, of themselves, are better than low ones.


The apparent virtue of having high margins is clear.  Companies that have, for instance, essential intellectual property protected by high patent/copyright/manufacturing-knowhow walls, can achieve selling prices that are much greater function of the usefulness of their products/services to customers than of their production costs (this latter is the functional definition of a commodity company).  Software firms can easily achieve 50%–or maybe 80% or 90%–operating margins for their wares.


Most distribution companies–both wholesale and retail–don’t work this way, however.  They thrive through low margins, high inventory turnover and careful working capital management to achieve superior financial results.  In fact, for these companies high margins are a threat, not a boon.  Why?    …because high margins attract competition.

the low-margin model

Here’s a (highly simplified) account of how the low-margin model works:

the simplest case

A warehouse holds inventory of $1 million.  It constantly replenishes its stocks, and pays cash immediately for new supplies, so that it always has $1 million invested.  It marks items up by 5% over its costs.

Let’s say the company generates an average of $525,000 in sales per month.  That means it turns over about half its inventory (a turnover ratio of 6x/year) each month, earning operating income of $25,000.  $25,000 x 12 = $300,000 in operating profit per year.  Applying a 1/3 income tax rate, it produces $200,000 in net income.  That’s a 20% return on invested capital. Not bad.

a more favorable one

Let’s now imagine that the company can turn its inventory once a month (turnover ratio = 12).  This means it earns operating income of $50,000/month, or $600,000 per year. This translates into $400,000 in net income. That’s a 40% return on capital.


Let’s say the company turns inventory once a month but is large enough or important enough to suppliers that they no longer ask for payment on delivery.  Instead, they are willing to wait for 30-45 days.

Now the company has zero/negative working capital, i.e., no capital invested in inventory.  It’s return on investment is now infinite.


Yes, this third case is probably too good to be true.  But it illustrates the enormous, badly-understood, power of high inventory-turnover companies.


A post on potential troubles in paradise on Tuesday.



oil and gold: finding the commodity cycle bottom

I got my first couple of portfolio manager jobs in the 1980s because one of my industry specializations as  a securities analyst was natural resources.  Back then, there were an enormous number of mining analysts in an information industry based in London.  The large size and vitality of the analyst community were partly because there had been an enormous spike in the prices of gold and oil in the late 1970s-early 1980s. So investors were willing to pay handsomely for information and interpretation.  Also, the prevalent economic theory of the day, since proved to be woefully incorrect, held that a necessary condition for global economic growth was a continuously expanding supply of mineral resources.

When the Chinese economic expansion-driven commodities boom began a decade and a half later, I found that, unsurprisingly after 15 years of no one being interested, the entire stock market information infrastructure for metals had disappeared.  There were still the odd steel or oil analyst around eking out a living and staggering toward retirement, but little else, either in London or New York.

As far as I can see, from an information perspective the situation is at least as bad today.  In the perverse way that Wall Street works, however, that lack itself is the basis of the positive thesis for mining in general.

industry characteristics

Mineral extraction industries are very capital-intensive.  This means that projects typically require large amounts of up-front money. But they can often continue, once up and running, for long periods without new funds being put in.

Mining projects often have very long lives.

Very often, projects are also huge.  This is partly the nature of the beast, partly a function of the temperament of the people who run minerals companies.  This means that new supply is often added in gigantic chunks.  New supply almost invariably arrives in amounts way above the increase in demand and typically, therefore, marks the high water mark in terms of price.  Boom and bust, boom and bust–the rhythm of these markets.

finding the bottom

Falling prices indicates that there’s more supply than demand.  In theory, that situation can be reversed either by demand expanding or by supply contracting.  In practice, the first rarely happens.

What establishes the bottom for these markets, in my experience, is a price decline that’s deep enough to force high-cost capacity to close.  This does not mean the price at which companies stop earning a financial reporting profit.  That price is too high.  That’s because it includes as an expense a non-cash allowance for recovering the money spent to open the project.  A company can also be compelled to sell at unfavorable prices by creditors.

What actually matters is the point at which the out-of-pocket cash cost of getting output out of the ground is less than what it can be sold for.  That’s the point at which projects begin to shut themselves down.  They may not do so immediately.  They may continue to bleed in the hope of an imminent turnaround.

For gold, the relevant figure is around $850 an ounce, I think.  Oil is a bit more complicated, but the magic number is likely about $40 a barrel.

More tomorrow.



contribution margin

three sets of books

A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about the three sets of accounts that a publicly traded company maintains:

–tax books, where the objective is to pay the smallest amount of tax legally possible–in other words, to fool the IRS,

–financial reporting books, where a more liberal view of when and how revenues and expense occur allow a company to put its best foot forward with owners–in other words, to fool shareholders, and

–management control books, also called cost accounting books, which the company uses to actually run its operations.

contribution margin

Contribution margin is a cost accounting concept.

The first thing to note is that despite its name it’s not really a margin–that is, it’s not a percentage.

Instead, it’s the amount by which an activity or a  line of business exceeds its own direct costs and makes a contribution to corporate overhead.  This isn’t the same as making a standalone profit, meaning after covering total costs.

Take a restaurant that’s now open for lunch and dinner and makes money doing so.

Should it open for breakfast, as well?

In the simplest case, the question is whether the restaurant can generate enough revenue to offset the cost of paying for the food and the staff.  If so, it makes a positive contribution margin.  If we were to allocate, say, 20% of the restaurant’s total expense for rent, electricity and depreciation of equipment,  breakfast might be bleeding red ink.  But those costs are there anyway, whether breakfast is or not.  As long as the contribution margin is positive, the firm is better off with breakfast than without.  (Yes, the actual situation is more complicated   …is the wear and tear higher because of breakfast?   …does breakfast cannibalize the other meals?   But I’m keeping it simple to illustrate a point.)

Another case.   Some lines of business may never have been intended to create growing profits, or may no longer be capable of doing so, even if they once were.  A manufacturer may make precision components in-house.  The component division will typically be run as a cost center, not a profit center.  It’s mission will be to provide high quality parts at the lowest price, not to maximize profits.  Its managers will be evaluated by their ability to provide output more cheaply than third-party alternatives can.  Again, the division may not be profitable after allocation of its share of corporate overhead.  Still, it may be very valuable.  Its value will be measured by contribution margin, defined as the difference between in-house and third-party component costs.

Why is this important?

It’s a mindset thing.  Not every part of a company may be intended to grow.  Rising stars may eventually turn into cash cows as businesses evolve.  It’s important both for company management and investors to understand the role an activity should be playing in the overall enterprise.