As these platform companies create billions in value, they are simultaneously undermining the postwar ecosystem that Buffett has understood and profited from. Entire swaths of the economy are now at risk, and investors would do well not only to consider Value 3.0 prospectively but also to give some thought to what might be vulnerable in their Value 2.0 portfolios.
Some of these risks, such as those facing retail, are obvious (RIP, Sears). More important, what might be called the Media-Consumer Products Industrial Complex is slowly but surely withering away. As recently as 20 years ago, big brands could use network television to reach millions of Americans who tuned in simultaneously to watch shows like Friends and Home Improvement. Then came specialized cable networks, which turned broadcasting into narrowcasting. Now Google and Facebook can target advertising to a single individual, which means that in a little more than a generation we have gone from broadcasting to narrowcasting to mono-casting.
As a result, the network effects of the TV ecosystem are largely defunct. This has dangerous implications not only for legacy media companies but also for all the brands that thrived in it. Millennials, now the largest demographic in the U.S., are tuning out both ad-based television and megabrands. Johnson & Johnson’s baby products, for example, including its iconic No More Tears shampoo, have lost more than 10 points of market share in the last five years—an astonishingly sharp shift in a once terrarium-like category. Meanwhile, Amazon and other Internet retailers have introduced price transparency and frictionless choice. Americans are also becoming more health conscious and more locally oriented, trends that favor niche brands. Even Narragansett beer is making a comeback. With volume growth, pricing power, and, above all, the hold these brands once had on us all in doubt, it’s appropriate to ask: What’s the fair price for a consumer “franchise”?
To be sure, some of the digital-disruption rhetoric is overdone. Cryptocurrency replacing the bank system? Not likely. David Einhorn’s bearish calls on Tesla and Netflix may well be right, not because the stocks are expensive but because they face rising competition. And for all the hype about autonomous vehicles, they’re not anywhere close to being here—yet. But a lot can change in half a generation. If you google “Easter Day Parade, New York City 1900” and then “Easter Day Parade, New York City 1913” and look at the pictures that appear, you will see that the former has nearly 100% horse-drawn carriages while the latter has nearly 100% horseless carriages—i.e., automobiles. And when driverless cars do arrive, what happens to the auto industry? What happens to the auto-insurance industry—that cuddly, capital-intensive commodity business that value investors love to talk about at cocktail parties?
The bane of value investors lives are value traps. A company that looks cheap on paper may be about to go under because its market is disappearing. Hanesbrands is the classic example because it is still cash generative but its products are so easy to copy and new digital sales channels so accessible that it is facing an uphill battle to compete.Click HERE to subscribe to Fuller Treacy Money Back to top