The Mark of a Good Business: High Returns on Capital (Part 2)

“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

Last week, I wrote a post that looked at return on incremental equity. The post explained a way to measure return on incremental equity over a multi-year period. It also considered how, in a stable business with a durable competitive advantage, the return on incremental equity and can be used, in conjunction with the rate of reinvestment, to predict the growth in earnings.

Today, I am writing about another tool used by Buffett to measure the returns on an investment: return on average tangible net worth.

Beginning with the 2003 Berkshire Hathaway letter to shareholders, Buffett began providing a simplified balance sheet of the manufacturing, service and retailing operations segment, a widely diversified group which includes building products, carpet, apparel, furniture, retail, flight training, fractional jet ownership and distribution.

Buffett breaks out the four broad segments of Berkshire – insurance, utilities, finance, and manufacturing, service and retailing operations – because they each have different economics which are harder to understand if considered as one undifferentiated mass. This is obviously useful to remember when analyzing a business with two or more disparate operating segments.

When he reports on the results of the manufacturing, service and retailing operations segment, Buffett focuses on the return earned on average tangible net worth, which for example in 2003, was in Buffett’s words “a hefty” 20.7%.

To calculate tangible net worth, take the equity on the balance sheet and subtract goodwill and other intangible assets. Buffett averages the tangible net worth that is on the books at the beginning and end of the year so as not to upwardly bias the return if the earnings were in part the result of a large injection of capital into the segment during the year.

On average, the segment enjoys very strong returns on average tangible net worth, typically in the low 20’s. This is highly meaningful because it not only shows the excellent economics of these businesses, but also it shows the returns that can be expected from additional capital that is invested into these businesses.

Here is the simplified balance sheet for the years since Buffett began providing it along with the calculations.

Here are some additional observations.

Buffett also provides the returns on Berkshire’s average carrying value. This is the same calculation as return on average tangible net worth without subtracting goodwill. Berkshire had to pay a substantial premium over book value to purchase these businesses given their excellent economics. Over the long-term, the return on incremental equity will be the major determinant of Berkshire’s returns on these investments as the retained earnings become an ever larger portion on the capital employed. As an investor, you want to pay close attention to both the premium you pay to buy a great business and the returns on incremental capital.

Omitting goodwill and intangible assets from the equation is appropriate because Berkshire will not need to pay a premium on incremental capital employed in the existing businesses. Berkshire does, however, need to pay a premium going forward to acquire businesses to add to this segment. This is evident from the goodwill and intangible assets line item which has grown from $8.4 billion in 2003 to $16.5 billion in 2009. Overall, to put that in context, Buffett invested an additional $15 billion in that segment over the same time period.

In analyzing an investment, you want to consider whether future growth will come from acquisitions, in which case you can expect additional goodwill, or organic investment, in which case the returns on tangible net worth would be a more appropriate metric.

Unfortunately, from the standpoint of providing opportunities for Berkshire to deploy capital going forward, some of Berkshire best businesses, which are found in this segment, are both small in scale as compared to Berkshire as a whole and require very little incremental capital.

Finally, it is fairly clear that this segment’s earning power has been materially impacted by the recession. If it is able to return to pre-recession levels, this group should earn net income of approximately $3 billion.


2 thoughts on “The Mark of a Good Business: High Returns on Capital (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Value Linkfest: Halloween Edition | Frankly Speaking

  2. teja


    I couldnt understand why you/buffett are calculating

    avg net tangible worth = (equity – goodwill – intangibles)

    What happens to liabilities. How avg net tangible worth obtained using your calculation equals to return on capital. (I mean ROC should include debt and liablitites also). Pls clarify my questions.


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