The Buffett Series explores some of the interesting and timeless investment concepts discussed by Mr. Buffett in his annual Berkshire letters. Over the years I've found there isn't a lot that Mr. Buffett and his partner Mr. Munger haven't worked out when it comes to investing. I am constantly discovering hidden investment gems, and new ways of thinking about businesses and the investment process.
This Series contains ten short essays on concepts that have featured in Mr. Buffett's annual letters since the early 1980's. It's amazing how timeless and universal they are. This short essay touches on the concept of "A Changing Media Landscape".
While everyone now recognises the changes going on in the media landscape due to disruption from the advent of high speed internet and the likes of Netflix and YouTube, this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, way back in 1990 Buffett recognised that media businesses were unlikely to be as profitable in the future as they had been in the past. Media businesses were transforming from quality franchises to ordinary businesses.
In his 1990 letter, Buffett acknowledged he was surprised at developments in the media industry that year and questioned whether the poor results of Berkshire's media investments was "just part of an aberration cycle - to be fully made up in the next upturn - or whether the business has slipped in a way that permanently reduces intrinsic business values". He concluded the latter …
"Since I didn't predict what has happened, you may question the value of my prediction about what will happen. Nevertheless, I'll proffer a judgment: While many media businesses will remain economic marvels in comparison with American industry generally, they will prove considerably less marvellous than I, the industry, or lenders thought would be the case only a few years ago.
The reason media businesses have been so outstanding in the past was not physical growth, but rather the unusual pricing power that most participants wielded. Now, however, advertising dollars are growing slowly. In addition, retailers that do little or no media advertising (though they sometimes use the Postal Service) have gradually taken market share in certain merchandise categories. Most important of all, the number of both print and electronic advertising channels has substantially increased. As a consequence, advertising dollars are more widely dispersed and the pricing power of ad vendors has diminished. These circumstances materially reduce the intrinsic value of our major media investments and also the value of our operating unit, Buffalo News - though all remain fine businesses."
Buffett revisited the challenges facing the industry in his 1991 letter titled "A change in media economics and some valuation math"
"In last year's report, I stated my opinion that the decline in the profitability of media companies reflected secular as well as cyclical factors. The events of 1991 have fortified that case: The economic strength of once-mighty media enterprises continues to erode as retailing patterns change and advertising and entertainment choices proliferate. In the business world, unfortunately, the rear-view mirror is always clearer than the windshield: A few years back no one linked to the media business - neither lenders, owners nor financial analysts - saw the economic deterioration that was in store for the industry. (But give me a few years and I'll probably convince myself that I did.)
The fact is that newspaper, television, and magazine properties have begun to resemble businesses more than franchises in their economic behavior. Let's take a quick look at the characteristics separating these two classes of enterprise, keeping in mind, however, that many operations fall in some middle ground and can best be described as weak franchises or strong businesses.
An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company's ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital.
Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise's profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage. In contrast, "a business" earns exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low-cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management.
Until recently, media properties possessed the three characteristics of a franchise and consequently could both price aggressively and be managed loosely. Now, however, consumers looking for information and entertainment (their primary interest being the latter) enjoy greatly broadened choices as to where to find them. Unfortunately, demand can't expand in response to this new supply: 500 million American eyeballs and a 24-hour day are all that's available. The result is that competition has intensified, markets have fragmented, and the media industry has lost some - though far from all - of its franchise strength".
Buffett uses an example to show that a hypothetical media business which earns $1m a year that can grow at 6% per annum in perpetuity is worth $25m. This is in contrast to a business earning the same $1m with no growth which is worth only $10m. While a multiple of twenty-five times earnings is appropriate for the first company the second company fetches ten times earnings.
"The industry's weakened franchise has an impact on its value that goes far beyond the immediate effect on earnings. For an understanding of this phenomenon, let's look at some much over-simplified, but relevant, math.
A few years ago the conventional wisdom held that a newspaper, television or magazine property would forever increase its earnings at 6% or so annually and would do so without the employment of additional capital, for the reason that depreciation charges would roughly match capital expenditures and working capital requirements would be minor. Therefore, reported earnings (before amortization of intangibles) were also freely-distributable earnings, which meant that ownership of a media property could be construed as akin to owning a perpetual annuity set to grow at 6% a year. Say, next, that a discount rate of 10% was used to determine the present value of that earnings stream. One could then calculate that it was appropriate to pay a whopping $25 million for a property with current after-tax earnings of $1 million. (This after-tax multiplier of 25 translates to a multiplier on pre-tax earnings of about 16.)
Now change the assumption and posit that the $1 million represents "normal earning power" and that earnings will bob around this figure cyclically. A "bob-around" pattern is indeed the lot of most businesses, whose income stream grows only if their owners are willing to commit more capital (usually in the form of retained earnings). Under our revised assumption, $1 million of earnings, discounted by the same 10%, translates to a $10 million valuation. Thus a seemingly modest shift in assumptions reduces the property's valuation to 10 times after-tax earnings (or about 6 1/2 times pre-tax earnings).
Dollars are dollars whether they are derived from the operation of media properties or of steel mills. What in the past caused buyers to value a dollar of earnings from media far higher than a dollar from steel was that the earnings of a media property were expected to constantly grow (without the business requiring much additional capital), whereas steel earnings clearly fell in the bob-around category. Now, however, expectations for media have moved toward the bob-around model. And, as our simplified example illustrates, valuations must change dramatically when expectations are revised."
Buffett recognised back in 1990 that the media industry had changed and was likely to continue to do so. Today, the equity value of many of the traditional media companies have been decimated by change. The fall in value in many cases has been a slow burn. The internet destroyed the newspapers classified sections. The advent of high speed internet has allowed Netflix and YouTube to access a global audience unavailable to traditional TV licence and cable operators providing economies of scale not available to the incumbents.
When evaluating businesses it's important to think about how conditions are changing and whether the changes are structural or cyclical. Today, new technology can allow competitors to penetrate a business's 'moat' and change the industry economics for the better or worse. It's important to think about how the businesses in your portfolio are placed to survive an ever changing world.