What is a bad business?

If Mr. Marchionne’s point is that the automobile business is a bad one, it is worth starting this discussion with the question of what it is that make a business a bad one. At an extremely simplistic level, you can argue that a bad business is one where many or most companies lose money, but that definition would encompass young sectors (social media, biotechnology) that tend to lose money early in the life cycle. It also would imply that any sector that collectively makes profits is a good one, which would not make sense, if the sector has huge amounts of capital invested in it. Thus, any good definition of business quality has to look at not only how much money a company makes but how much it needs to make, given its risk and the capital invested in that business. In corporate finance, we try, to capture this by looking at both sides of the equation:
While there are some business (banks, investment banks and other financial service companies), where the equity comparison is more useful, in most businesses, it is the comparison on a overall capital basis that carries more weight. If you accept the proposition that the return on invested capital measures the quality of a company’s investment and the cost of capital is the hurdle rate that you need to earn, given its risk, the spread between the two becomes a snapshot of the capacity of the company to generate value.
Why a snapshot? If the return on invested capital is estimated, as it usually is, using the operating income that the company generated in the most recent time period and the cost of capital reflects the expected return, given the risk free rate and equity risk premium in that period, it is also possible that looking at a single period can give you a misleading sense of whether the company in question is generating value. With cyclical and commodity companies, in particular, where earnings tend to move through cycles, a good case can be made that we should be looking at earnings over a cycle and not just the most recent year. Finally, the return on invested capital is an accounting number and is hence handicapped by all the limitations of accounting principles & rules, a point I made in this long, torturous examination of accounting returns. If you bring the two strands of discussion together, there are two levels at which a sector has to fail to be called a “bad” business.
  1. Collective, weighted under performance: Most companies in the sector should be earning returns on their invested capital that are less than the cost of capital, not just a few, and the aggregate return on capital earned by a sector has to lag the cost of capital.
  2. Consistent under performance: These excess returns (return on capital minus cost of capital) should be negative over many time periods.
  3. No delayed payoff: There are some infrastructure businesses that require extended periods of large investment and negative excess returns, before they pay off in profitability.
In my post on GM, I made the case that the automobile business was a bad one, using these two metrics. Collectively, the distribution of returns on capital across global automobile companies in 2014 looked as follows:
Bad Businesses
Bad Businesses

If you look at the return on capital across time for the auto industry, you see the same phenomenon play out.

It should come as no surprise that I agree with Mr. Marchionne that the auto business is a bad one and with Mr. Warburger that the companies in this business are in denial. The bad news for investors is that the auto business is not alone in this hall of shame. I computed returns on capital, costs of capital and excess returns for all non-financial US companies, by year from 2005 to 2014, and then looked for the sectors that delivered a negative excess return on average during the decade, while also generating in excess returns in at least 5 of the 10 years:
Raw data from Capital IQ with my estimates of costs of capital by year
Some of the businesses on this list have a good reason for

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