I came across an excellent presentation that I wanted to share because it sparked some thoughts. It is not about a current — or even prospective — investment, but one that exemplifies the art of thinking differently.
I spend a fair amount of time reading annual reports about businesses that I have no intention of owning. Typically, these businesses are high quality companies that — although maybe too expensive to offer attractive investor returns — are great entities to study and learn about. Studying businesses that have a history of compounding their value (and their owner’s equity) over time can help you develop a blueprint of sorts — things to look for in an effort to find such businesses when they are more attractively priced, smaller, or otherwise more unknown.
Quality Business Characteristics
A friend and I were discussing some of the ideal things we like in businesses. Valuations aside, we all like high ROIC, ample reinvestment opportunities, great management, etc… When thinking about what I like in a business, I always start with simple business models. I like toll bridges. I like parking garages in attractive downtown locations. I just was reading about a business I like that is the largest provider of ATM machines and other point-of-sale products (and the recurring revenue associated with many of these products) for restaurants, retailers, and convenient stores. I like simple models. It’s easy to understand why these businesses are profitable, sustainable, and predictable.
Those are nice businesses to own. The owner of a strategically located parking garage will do quite well over time. One thing I want to mention in more detail — maybe the next post — is pricing power, something Buffett called “the single most important” aspect of a business. Even though the parking garage owner might have limited reinvestment options for his sizable cash flow, he does possess pricing power.
At the top of the post, I mentioned I like to read about great businesses and great business models — even if they are stocks that I really have no intention of owning. Amazon is one of these businesses. (Don’t leave, keep reading.)
Much to Learn from AMZN's Model
It is now 13-F time, and I always enjoy reading through what other respected value investors are doing. About this time last quarter when I was reading through my 13-f list, I was quite surprised to see Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) listed as one of Tom Gayner (Trades, Portfolio)’s stocks that he was buying. He actually began buying it about a year ago, and has purchased very small amounts each quarter since. It’s a tiny position, but regardless of the size, I was surprised to see AMZN enter his portfolio. So I casually began thinking about it here and there, perusing through annual reports. I actually really enjoy reading the AMZN reports, and would encourage investors to check them out.
The stock isn’t cheap, but the business model can teach us a lot about the importance of scale, efficiency, pricing power, capital allocation and great management with ownership mentalities and long term horizons.
Of course, it is with great trepidation that I reference Amazon on these pages here at BHI, as it perennially trades at ungodly prices when using traditional value metrics that most of us look at. But fear not, I don’t own Amazon, and I don’t necessarily intend to — although I’m always aware of one of Ben Graham’s famous quotes which I’ll paraphrase: “For almost every business, there is a price at which it could be purchased, and a completely different price at which it should be sold.”
Good, If Not Cheap
So certainly at some price, I’d love to own Amazon, as it is — in my view — one of the greatest companies in existence. But the purpose today is to share some brief thoughts on a specific aspect of Amazon’s quality that is important — namely an owner operator that thinks and acts for the long term benefit of owners. My thoughts on AMZN today were sparked by an excellent presentation I came across over the weekend by Josh Tarasoff of Greenlea Lane, a value investor who happens to own this forbidden fruit.
My reaction to seeing a recommendation for AMZN at a value investing conference is similar to when I noticed it in Gayner’s portfolio. I was surprised. But nevertheless, it rekindled my energy to begin paging through some of the old AMZN annual reports again.
Every value investor knows Amazon’s P/E is in the stratosphere. Some investors have made the case that their high P/E is actually inflated due to the massive amounts of expenses they incur — all in the name of “future revenue.” My very general interpretation is that Amazon is basically advancing expenses — paid for with current cash flow — that would normally be reserved for next year, or 2016, or beyond. They are incurring these “future” expenses today in an effort to expedite their already incredible revenue growth, building out massive infrastructure that will support even greater sales volumes.
At some point, this will stop and the expenses will slow down to match revenues, and the real (i.e. normal) cash flow will rear its pleasant head, and the multiples will come crashing down (or maybe the stock will continue rising). I really have no idea when this occurs, but reading through the 10-Ks, and studying this business, I do believe this is part of what’s happening there. Amazon is actually understating their true earning power — which is the opposite of what often occurs in the more common situation among the more GAAP-conscious, Wall Street pleasing managers.
The Importance of Long Term Oriented Managers
As I said, I really enjoy reading the reports. Bezos makes it clear that he is an owner-minded manager with a long-term horizon. He has no interest in what Wall Street says or thinks, and he is completely focused on generating long-term shareholder value. To borrow a quote from the presenation, which can also be found in Bezos’ 1997 shareholder letter,
“When forced to choose between optimizing the appearance of our GAAP accounting and maximizing the present value of future cash flows, we’ll take the cash flows.”
This is one of my favorite new quotes, and it would behoove shareholders of every company if their managers would post this quote on their office wall, internalize it, and implement the corresponding behavior. It’s kind of the anti-activist style of “profit now, ask questions later.”
By the way, despite the fact that many of these noisy activist investors are successful in driving stock prices higher in the short term through massive cost cuts and buybacks, I’m very unconvinced of how much true value they are adding for long term owners.
Bezos runs AMZN like it’s his family business that he intends to own for generations, without a care toward what outside judges think of his short term performance.
Regardless of whether AMZN is ridiculously expensive or not, I think studying the business and reading the annual reports really help create a blueprint for what kind of manager we’d ideally like to partner with as shareholders.
Long-Term Orientation Plus Favorable Economics Means Growing Owner's Value
Of course, long term thinking on its own means nothing if not combined with advantageous economics. And Amazon also has plenty of those. They basically beat every other retailer because they can afford to operate with the lowest markups and the slimmest of margins. Basically, their incredible economies of scale means they can spread their costs across an ever growing number of customers, which translates into lower prices, which begets more customers, creating even greater scale, and the cycle continues, etc…
Their business model is interesting, and I might write another post or two on some things I’ve picked up from reading through the old reports. I was recently inspired this weekend after reading Josh’s presentation, which was excellent. Josh also has some absolutely brilliant things to say regarding pricing power, which got me thinking, and might make a nice summary post on its own.
Beware of Your Biases
As an aside: Consider your internal reaction when you first saw that I was talking about Amazon. Maybe you had no reaction… but lots of value investors have an immediate negative reaction because of the high valuation. I used to have this same reaction whenever I came across something on Amazon. But seeing Gayner buying it made me open up my mind and begin to approach it with curiosity, which is a much better mindset for learning. The closed-mindedness that many exhibit with AMZN prevents the brain from being able to consider facts in an unbiased way, and thus stunts the development that can take place by studying a model as successful as Amazon’s.
Again, I really have no opinion on the stock, and like many value investors, I also find that even after adjusting expenses to try and estimate normal earning power, it still seems that a lot of future growth is built into the current price. I am unsure if this future has been properly discounted or not, but regardless of AMZN’s value or lack thereof, I’ve enjoyed occasionally reading about the company and I thought Josh’s presentation did a great job at succinctly summarizing most of AMZN’s strengths.
I may or may not ever own the stock, but I’m happy to continue reading the reports as they come out each year if nothing else.
Here’s some relevant links:
- 1997 Shareholder Letter (Reprinted in Each Annual Report) (Great Read)
- Summary page with each year’s annual reports and shareholder letters dating back to 1997
- Tarasoff AMZN Presentation
- Tarasoff Essay on Pricing Power
- The Everything Store
- Bezos on 60 Minutes with Charlie Rose from 2013
- Bezos CBS Interview from 1999