There are lots of reasons why we try to start and run businesses. Some of them are emotional but the financial rationale for starting and staying in business is a simple one. It is to not just to make money, but to make more than what you would have made elsewhere with the capital (human and financial) invested in the business. Of course, your competitors, the government and sometimes the entire world seems to conspire against you (or at least it seems that way) to prevent you from making these “excess” returns.

The Search for and Scarcity of Excess Returns

In corporate finance, decision-making tools are constructed with the objective of earning and maximizing excess returns. Thus, the notion of net present value in capital budgeting is built on the presumption that an investment should earn more than what you would have generated as a return on an investment of equivalent risk. In investing, the search for excess returns or alpha is just as intense, with traders, value investors and growth investors playing their own versions of the game.
While you can plan, hope and pray for excess returns, to earn them consistently, you have to bring something unique that cannot be easily replicated to the game. In the case of businesses, that something is a competitive advantage or a barrier to entry that allows them to continue generating returns that exceed their costs of capital, without competition driving down profitability to more “normal” levels. These competitive advantages can range from economies of scale (Walmart), to brand name (Coca Cola) to patents (Amgen), and while they are have to be earned, they are not uncommon. In the case of investors, those competitive advantages are not only rarer but also more difficult to defend, perhaps explaining why so few active investors beat index funds or the market.
The Measurement of Excess Returns
Assume that you have been given the task of measuring whether a company’s past investments have generated returns for that exceed their cost, i.e. excess returns. To measure excess returns generated by companies on their investments collectively, you need two numbers, the expected return on the investments, given their risk and alternative investment choices today, and the actual return earned on those investments.
  1. The first number is the expected return on the investment, given its risk. As I noted in my last post, the cost of capital, computed right, should be an opportunity cost that reflects the expected return that investors in the company can generate by investing elsewhere in investments of equivalent risk.
  2. The second number is easy to compute for investors in publicly traded securities, since it a function of how much cash the investments returned (in dividends or other forms) and the price change over the year. Measuring the return earned by companies is more problematic, especially for ongoing and evolving investments. The most logical place to start is with the earnings generated by the company on these investments, but that number, is volatile and may not reflect the true quality of investments. The actual earnings (and returns) for a company will move a lot from year to year, sometimes because of actions taken by the firm and sometimes because of macroeconomic shifts. In addition, a company’s earnings and investing history is framed by accounting statements. Thus, accounting profits (net income, operating income) become a proxy for true earnings and the book value of capital invested (book value of equity, invested capital) stand in for earnings and investments, and we get two of the most widely used accounting returns: the return on (invested) capital and the return on equity.
While I have no qualms about using either return measure, the dependence on accounting statements for both the numerator and denominator trouble me. It is not my objective in this post to belabor the definition of return on equity and capital. If you are interested, I have an extended discourse on the technical issues that you may face in computing accounting returns in this paper.
In my last post, I looked at the simplifying assumptions that I made to compute the costs of capital for industries and for individual companies. To measure the excess returns, I do need to compute the return on invested capital, and I do make simplifying assumptions again to prevent getting bogged down.
Note that I am using the effective tax rate to compute after-tax operating income, both at the industry and company level. For return on equity, I use a similar adjustment process:

I am well aware of the weaknesses in these measures. The first is the use of the most recent year’s operating income in the numerator. Earnings at companies can vary over time and the most recent year may yield a number that is not representative of the company. (I did also use a ten-year average income to generate returns to try to counter this problem). The second is that the book value of equity is an accounting number and as such, is affected by accounting decisions on capitalization/expensing, depreciation and write offs. The third is that netting out the most recent period’s cash balance, especially at technology or growth companies, can result in a negative invested capital. Finally, this measure, even if the earnings and invested capital are measured right, will be biased against young companies and companies investing in long-gestation period investments (infrastructure, toll roads etc.), since it will be low in the early years.

The Evidence on Excess Returns

Notwithstanding the many limitations of the excess return measure that I have described, I do think that there is value in looking at how firms measure up on it, across sectors and across the globe.a. Across Sectors
To compute the return on capital for a sector, I used aggregated values for the operating income and invested capital across companies in the sector, rather than a simple average of the returns on capital of individual companies. I did this for two reasons. The first is that it allows me to keep all of the firms in my sample, rather than only the ones for which I can measure excess returns. The second is that it prevents outliers (hugely positive or negative excess returns that I may estimate for a firm, usually because of quirky accounting) from affecting the average. The third is to get a measure of weighted performance, where larger firms in a sector count for more than smaller firms.I report the industry averages in this data in this dataset. In the table below, I report on the five industries, in the US and globally, that report the highest return spreads (a return on capital that most exceeds the cost of capital) and the five that had the lowest return spreads.

Return spreads based on trailing 12 month returns: January 2015

As with any measure, the rankings reveal as much about the quality of the measure as they do about the quality of the sectors. Tobacco companies are at the top of the list partly because repeated

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