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Month: February 2012

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 4 (#competitiveadvantage, $AAPL)

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 4 (#competitiveadvantage, $AAPL)

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Putting it all together (so far)

All business analyses should begin with a study of competitive advantage by exploring the following, in order:

  1. identify the competitive landscape; which markets? who are the competitors?
  2. test for existence of competitive advantages; stable market shares? exceptional profits for extended periods of time?
  3. identify the likely nature of competitive advantages; supply, demand, economies of scale, regulatory hurdles?

Carrying out the analysis

Start by identifying the market segments that make up the industry as a whole and make a list of the leading competitors in each one, by market share. This is an organizational tool to study the breadth and depth of a competitive market place where the target firm’s role can be placed within.

Then, look for signs of existing competitive advantages by observing the stability of incumbent market shares and the profitability of firms within the market segments.

The more movement in and out, the more turbulent the ranking of the companies that remain, and the longer the list of competitors, the less likely it is that there are barriers and competitive advantages.


if you can’t count the top firms in an industry on the fingers of one hand, the chances are good that there are no barriers to entry.


if over a five- to eight-year period, the average absolute [market] share change exceeds 5 percentage points, there are no barriers to entry; if the share change is 2 percentage points or less, the barriers are formidable.

Profitability across an industry is best measured by the use of return on equity (ROE) or return on invested capital (ROIC). As a broad rule of thumb:

After-tax returns on invested capital averaging more than 15 to 25 percent — which would equate to 23 to 38 percent pretax return with tax rates of 35percent — over a decade or more are clear evidence of the presence of competitive advantages. A return on capital in the range of 6-8 percent after tax generally indicates their absence.

Utilize the principle of Occam’s Razor in your industry analysis, keeping things simple until there is a clear need to make them more complex.

Questions from the reading

  1. In the case study in the book, Apple (AAPL) seemed to have spread itself thin by trying to compete in multiple computer industry market segments where it had no clear competitive advantage. Eventually, Apple abandoned manufacturing its own chips and adopted the industry-standard hardware while focusing its efforts on smaller niche markets that had no clear incumbent (including new market segments it created, such as the tablet computer market). Was this the brilliant strategic move responsible for Apple’s current success, or was it something else entirely? Does Apple actually have a clear, sustainable competitive advantage?
  2. A lot of Greenwaldian strategic analysis seems dependent on the observation of historical trends in profitability and market share to arrive at conclusions about the existence of competitive advantage. Is there a way to predict and identify competitive advantage in a new or immature industry without the benefit of historical hindsight?

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 3 (#competitiveadvantage, $NTDOY)

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 3 (#competitiveadvantage, $NTDOY)

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Economies of scale depend on market share

Economies of scale are a competitive advantage that work most effectively in combination with another advantage such as customer captivity.

With some degree of customer captivity, the entrants never catch up and stay permanently on the wrong side of the economies of scale differential.

In general, smaller markets (in terms of geography or product space) present easier realms to obtain a competitive advantage, even with regards to economies of scale. As a market grows in absolute size, it becomes easier and easier for competitors to obtain their own economies of scale and erode the incumbent firms advantages in terms of fixed costs.

By keeping a competitive market small, the incumbent firm can outspend entrants in absolute dollars even if each firm spends the same proportion of revenues on things like R&D, advertising, marketing, distribution, etc.

Erosion in market share are the greatest threat to a firm with competitive advantages derived from economies of scale because as market share falls, the proportion of total costs which are fixed rises and thereby defeats the cost advantage of economies of scale.

Maintaining market share through customer captivity is critical

Customer captivity can be enhanced a number of ways:

  • habit – make purchases more frequent and spread their cost out over time to create a relationship that is easier to continue than replace; encourage repeated, nearly automatic purchases that don’t allow time for critical consideration of alternatives
  • switching costs – extend and deepen the range of services offered, thereby increasing the opportunity cost of switching to a competitor
  • search costs – integration of multiple features into one pricing plan complicates comparison shopping and increases risk of picking a half-effective service or product
The strategy of economies of scale

Economies of scale…

  1. tend to be the longest lived of the three major types of competitive advantage
  2. are vulnerable to gradual erosion and therefore must be defended vigorously
Establishing dominance in a local market and then expanding outward gradually from that hub is the best strategy for firms relying on EoS. Small, local markets only have room for a few competitors, at most, meaning the firm that gains dominance will also gain EoS (if possible) while preventing the competitor from obtaining that same advantage.

Markets grow rapidly because they attract many new customers, who are by definition non-captive. They may provide a base of viable scale for new entrants.

Both incumbents and entrants should focus on niche markets, characterized by:

  • customer captivity
  • small size relative to the level of fixed costs
  • absence of vigilant, dominant competitors
  • readily extendable at the edges
Ultimately, the more variable costs can be shifted to fixed costs, the stronger will be the competitive advantage from EoS.


Competitive advantages are invariably market-specific. They do not travel to meet the aspirations of growth-obsessed CEOs.

Questions from the reading

  1. The authors mention an example of Aetna vs. Oxford in the metropolitan insurance market. They argue that because medical service is a local market, Aetna’s national network confers no economies of scale advantage because Oxford has a larger market share of in-network medical providers in specific local markets, such as NYC (60% of market vs. 20%). But part of Aetna’s cost advantages come from general administrative overhead, where EoS at the national level become important. How do you weigh the value of EoS in adminstrative/overhead costs at the corporate level against specific EoS in supply/inventory costs at the local level?
  2. Suggested case study– In 2006, Nintendo (NTDOY) introduced their  Wii home video game console as a part of their effort to achieve the corporate goal of “Gaming Population Expansion“. However, this is a goal with strategic implications as well as tactical ones because it serves to broaden the total market for NTDOY as well as competitors’ (MSFT, SNE) products and thereby changes the way NTDOY competes in that market. Considering the lessons of Chapter 3, how would you judge NTDOY’s strategy? Is this a brilliant way to create a new market niche (casual gamers) that have traditionally been ignored and underserved by the market that NTDOY can profitably keep to itself? Or will this decision result in a growing market that invites new entrants while eroding any advantages NTDOY may have had as a result of EoS? Additionally, NTDOY has been criticized for ignoring the massive, wildly profitable “hardcore gamer” market. Would you criticize NTDOY for this decision? Would you recommend they attempt to make inroads? What broad strategic recommendations might you make to NTDOY with regards to maximizing competitive advantages related to EoS and customer captivity?

Wall Street Mesmerized, Perplexed By “400% Man”, But Why? (#investing)

Wall Street Mesmerized, Perplexed By “400% Man”, But Why? (#investing)

Two separate friends sent me links to an investor profile in SmartMoney magazine entitled “The 400% Man“, about a college dropout in Salt Lake City who appears to have made a killing over the last ten years following the principles of value investing.

Allan Mecham, had been posting mind-bogglingly high returns for a decade at a tiny private-investment fund called Arlington Value Management, and the Wall Streeters were considering jumping on board. For nearly two hours, they peppered him with questions. Where did he get his business background? I read a lot, he replied. Did he have an MBA? No. I dropped out of college. Did he have a clever computer model or algorithm? No, he replied. I don’t use spreadsheets much. Could the group look at some of his investment analyses? I don’t have any of those either, he said. It’s all in my head. The investors were baffled. Well, could he at least tell them where he thought the stock market was headed? “I don’t know,” Mecham replied.

When the meeting broke up, “most people left the room mystified,” says Brendan O’Brien, a New York City money manager who was there. “They were expecting to see this very sharp-dressed, fast-talking guy. They were saying, I don’t get it, I don’t understand why he wouldn’t have a view on the market, because money managers get paid to have a view on the market.” Mecham has faced this kind of befuddlement before — which is one reason he meets only rarely with potential investors. It’s tough to sell his product to an industry that’s used to something very different. After all, according to their rules, he shouldn’t even be in the business to begin with.

The fact that people were mystified by this young man’s performance should be embarrassing to Wall Street. And, not to rain on Mecham’s parade, but it really doesn’t speak to the greatness of Mecham so much as it speaks to the “mysticism” of Wall Street.

Benjamin Graham’s lessons on value investing have been available to the general public for over 70 years. Graham’s greatest disciple, Warren Buffett, is also the greatest investor of all time and one of the wealthiest individuals in the world. The story of his success has been told in countless biographies (of which little old me has managed to read two), all of which make it abundantly clear that Buffett’s time at an Ivy League graduate program likely had little to do with his destiny in the financial world. In fact, the man has railed against the Wall Street paradigm for decades himself and has explained to anyone who will listen — and they are legion! — why you can’t make money playing Wall Street’s game.

So, why is this all such a big surprise to these people?

It’s a big surprise because Wall Street isn’t broken. Wall Street is a mystical financial priesthood, just as the Federal Reserve and other central banks infesting the globe are mystical monetary priesthoods.

Wall Street doesn’t “get” value investing and is “surprised” to learn of its existence, and successful practitioners, because if Wall Street ever acknowledged that such a school of thinking existed, they’d be admitting their own inefficacy and the whole jig would be up. This is just the same as how the members of the Fed remain ignorant of the teachings of Austrian economics– to acknowledge and seek to understand them would be the beginning of the end of their nefarious charade.

The Wall Street business model is a volume-based, sales operation. It isn’t any different from television sales, automobile sales, pharmaceutical sales or insurance sales in terms of mechanics and objectives. All that’s different is the sales people are better “educated”, wear fancier clothes and work out of taller, shinier buildings. It’s a fee-based business, and the fees are generated by controlling assets and repeatedly churning them– the more you manage and the more often you turn it over, the more fees you generate and the richer you get.

Because Wall Street lives off of hyperactivity, the philosophy of patient inactivity (Buffet’s “waiting for a fat pitch”) and concentrated portfolios is, literally, blasphemous. Under such a model, your only chance at earning a return for your services is… to generate real returns for your clients! With the Wall Street model, you can get rich even as you lose your clients money. In fact, if you’re a brokerage or investment bank, you might even be able to accelerate the pace at which you enrich yourself as your client loses simply by trading more losing positions more often!

This is not an indictment of capitalism, free markets or financial exchanges, all of which are socio-economic goods with real value. This is an indictment of the Wall Street money management paradigm in relation to the tenets of value investing, a paradigm which doesn’t “work” at generating real returns for investors because it can’t– it wasn’t designed to do that!

Again, to draw comparisons to the Federal Reserve and the nature of central banking, the Fed can’t “fight inflation” and “lower unemployment” because that is not what the Fed was designed to do. The Federal Reserve CREATES inflation by issuing new fiduciary media into the economy and, with the assistance of the fractional reserve banking system, expanding the monetary base. It does this because the purpose of the Federal Reserve is to provide an alternative, “silent” tax system for the political class while easing the built-in, we-all-fall-down tensions within the fractional reserve banking system, which is the whole reason such a system requires a “lender of last resort.”

Wall Street, as a moniker for the fee-based, AUM-central “financial services” industry, delivers precisely what it was designed to deliver– lucrative pay plans and an unearned sense of superiority compared to everyone else in the economy for the specially-entitled club members and graduates of the connected institutions who populate it. It, like the banking industry and the global central bank system, operates via the herd mentality simply because those who thieve together, hang together. If you want to avoid hanging together, you must be committed to thieving together.

Defining risk as volatility, as Wall Street does, practically ensures that you’ll repeatedly expose your clients to real risk (that is, the risk of permanent capital loss) while naively trying to juggle the impossible task of managing ex post facto-determined volatility risk. Operating off of an asset accumulation/inventory churn model guarantees that your incentive structure will never be aligned with your clients, no matter how well-intentioned you might be. Government coercion in the form of mutual fund industry regulation and others provides the necessary legal muscle to prevent anyone who can think for themselves from attempting to do so.

Mecham’s closing comment is prescient:

Where does Arlington head next? Mecham says he won’t compromise his strategy to play the Wall Street game. That leaves Ben Raybould battling to market a fund, and a manager, that many other money managers can’t even understand. Mecham is bemused that so many people expect him to hold a broad basket of stocks and follow a benchmark, such as the S&P 500. “It’s laughable to think that in this competitive world, you’re going to find brilliant ideas every day,” he says. “The world’s just not set up that way.”

Exactly. And Wall Street will never manage to successfully manage risk and generate real returns for its clients– it’s just not set up that way.

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 2 (#competitiveadvantage)

Notes – Competition Demystified: Chapter 2 (#competitiveadvantage)

Reading notes to Competition Demystified, by Bruce Greenwald and Judd Kahn

Differentiation is not a competitive advantage

The tired old story that many companies tell their investors (and many managers tell themselves) is that they can avoid the commoditization of their product through “differentiation”. Convince your customers that your limestone is not generic limestone but “Jeff’s Best limestone”, for instance, and they’re sure to pay a premium price!

The trouble with this strategy is not the gullibility of the consumer, but the mutual ability of the competitor to adopt it for himself.

The reality of the competitive market is that high profits attract competition and without real, sustainable barriers to entry, high profits will be eroded by market fragmentation and declining margins. Product differentiation may allow a firm to charge a “premium” for their product, but it will not protect their market share and as market share falls, the effects of fixed-costs on margins will rise.

Firms producing differentiated goods and services will still face the economics of commodity markets, namely, if they can not produce at a cost at or below the price established in the market, they will fail. This is because differentiated products require additional investments in advertising, marketing, sales and service, product distribution, etc., to make the differentiated claims credible, and these higher costs ultimately lower returns.

Barriers to entry = competitive advantages

As the authors note,

Systems can be replicated, talent hired away, managerial quality upgraded

The only way to obtain real, sustainable competitive advantages is through barriers to entry: obstacles and costs that competitors can not overcome or do not have the resources to cover. These barriers to entry apply only to incumbents, as entrant competitive advantages are essentially available to everyone and therefore are available to no one in the long run, being of limited and transitory value (once you establish yourself in a market, you’re now and incumbent and have lost your competitive advantage).

There are three basic, authentic types of competitive advantage:

  1. supply advantages
  2. demand advantages
  3. a combination of the two

The authors specifically note that,

Measured by potency and durability, production advantages are the weakest barrier to entry; economies of scale, when combined with some customer captivity, are the strongest.

Supply advantages

Supply advantages essentially translate to lower cost structures, which provides the firm with two benefits:

  1. higher profitability through wider margins
  2. ability to strategically lower prices to resist potential entrants or other competitors while maintaining profitability

These lower cost structures normally come from:

  1. lower input costs (special access to a supply that can’t be replicated by the competition at the same cost)
  2. economies of scale
  3. proprietary technology, normally protected by patents/intellectual property laws (any government grant of monopoly would similarly apply as it has the same effect)

Rapid technological change in supply methods can create entrant advantages as pre-existing incumbents find their out-dated technology confers a cost dis-advantage. Conversely, as the pace of technological change in an industry slows, any incumbent advantage due to technological advances can be eroded as rival firms acquire learned efficiencies of their own.

Many strategic analysts cite the role of “innovation” in imbuing certain firms with competitive advantages but these advantages are only sustainable if these innovations can’t be learned, “stolen” or otherwise acquired by competitors over time. In other words,

Innovations that are common to all confer competitive advantages on none.

Meanwhile, privileged access to raw materials is normally only useful in markets which are local in terms of geography or product space.

Demand advantages

Access to customers that rivals can not match translate to demand advantages. Customer captivity is a result of one of three dynamics:

  1. habit – typically applies to one product, not a firm’s portfolio of products, and is a result of frequent and automatic purchases
  2. switching costs – reinforced by network effects, ie, selecting a technology system that becomes common and popular economy-wide
  3. search costs – common when products or services are complex, customized and crucial
Demand side advantages are typically more durable. However, because they rely on the customer for their power they’re susceptible to customers moving, growing old (developing new preferences and needs) and dying. New customers entering the market are uncommitted and can potentially be captured by anyone.

The strongest possible demand advantage, then, would be one which generates an intergenerational transfer of habit.

Questions from the reading

  1. The authors state on pg. 31 that United’s advantageous geographical position at Chicago O’Hare can not be extended to other airports; is this true? Why or why not? Ultimately, what is the source for United’s supply advantage at Chicago O’Hare?
  2. Many of the supply advantages stem from government interference in the market through patent, copyright and other “intellectual property” laws. How might the strategic/competitive landscape change in a “free intellectual market”?