With so much talk about a company’s economic moat it’s important to recognize how to clearly identify a moat, understand how wide it is, and figure out how long it will remain in place. One of the best papers ever written on the subject is Michael Mauboussin’s – Measuring the Moat, Assessing the Magnitude and Sustainability of Value Creation. The paper also provides investors with a collection of Warren Buffett’s quotes on identifying economic moats and great insights into how companies can create and maintain their economic moat.

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Here’s an excerpt from that paper:

Warren Buffett on Economic Moats

What we refer to as a “moat” is what other people might call competitive advantage . . . It’s something that differentiates the company from its nearest competitors – either in service or low cost or taste or some other perceived virtue that the product possesses in the mind of the consumer versus the next best alternative . . . There are various kinds of moats. All economic moats are either widening or narrowing – even though you can’t see it.

Outstanding Investor Digest, June 30, 1993

Look for the durability of the franchise. The most important thing to me is figuring out how big a moat there is around the business. What I love, of course, is a big castle and a big moat with piranhas and crocodiles.

Linda Grant, “Striking Out at Wall Street,” U.S. News & World Report, June 12, 1994

The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage. The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.

Warren Buffett and Carol Loomis, “Mr. Buffett on the Stock Market,” Fortune, November 22, 1999

We think of every business as an economic castle. And castles are subject to marauders. And in capitalism, with any castle . . . you have to expect . . . that millions of people out there . . . are thinking about ways to take your castle away. Then the question is, “What kind of moat do you have around that castle that protects it?”

Outstanding Investor Digest, December 18, 2000

When our long-term competitive position improves . . . we describe the phenomenon as “widening the moat.” And doing that is essential if we are to have the kind of business we want a decade or two from now. We always, of course, hope to earn more money in the short-term. But when short-term and longterm conflict, widening the moat must take precedence.

Berkshire Hathaway Letter to Shareholders, 2005

A truly great business must have an enduring “moat” that protects excellent returns on invested capital. The dynamics of capitalism guarantee that competitors will repeatedly assault any business “castle” that is earning high returns . . . Our criterion of “enduring” causes us to rule out companies in industries prone to rapid and continuous change. Though capitalism’s “creative destruction” is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty. A moat that must be continuously rebuilt will eventually be no moat at all . . . Additionally, this criterion eliminates the business whose success depends on having a great manager.

Berkshire Hathaway Letter to Shareholders, 2007

Mauboussin’s executive summary explains economic moats as follows:

Sustainable value creation has two dimensions—how much economic profit a company earns and how long it can earn excess returns. Both dimensions are of prime interest to investors and corporate executives.

Sustainable value creation as the result solely of managerial skill is rare. Competitive forces drive returns toward the cost of capital. Investors should be careful about how much they pay for future value creation.

Warren Buffett consistently emphasizes that he wants to buy businesses with prospects for sustainable value creation. He suggests that buying a business is like buying a castle surrounded by a moat and that he wants the moat to be deep and wide to fend off all competition. Economic moats are almost never stable. Because of competition, they are getting a little bit wider or narrower every day. This report develops a systematic framework to determine the size of a company’s moat.

Companies and investors use competitive strategy analysis for two very different purposes. Companies try to generate returns above the cost of capital, while investors try to anticipate revisions in expectations for financial performance. If a company’s share price already captures its prospects for sustainable value creation, investors should expect to earn a risk-adjusted market return.

Industry effects are the most important in the sustainability of high performance and a close second in the emergence of high performance. However, industry effects are much smaller than firm-specific factors for low performers. For companies that are below average, strategies and resources explain 90 percent or more of their returns.

The industry is the correct place to start an analysis of sustainable value creation. We recommend getting a lay of the land, which includes a grasp of the participants and how they interact, an analysis of profit pools, and an assessment of industry stability. We follow this with an analysis of the five forces and a discussion of the disruptive innovation framework.

A clear understanding of how a company creates shareholder value is core to understanding sustainable value creation. We define three broad sources of added value: production advantages, consumer advantages, and external advantages.

How firms interact plays an important role in shaping sustainable value creation. We consider interaction through game theory as well as co-evolution.

Brands do not confer competitive advantage in and of themselves. Customers hire them to do a specific job. Brands that do those jobs reliably and cost effectively thrive. Brands only add value if they increase customer willingness to pay or if they reduce the cost to provide the good or service.

Article by Johnny Hopkins, The Acquirer's Multiple