‘The production of wealth,’ as 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill observed, ‘has its necessary conditions’.
For senior executives and directors charged with growing the wealth of shareholders, few things could be more important to understand than the ‘necessary conditions’ for the production of wealth.
In this series of articles, we’ll share the findings of our research into wealth creation in Australian equity capital markets and layout a clear framework that describes the necessary conditions for the production of wealth.
In this article, we’ll look at the macro picture and how Economic Profitability links to Wealth Creation.
A quick recap
In the first article in this series, we looked at the findings of our research into why some companies create wealth, while others destroy it.
We showed that the creation of wealth is a function of ‘Quality’ and ‘Quantity’. ‘Quality’ is the rate of return that the company is able to generate on the capital entrusted to it, calculated by its sustained (say 5 year average) Economic Profit Spread ie its Return on Capital Employed (ROCE) less its Weighted Average Cost of Capital (WACC). ‘Quantity’ is the amount of capital that a company can put and is the great magnifier of Quality.
In the second article we argued that it is actually expectations of ‘Quality’ and ‘Quantity’ that are the key determinants of wealth creation, but that for most businesses, the history of the business is a good guide to the future and hence Quality and Quantity expectations.
The macro picture
Grouping the two hundred businesses in our research set into four quartiles further reinforces
the importance of quality and quantity to wealth creation.
Figure 1: Cumulative Wealth Created by Quartile
The total wealth created by the top 25% of businesses we analysed was $488 billion, more than 18 times as much as the next quadrant. These businesses fit the description given by Warren Buffett in his 1992 letter to fellow Berkshire Hathaway investors as the best businesses to own:
‘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. The worst business to own is one that must, or will, do the opposite – that is, consistently employ ever-greater amounts of capital at very low rates of return.’
That is, they invest large amounts of capital at high rates of return.
Indeed by 30 June 2013, the top quartile, including the likes of BHP Billiton, Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, CSL and Woolworths, had invested $678 billion – nearly three times as much as the other quadrants put together – at the highest average returns, 3.8% above what investors could expect to earn elsewhere at comparable risk.
The second quartile created a very credible $27 billion of wealth. Their average returns were close to those in the first quartile (2.6% above the cost of capital, versus 3.8% enjoyed by the first quadrant), but these businesses, including the likes of software developed IRESS Limited (#61) and retailer, Oroton Group (#96), were not able to put large amounts of capital to work at those rates (just $62 billion in total at 30 June 2013). With the accelerator of wealth creation missing, the second quadrant created a fraction of the wealth of the first.
The third quartile created $2.5 billion of wealth. This group has averaged returns over the past five years just above what investors could expect to earn elsewhere (their median Economic Profit Spread being 0.8%). Capital invested at 30 June is the lowest of the four quartiles at just $29 billion. With quality just above average and low quantity, this quadrant has done well to amass even $2.5 billion of wealth.
The bottom quartile has destroyed $55 billion of wealth by putting large amounts of capital to work ($158 billion by 30 June 2013) at low rates of return, averaging 3% below what investors could expect to earn elsewhere. Little wonder Buffett described these kind of businesses as the worst to own.
This quartile analysis shows the strong link between quality, quantity and wealth. The top 25% of wealth creators were also the businesses with the highest quality or EP spreads and the highest quantity of capital invested. The next 25% had good EP spreads, but less invested. The third quartile had breakeven EP spreads and the smallest amounts invested and the bottom 25% destroyed $55 billion of wealth by investing the second highest amount of capital at the lowest rates of return.
But where does accounting profit sit in all this? Given the emphasis placed on accounting profits by investment banks, the media and stock brokers, many managers would be forgiven for assuming measures like EPS, Net Profit and EBITDA are reliable indicators of wealth creation: more profit is always good for shareholders.
This is not borne out by our analysis. In fact accounting profit was shown to be a very misleading measure: while the top 25% of wealth creators also made more Earnings Before Interest, Tax, Depreciation and Amortisation (EBITDA) than any other quartile, the bottom quartile, who destroyed $55 billion of wealth, came second in terms of cumulative EBITDA over the five years to 30 June 2013.
The problem is accounting profit measures like EPS, Net Profit and EBITDA say nothing about the quality of the business. They do not take into account the return investors could earn elsewhere on their funds and so businesses that employ large amounts of money at low rates of return can grow their accounting profits handsomely, all the while destroying wealth for investors.
For anyone interested in wealth creation, the evidence is compelling: wealth is not a function of accounting profitability. Wealth = Quality x Quantity.
The link to Economic Profit
There is a measure of financial performance that neatly captures both quality and quantity: Economic Profit, or as it sometime referred to, Economic Value Added.
Figure 2: Economic Profit captures the key drivers of wealth creation
In the final article in this series we’ll explore why some companies earn higher returns on their capital than others and the hazardous impact that competition can have on wealth.