A recent Forbes article detailed how value investing is changing, and how Warren Buffett is changing his attitude towards technology stocks.
I really enjoyed the article, and wanted to highlight some passages I found interesting.
On how value investing is changing:
There is a deep and important debate going on in the investment community, one with profound repercussions for both professional money managers and their clients. Some believe that Buffett is right—that we have become an asset-light economy and that value investors need to adapt to accommodate such changes.
…The fact that these stocks often trade at above-market valuations—a factor that once scared away orthodox value investors—hasn’t deterred them, because the companies’ futures are so bright that they’re worth it.
All value investors continue to agree that price is an important component of value—that’s why we’re called value investors. What’s happening now is a debate about what the drivers of value are—of what constitutes value in the 21st-century economy—and what will drive both the economy and the market forward over the next generation.
This explains why for decades Buffett avoided technology stocks. There was growth in tech, for sure, but there was little certainty. Things changed too quickly; every boom was accompanied by a bust. In the midst of such flux, who could find a high-probability insight?
On the changing nature of what it means to be a valuable company:
While the Dow Jones industrial average was still dominated by industrials, it also contained Procter & Gamble, Sears Roebuck, and General Foods. These companies were fundamentally different from an industrial company: The primary driver of their business value had little to do with hard assets. Rather, the value had to do with the company’s brands—with the loyalty and familiarity that customers felt for Ivory Soap and Jell-O gelatin. These emotional ties, encouraged and cemented by mass marketing, allowed businesses to charge high prices for relatively mundane goods.
On the role Television played in driving growth for this new crop of companies:
The great enabler of such businesses was the rise of national television, which both emanated from and reinforced a culture of homogeneity. Market-leading brands used scale in a very different but no less effective way than manufacturing companies. A beer, shampoo, or cola brand with dominant share could flood the three major TV networks with more advertising than their competition, yet still spend less than the competition as a percentage of absolute sales dollars.
The parallels to the Internet and Smartphones is uncanny.
The fundamentals of value investing are the same in an era of technology dominance. Some tenets are:
Always look for a business with a clear-cut competitive advantage. If you can’t explain to your spouse what makes a company special as a long-term moneymaker, it probably isn’t.
Try to find companies with a small market share, a huge addressable market, and a large competitive advantage.
As Buffett has said, never confuse a growing industry with a profitable one.
Avoid businesses whose best days are behind them.
On Value 2.0 and 3.0:
Value 2.0: finding a superior business and paying a reasonable price for it. The margin of safety lies not in the tangible assets but rather in the sustainability of the business itself.
Value 3.0: …digital businesses often benefit from network effects: the tendency of consumers to standardize on a single platform, which reinforces both consumer preference and the platform’s value. Because of this, the market shares of these platform companies dwarf those of the consumer products giants; software businesses like these are often characterized by a “winner take all” or “winner take most” dynamic. Combine this with the fact that they require little to no capital to grow, and you have Value 3.0—business models that are both radically new and enormously valuable.
If the postwar era was about consumer brands operating at scale, the early 21st century is about what we might call digital platforms. Like the branded enterprises before them, they have the permanence and probability that make for a good long-term value investment.
As these platform companies create billions in value, they are simultaneously undermining the postwar ecosystem that Buffett has understood and profited from. Entire swaths of the economy are now at risk, and investors would do well not only to consider Value 3.0 prospectively but also to give some thought to what might be vulnerable in their Value 2.0 portfolios.