Yesterday we saw Jeff Raikes’ analysis of Microsoft’s moat. And many of his observations still hold true today, even though Microsoft has broadened its product line greatly since then—moving to the Web, to video games, mp3 players, and television.
Even today, Microsoft’s most profitable products—far and away—are its Windows operating system and its Office suite. What makes these products so profitable? As Raikes observed, the products are cheap to reproduce, easy to transfer and store, and they largely sell themselves. PC users are most familiar with these programs and reticent to try alternatives. As a result, and most importantly, they offer “pricing discretion.” On Microsoft’s financial statements, these qualities translate into a low cost of goods sold and high margins. High margins and high profitability give a company the resources to widen, deepen, and bolster its moat.
As Buffett observes, it is as if Microsoft has a royalty on an increasingly important communications stream for our society. In a sense, Microsoft is the tollbooth that stands at the gateway to most modern communications and collects its hefty fee. Whereas in the recent past most communication could travel without such fees via typewriters or a pen and paper, Microsoft has positioned itself to command an upfront fee for access to communication, largely because our habits have shifted. Today almost every form of published or printed communication requires paying Microsoft the requisite access fee.
So, should the savvy wide moat investor throw all her capital into Microsoft, so long as the price was right? Perhaps not. For the worry, as Raikes also observes, is that a paradigm shift in communications may break our current habits. For example, if written communications shifted instead to cell phones, Microsoft may not be sufficiently prepared to provide the software and garner the fee. For a wide moat investor like Buffett, an important element of a company’s margin of safety is the durability of its customers’ preferences. For companies like See’s Candies or Coca Cola, Buffett expects that their customers’ preferences will be more enduring than Microsoft’s. If that is true, then Microsoft’s moat may be narrower than it initially seems. And the wide moat investor should wait for a fatter pitch.
Disclosure: No position in the aforementioned companies at the time of this post.