Investing In An Age Of Transient Competitive Advantages

Posted on August 24, 2013

John Mason – Originally Published at Seeking Alpha – Reprinted with Authors Permission

In this article I will review the book “The End of Competitive Advantage,” by Rita Gunther McGrath, published by the Harvard Business Review Press in 2013.

I like to think of myself as a “value investor.” That is, I believe that I invest in quality companies that are underpriced. In terms of the quality of the organizations I like to invest in, I look for firms that have established a competitive advantage in their industries and are earning at least a 15% return on equity, after taxes. To judge the quality of management and its staying power, I look for those organizations that have a sustainable competitive advantage, defined as earning a 15% return on equity, after taxes, for a period of five to eight years. And, to capture the fact that a stock may be underpriced, I look for a low price/earnings ratio.

Other factors that have been important in my analysis are the industry share the company achieves and protects and the stability of this share over time. Of course, these are the quantitative factors and must be supplemented by other factors, such as an examination of management, industry make-up, and governmental factors that might contribute to firm performance.

Well, starting right here, Dr. McGrath starts to eat away at this picture. For one, she argues that industry boundaries are no longer that important. She argues that “arenas” are more crucial in the modern environment. The important thing in today’s world is that there are connections between “the outcomes that particular customers want (the jobs to be done)” and “the alternative ways those outcomes might be met” (page 10). Industry lines are not the determinants of what products one should be producing and what markets they should be sold … read the rest

How Much Risk is the Treasury Really Assuming from the Financial Institutions?

Posted on April 7, 2009

What does it really mean to talk about saving “the banks”?  The Treasury would like us to have a mental picture of Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life, protecting the savings and mortgages of the good citizens of Bedford Falls.  In truth, for all material purposes, the current Public Private Investment Plan (PPIP) is about saving four mammoth financial institutions considered too big to fail, BankAmerica, Citicorp, J. P. Morgan Chase, and Wells Fargo.

These financial behemoths, each as large as a significant number of the world’s national economies, bear as much relationship to the Bedford Falls Building and Loan as a rowboat does to the Titanic.  For public consumption, however, it is convenient for the Treasury to continue to describe its efforts as a rescue of “the banks”;   rescuing hydra-headed financial giants just doesn’t have quite the same ring.  Additionally by lumping these institutions under the category of “banks” the Treasury can continue the fiction that the bailout is about “getting the banks lending again.”

Notwithstanding this fiction, as we showed last week, even Secretary Geithner has abandoned the pretense that the PPIP program is about encouraging direct bank lending in the traditional sense of taking deposits and making loans, admitting that the primary purpose of PPIP is to restore the strength of these wholesale institutions so that they can restart the private securitization markets that fueled the credit bubble earlier in the decade.  So here’s the plan.  Just remove the toxic assets from the books of the financial giants and the system will be restored to its former picture of robust health.  Hopefully the PPIP will be sufficient to fund the fix.  If not the Treasury can use its proposed new liquidation authority, invest few hundred billion dollars more to fill the gaps and sell the freshly minted “clean” … read the rest

Categories: Bailouts, Banks, Business Survival, Business Turnarounds, Distress, Economics

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What Does a Bonus Cost?

Posted on February 15, 2009

Consider this fable.

You’ve decided to invest $5 million in backing a champion at the new World Champion Poker Standoff. The rules are simple. Two players will play a winner takes all game of Texas Holdem. Each player will come to the table with a $5 million stake. You might ask why you would consider such an “investment”, but this is not all that different from the game the big banks have played in recent years.

Once in the game, you win a flip of a coin and are given first choice on hiring one of the two champions who will play in the tournament. The only information you are given is the following:

  • Player A wants an upfront cash salary of $400,000 plus a bonus equal to 50% of salary.
  • Player B requires no salary, but demands a bonus equal to 20% of his winnings.

Admittedly you’re missing some fairly important information such as who has the better track record and whether one of the players is a drunk or cocaine addict. But this is a fable after all so you’ve got to play by fable rules.

Given no more information than this, which player should you choose and how much will each player cost you if chosen. I would posit the following:

Player B is the only rational choice. Player A doesn’t have the courage of is convictions. Player B does. While this could be based on a totally unrealistic optimism on Player B’s part, it is more likely based on Player B’s realistic confidence that he will win. Assuming this is the case then the odds favor Player B and the likely cost of each player is as follows:

  • Player A costs $5,400,000 (Salary plus 100% loss of capital)
  • Player B generates a net profit of $4,000,000 ($5,000,000 winnings less $1,000,000
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Categories: Bailouts, Banks, Business Turnarounds, Economics, Uncategorized

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SURVIVOR- Main Street America’s New Reality Show

Posted on November 13, 2008

Shading Denote Recession

Shading Denotes Recession

By now we know the story all too well. Sixteen strangers debark onto a jungle island and are told they must work together to survive. While they pretend they’re on the same team, from the start they scheme to position themselves to outlast the other contestants, because at the end of the day they know there will only be one SURVIVOR.

Every business leader in America (and the World for that matter) is anxious to understand the impact of the financial crisis on their own business and personal prospects. How bad is it going to be? Does the crash present new opportunities? What should I do now? And yes, “What must I do to survive?”

Based on conversations with our clients and with financial and strategic investors, many are choosing to “hunker down” and ride out the storm. For some firms this may be an appropriate course. Yet to make such a decision without a realistic evaluation of your firm’s financial survivability in light of the new circumstances would be shortsighted at best. Unless you have capital reserves sufficient to weather a very protracted (perhaps eighteen months or more) and severe downturn, your business could be at grave risk. And if you depend on leverage, this calculation must also take into account the potential impact of reduced loan availability and dramatically higher loan pricing, which may well come sooner than you expect.

What We Know

The U. S. economy is in the midst of what will likely be the worst recession in the postwar era. It appears that the decline is rapidly spreading around the world and that we may well experience a serious global recession that will dramatically affect even the (until now) rapidly developing economies of Asia and Latin America as well as the developed world. The effects of … read the rest

In For a Penny, In for a Pound

Posted on November 10, 2008

AIG announced today a deal with the Federal Reserve that will have the effect of increasing the Fed’s bailout financing to AIG from $85 Billion to in excess of $167 Billion (and most likely counting).  Any seasoned distressed company investor knows that the first new money put into any failing company is likely to be lost unless the investor is prepared to follow the initial investment with a lot more (sometimes referred to as “good money after bad”).  More than one wag has described this phenomenon as “the second mouse gets the cheese”.

The other big economic news of the day revolved around the proposed bailout of General Motors.  Clearly something is likely to happen here with three million jobs at stake and a lot of political power in play with the United Auto Workers.  Given the inevitable, wouldn’t it make more sense if the money comes in as part of a pre-packaged Chaper 11 which cleans up the company’s balance sheet before the money comes in?

I’ve never seen a successful turnaround that keeps the old, failed management on board to steer the sinking ship.  Perhaps it would make more sense to put together an ownership group that includes some Japanese auto manufacturing skill as well as some of the best business  minds in America.  Toyota, Honda, et. al. clearly know something about running a successful auto plant and they are not afraid of investing in the United States.  And Steve Jobs seems pretty successful at creating a consumer products company.  Let’s harness the best we’ve got to create real change in this vital industry, not subsidize the failures of the past.

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Categories: Bailouts, Bankruptcy, Business Turnarounds

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