“Leaving the question of price aside, the best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return.” – Warren Buffett, 1992 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter
A good business is one that can earn very high returns on capital. Rarely can such a business invest all of its capital back into the business. One way to find companies that can is to look for companies that have grown book value at a high rate on a per share basis.
A business can still be a good investment if it can’t reinvest all of its earnings back into the business. An example is American Express. Prior to the 2008 economic crisis, Amex was earning over 30% on equity but was only reinvesting about a third of its earnings back into the business. The remaining two-thirds were paid out in the form of dividends and share repurchases.
There are numerous ways to measure return on invested capital. None of them is perfect. Any of the various metrics and ratios investors use to analyze a business are abstractions and, as such, typically tend to oversimplify the economic reality of the business. They are short-cuts we use to point us in the right direction so we can spend our precious time researching businesses that offer the most opportunity.
Return on Incremental Equity
I like to look at the total amount of equity that has been added to a business over the past decade and then calculate the return on that additional investment. This approach also allows me to calculate what percentage of the company’s earnings was reinvested, which in turn is useful in forecasting the future growth in earnings.
I typically use Value Line when I do this because the layout is very conducive to this type of analysis. It is one reason why investors like Buffett, Munger and Li Lu like Value Line.
It is useful here to remember Buffett’s reminder that it is not necessarily a cause for celebration if a business grows its earnings year after year. The same thing happens to a savings account if you add more capital each year, which does not make a savings account a good investment. It’s the return on this additional capital that determines whether something is a good investment or not.
To illustrate, let’s look at Johnson & Johnson (JNJ). In 2000, JNJ had shareholders’ equity of $18.8 billion. At the end of 2009, its shareholders’ equity had grown to $50.6 billion. We can calculate that, since 2000, JNJ invested $31.8 billion back into the business.
During that same time, earnings grew $8.1 billion, from $4.8 billion in 2000 to $12.9 billion in 2009.
By dividing the additional earnings of $8.1 billion by the additional $31.8 billion in capital, we can see that JNJ earned a return of 25.5% on its investment, which is very good.
It is also useful to look at what percentage of its total net earnings JNJ reinvested back into the business. The reason is that this is suggestive of how much of its future earnings JNJ is likely to reinvest. By multiplying the rate of reinvestment by the return on that investment, we can then calculate an expected growth rate for earnings.
Since 2000 through 2009, JNJ earned a total net profit of $89.7 billion. Since we already know that JNJ reinvested $31.8 billion over that same time period, we can calculate that JNJ’s rate of reinvestment is 35.5%.
If JNJ can continue to earn 25.5% on equity and reinvest 35.5% of its earnings, earnings should grow at about 9% (.255 x .355).
Keep in mind that this does not include dividends or share repurchases. The latter would cause earnings per share to grow at a faster rate. Also, it does not include an analysis of where JNJ is selling in relation to its intrinsic value which could have a material impact on the expected total return. Finally, this type of analysis works best with a stable business that enjoys durable competitive advantages, such as JNJ.
Another example is Southwest Airlines which is a successful airline that operates in the highly competitive and capital intensive airline industry. Between 2000 and 2009, Southwest’s shareholders’ equity increased by $2 billion. Earnings were $140 million in 2009 compared to $625 million in 2000 and have generally bobbed around over that time period. The return on that additional $2 billion has been relatively poor.
Calculating the return on incremental equity over a long-period of time should prove a useful tool in your analysis of prospective investments. Coupled with the rate of reinvestment, it can also allow you to get an idea of how fast a company can be expected to grow its earnings.
You can also use this approach to invert an expected rate of earnings growth to examine what combination of ROE and rate of reinvestment will be required to produce it.
In succeeding related posts, I’ll look at Buffett’s use of return on average tangible net worth and Greenblatt’s use of return on tangible capital employed to determine whether a business is good.