A regular reader asked me the other day to explain why I said I thought the margins of Whole Foods (WFM) are too high.  Here goes:

what they are

Margins are ratios, usually some measure of profits (gross profit, operating profit, pre-tax profit…) divided by sales. (Yes, in cost accounting contribution margin is a plain old dollar amount, not a ratio.  But it’s an exception.  I have no idea why the misleading name.)

when high margins are bad

At first thought, it would seem that the higher the margins, the better off the seller is.  Buy the item for $1, sell it for $2.  That’s good.  Raise your prices and sell it for $5, that’s better.

The financial press encourages this notion with articles that talk up high margins as a good thing.

At some point, however, other people will work out how much you’re making and start doing the same thing.  They’ll typically go for market share by undercutting your prices.  So now you’ve got a competitor who wasn’t there before and you’re facing a price war that will at the very least undercut your brand image.

Creating what analysts call a price umbrella below which competitors can price their products and be protected from you as a rival is one of the worst mistakes a firm can make.

In my experience, it’s infinitely better to build a market more slowly by yourself than to have to try to dislodge a new rival who has spent time–and probably a lot of money–to enter.

One potential exception:  patented intellectual property (think:  Intel or drug companies). Even in this case, however, there’s the danger that once-successful firms become lazy and fail to continue to innovate after initial success.  The sad stories of IBM, or of Digital Equipment, or INTC for that matter, are cautionary tales.

More tomorrow.

operating margin

operating margin

The financial ratio that professional investors focus on more than any other is operating margin, or operating income ÷ revenue.

The major categories of expenses subtracted from revenue to get to operating income are:  direct costs of creating a product/service (cost of materials, wages, power, water…) plus depreciation and SG&A (sales, general and administrative) expenses.  SG&A includes things like the cost of top management, sales force and corporate headquarters.

the higher, the better?

Most people assume that the higher the operating margin is, the more attractive a company is as an investment.  The idea is that the company in question must have spectacular offerings to be able to charge high prices that exceed the cost of creating them by a lot.  But that’s only true in very specific circumstances.

value and sustainability

The two big questions are whether current high margins are valuable and whether they are sustainable.


The first point sounds weird but is actually an important special case.  Some companies (think:  fine jewelry or furniture) have high margins–high profits on each sale–because to do business they have to maintain large inventories that don’t turn over very frequently.  Unlike candy in the checkout aisle, where the starting inventory may be sold several times a day, it may take six months or longer to sell a brooch or a sofa that’s on the showroom floor.  So, yes, the margins are high.  But a good part of that is to compensate for the expense of holding inventory (not such a concern in a 0% interest rate world) and the risk that items may go out of style (or never have been in style) before they’re sold.


Most of the time, however, sustainability is the key issue.  That’s because high margins draw competition.  Personally, I think very high margins are never sustainable forever.  So for me the question is how quickly, and how publicly, they’ll be eroded.  I’m willing to believe that there’s an enduring  value to intellectual property like patents.  So I’m happy to buy tech companies.  There’s also a value to intangibles, like a strong brand name, an efficient distribution network and good customer service.  However, intangibles are not the no-brainer it used to be.  The internet has eroded that value badly from what it was twenty years ago–much to the consternation of people like Warren Buffett, whose career was built on his superior understanding of intangibles.

In any event, the holder of high-margin firms has to be alert to possible threats to the franchise.  Often the threat comes in the form of what are initially thought to be inferior products.  The $3000 PC replaced the $100,000 mini-computer, not because the former was better than the latter but because you could get 30 of them and make do for less than a single machine from DEC.  Same thing with mp3 players vs. stereos.  The sound is inferior but the machines are cheaper and portable.

the beauty of low margins


Again, personally, I find myself attracted to distribution companies, which have high operating income despite low operating income margins, because they have high inventory turnover.  The ones I find most compelling send to sell a product long before they have to pay their supplier for it.  Also, they’re badly understood by devotees of high margins.

broken companies

A final note:  value investors begin to salivate when they find a firm with much lower margins than is the norm for the industry.  Typically, the stock will be very cheap and, they believe, it’s just a matter of time before either the board of directors takes corrective action or the company is taken over.  Normally not my cup of tea but I’ll dabble on occasion.

margins, not quite what they seem

There’s a persistent belief among investors that companies with high margins are better than those with low ones.  To a limited extent, this is true, but the issue is much more nuanced than is commonly thought.  In fact, in many cases, a high-margin firm in a given industry is in an inferior position to one with lower margins.

I’ll be writing about this over the rest of this week, after my Keeping Score analysis of the sector performance of the S&P 500 for May tomorrow.

What are margins?

They are ratios.  They’re ratios of profits to sales, usually expressed as percentages.  The most commonly used are:

–gross margin, which is the based on profits after deducting direct costs of providing goods or services

operating margin, which is based on profits after deducting both direct and indirect costs

pre-tax margin, which is based on profits after all costs ex tax (the main added item is interest expense), and

net margin, which is based on profits after all costs, including income tax.


another topic

I received an email a while ago explaining that I might be one of a large number of Twitter users whose account might have been hacked in 2012.  The email suggested I change my password   …which, of course, I failed to do.

Last night I got another email noting possible suspicious activity in my account.  For anyone who might be interested, no, I am not the scantily clad woman whose picture appeared on my account yesterday.  Nor am I touting her sex site.

I have since changed my password and removed all (I think) the offending material.  A weird experience.