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Geoff Gannon November 30, 2012

Unrepeatable Moats

A blog I read, csinvesting, has a post about Niche vs. Moat. In my experience, most investors underestimate the frequency of moats and overestimate their size. They assume large companies have moats and small companies don’t.

Most competitive advantages are cost advantages. And most of those don’t last. But they keep excess profits in and competition out for a time.

Cost advantages are inflexible. And so any change in technology, society, industry structure, etc. can destroy them. What’s worse is that the cost advantage often reverses from something that favored incumbents to something that favors entrants. You end up with unions, agents, etc. New entrants do not.

Greenwald stresses the local nature of moats. Local competitive advantages are common. If you look at very high return businesses in areas you wouldn’t expect – banks, grocery stores, etc. – they are due to superior performance at the most local level. Each store and branch is outperforming. And the market share situation in each town deters competition.

Most investors don’t consider that a moat. Because it can’t be repeated. In the next town over, it’s useless.

That’s true. But it’s also different from a big company making a hit tech product. They have nothing that can be defended. The profits are due to scale. But the scale – market share – is threatened by something others can and will try to take away.

There’s a book – in fact a whole series – on repeatability.

You shouldn’t read Greenwald’s book without reading Zook’s books. I recently read another book on moats – The Little Book That Builds Wealth – and it makes the same mistake Greenwald’s book makes.

They both downplay management. On the one hand, they are right to do this. Management is not a moat. On the other, they are wrong. Management often grows a culture around a moat.

In fact, today’s management is often less important than the management that formed the company’s identity. Day to day decision making is not important. Keeping the company focused on the moat is. The key manager doesn’t have to be alive to do that. People just have to remember him.

The most durable advantage a company can have is a cultural identity locked up in a moat. Most companies should not try to be cost leaders in everything they do. But if that is your moat – you shouldn’t spend a minute thinking about anything else.

The reason Southwest (LUV) and Wal-Mart (WMT) built the moats they built is due to the cultures their management created. They had one good idea. And they took it seriously.

Most companies are more scatter brained. If they see a good idea, they act on it. But ideas do not exist in isolation. A chain of good ideas often leads to one really bad habit.

Most companies that have moats are not conscious of those moats. Warren Buffett invested in the Washington Post (WPO). The people at the Washington Post knew how …

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Geoff Gannon November 29, 2012

30 Obscure, Profitable Stocks

Here are 30 of the most obscure stocks with a history of profits:

  1. Superior Uniform (SGC)
  2. Bowl America (BWL.A)
  3. Seaboard (SEB)
  4. Atrion (ATRI)
  5. Arden (ARDNA)
  6. Micropac (MPAD)
  7. Ark Restaurants (ARKR)
  8. United-Guardian (UG)
  9. Span-America Medical (SPAN)
  10. Nortech Systems (NSYS)
  11. Air T (AIRT)
  12. Mesa Labs (MLAB)
  13. Monarch Cement (MCEM)
  14. Educational Development (EDUC)
  15. Flanigan’s (BDL)
  16. George Risk (RSKIA)
  17. Tofutti Brands (TOF)
  18. TNR Technical (TNRK)
  19. Daily Journal (DJCO)
  20. Jewett-Cameron (JCTCF)
  21. Opt-Sciences (OPST)
  22. Paradise (PARF)
  23. National Research (NRCI)
  24. Earthstone Energy (ESTE)
  25. Mexco Energy (MXC)
  26. Espey Manufacturing (ESP)
  27. LICT (LICT)
  28. Scientific Industries (SCND)
  29. United States Lime (USLM)
  30. Boss Holdings (BSHI
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Geoff Gannon November 29, 2012

Catalysts Not Included

A blog I read, Value and Opportunity, has a post about Porsche and Volkswagen. There is also a link to a Market Folly post. They are both worth reading. I have no comment on the stock. I know nothing about cars or car makers.

I do know something about holding companies that trade at a discount to their parts. And I don’t agree with that part of the post. If the underlying assets are compounding nicely – you shouldn’t assume a holding company discount is correct just because the market applies one to the stock. You can’t both beat the market and defer to it.

When analyzing a stock that trades at a discount to net asset value – whether it is an insurer, a closed end fund, or a holding company – you need to look for reasons apart from market perceptions why the stock should be valued that way. If an insurer earns 5% on book value – it should trade at a discount to book. If it earns 10% on book value – it should not.

If the return on assets is satisfactory – the market price of those assets will one day be satisfactory.

Stock pickers should take advantage of market perceptions. Not incorporate them into their analysis. Much of the money you make in a value investment comes from a change in the market’s perception. You buy an ugly stock. And sell a pretty one.

Focus on value and ignore catalysts. Catalysts are made in the imagination. And our imaginations are too small. The future we sketch is always narrower than the future we get.

Who would have imagined Porsche’s past few years?

I made 150% on a Japanese net-net. It was taken private by management. Never once in my search for Japanese net-nets did I consider that a possible catalyst. Everybody knew Japanese companies did not go private. I knew it too.

The great thing about value investing is that you still get paid for upside scenarios you never imagined.…

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Geoff Gannon November 28, 2012

Rise of the Guardians Has DreamWorks’s Worst Opening Weekend

We’ve talked about DreamWorks Animation (DWA) on this blog before. Last weekend, DreamWorks released a movie called Rise of the Guardians.

Here is a list of original computer animated solo productions by DreamWorks and how each movie opened in the U.S. All amounts are adjusted for inflation.

  1. Kung Fu Panda: $67 million
  2. Monsters vs. Aliens: $63 million
  3. Shark Tale: $61 million
  4. Madagascar: $58 million
  5. Over the Hedge: $47 million
  6. Megamind: $46 million
  7. Bee Movie: $44 million
  8. How to Train Your Dragon: $44 million
  9. Puss in Boots: $35 million
  10. Antz: $29 million
  11. Rise of the Guardians: $24 million

Rise of the Guardians cost $145 million. DreamWorks has had worse opening weekends. But none were computer animated solo productions. They were either hand drawn movies – which DreamWorks no longer makes – or movies made with Aardman.

DreamWorks’s stock dropped on Monday. Shares now trade at $17.30.…

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