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Michael Mauboussin is the author of The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (Harvard Business Press, 2009) and More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places-Updated and Expanded (New York: Columbia Business School Publishing, 2008). More Than You Know was named one of “The 100 Best Business Books of All Time” by 800-CEO-READ, one of the best business books by BusinessWeek (2006) and best economics book by Strategy+Business (2006). He is also co-author, with Alfred Rappaport, of Expectations Investing: Reading Stock Prices for Better Returns (Harvard Business School Press, 2001).

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Michael Mauboussin On Capital Allocation - Updated

Executive Summary

  • Capital allocation is the most fundamental responsibility of a senior management team of a public corporation. The problem is that many CEOs, while almost universally well intentioned, don’t know how to allocate capital effectively. The proper goal of capital allocation is to build long-term value per share. The emphasis is on building value and letting the stock market reflect that value. Companies that dwell on boosting their short-term stock price frequently make decisions that are at odds with building value.
  • Capital allocation is always important but is especially pertinent in the United States today given the high return on invested capital, modest growth, and substantial cash on corporate balance sheets. Companies that deploy capital judiciously have a significant opportunity to build value.
  • Internal financing represented more than 90 percent of the source of total capital for U.S. companies from 1980-2014. This is a higher percentage than that of other developed countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Japan.
  • Mergers and acquisitions (M&A), capital expenditures, and research and development (R&D) are the largest uses of capital for operations. In the past 35 years, capital expenditures are down, and R&D is up, as a percentage of sales. This reflects a shift in the underlying economy. M&A is the largest use of capital but follows the stock market closely. More deals happen when the stock market is up.
  • The amount companies have spent on buybacks has exceeded dividends for the past decade, except for 2009. Buybacks did not become relevant in the U.S. until 1982, so you should treat comparisons of yields before and after 1982 with caution. Research shows that the overall proclivity to return cash has not changed much over the decades, but the means by which the payout occurs has shifted.
  • Academic research shows that rapid asset growth is associated with poor total shareholder returns. Further, companies that contract their assets often create substantial value per share. Ultimately, the answer to all capital allocation questions is, “It depends.” Most actions are either foolish or smart based on the price and value.
  • Divestitures are substantial and generally create value. If the buyers tend to lose value, it stands to reason that the sellers gain value. Selling or spinning off poor performing businesses can lead to addition by subtraction.
  • Past spending patterns are often a good starting point for assessing future spending plans. Once you know how a company spends money, you can dig deeper into management’s decision-making process. Further, it is useful to calculate return on invested capital and return on incremental invested capital. These metrics can provide a sense of the absolute and relative effectiveness of management’s spending.
  • Understanding incentives for management is crucial. Assess the degree to which management is focused on building value and addressing agency costs.
  • The five principles of value creation include: zero-based capital allocation; fund strategies, not projects; no capital rationing; zero tolerance for bad growth; and know the value of assets and be prepared to take action.

Michael Mauboussin On Capital Allocation - Introduction

[drizzle]Capital allocation is the most fundamental responsibility of a senior management team of a public corporation. Successful capital allocation means converting inputs, including money, things, ideas, and people, into something more valuable than they would be otherwise. The net present value (NPV) test is a simple, appropriate, and classic way to determine whether management is living up to this responsibility. Passing the NPV test means that $1 invested in the business is worth more than $1 in the market. This occurs when the present value of the long-term cash flow from an investment exceeds the initial cost.

Why should value determine whether a management team is living up to its responsibility? There are two reasons. The first is that companies must compete. A company that is allocating its resources wisely will ultimately prevail over a competitor that is allocating its resources foolishly. The second is that inputs have an opportunity cost, or the value of the next best alternative. Unless an input is going to its best and highest use, it is underperforming relative to its opportunity cost.

The process of making inputs more valuable has a number of aspects. A logical starting point is a strategy. Properly conceived, a strategy requires a company to specify the trade-offs it will make to establish a position in the marketplace that creates value. A strategy also requires a company to align its activities with its positioning and to execute effectively.

Since a company’s strategy is often already in place when a new chief executive officer (CEO) takes over, capital allocation generally becomes his or her main responsibility. While a proper and comprehensive discussion of capital allocation requires a consideration of intangible and human resources, our focus here is on how companies spend money.

The problem is that many CEOs, while almost universally well intentioned, don’t know how to allocate capital effectively. Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, describes this reality in his 1987 letter to shareholders. He discusses the point of why it is beneficial for Berkshire Hathaway’s corporate office to allocate the capital of the companies it controls. Buffett is worth quoting at length:

This point can be important because the heads of many companies are not skilled in capital allocation. Their inadequacy is not surprising. Most bosses rise to the top because they have excelled in an area such as marketing, production, engineering, administration or, sometimes, institutional politics.

Once they become CEOs, they face new responsibilities. They now must make capital allocation decisions, a critical job that they may have never tackled and that is not easily mastered. To stretch the point, it’s as if the final step for a highly-talented musician was not to perform at Carnegie Hall but, instead, to be named Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

The lack of skill that many CEOs have at capital allocation is no small matter: After ten years on the job, a CEO whose company annually retains earnings equal to 10% of net worth will have been responsible for the deployment of more than 60% of all the capital at work in the business.

CEOs who recognize their lack of capital-allocation skills (which not all do) will often try to compensate by turning to their staffs, management consultants, or investment bankers. Charlie [Munger] and I have frequently observed the consequences of such “help.” On balance, we feel it is more likely to accentuate the capital-allocation problem than to solve it.

In the end,

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