An important aspect of long-term dividend investing is identifying companies that have durable economic advantages that allow them to remain profitable for the foreseeable future. For the dividend growth strategy to work, time is needed, and lots of it.
Company economic advantages are often called “economic moats”, because they act as a durable defense to separate the company from its competitors. Companies that do not have moats face a lot more pressure from competitors, while companies with large moats have better chances for higher margins and bigger profits along with consistent growth. This article highlights 7 companies with superior moats.
Canadian National Railway (CNI)
Canadian National Railway is the largest railway in Canada and has significant operations in the United States. The rail network extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through Canada, and also extends southward to the Gulf of Mexico through the United States.
Railways have big economic advantages because once track is put down, there’s little reason for a competitor to put down track in the same area to serve the same routes. A railway’s biggest concern is the economic trends in the areas it serves, rather than fierce competition from other railways. Railways also tend to be very efficient compared to other forms of transportation, particularly when transporting large amounts of commodities.
Canadian National Railway’s dividend yield is currently only 1.60%, but the dividend growth is high. The last increase was 7%, and the five-year dividend growth rate is 17%.
Wal-Mart is the biggest, baddest retailer around. The company pulls in over $400 billion per year in revenue. When they purchase products to sell, they purchase so many at a time, that they can demand pretty much any price they want. Simply by being so huge, they can buy products cheaper than any of their competitors, and therefore they can sell at a lower price while simultaneously having an excellent profit margin compared to other retailers. Since they sell at a lower price, everyone flocks to Wal-Mart to buy things, and they get even bigger and continue to dominate their competitors. It’s a cycle.
How would a retailer go about trying to compete with Wal-Mart? A given competing retailer isn’t big enough in terms of purchasing power to match Wal-Mart’s prices, so people shop at Wal-Mart instead. Since people shop at Wal-Mart instead, this competing retailer does not grow very quickly, and so they can never outpace Wal-Mart in terms of purchasing power. It’s a catch-22. It’s like not being able to get a job because you don’t have enough experience, and not having enough experience because you can’t get a job.
Most economic moats are viable because they form an endless cycle; a catch-22 against competitors. Wal-Mart offers a dividend yield of 2.20% with a five-year dividend growth rate of 15%. Costco and Amazon have been innovative enough to chip away at the moat, but Wal-Mart’s current valuation and continued growth offer considerable upside and a fairly low downside.
Johnson and Johnson (JNJ)
Johnson and Johnson has a moat made up of two things: a) Scientific know-how and patents, and b) A collection of strong brand names.
When healthcare companies develop a new medicine or a new product, they patent it, and this stops companies from producing similar products. This allows the company to charge high prices. With the vast size of the company, JNJ has the vast technical know-how to continue to research and develop new products, and to patent them against competitors. At any given time, Johnson and Johnson has a huge patent shield in diverse categories, and they have a healthy pipeline of new products coming out to be patented.
In addition, Johnson and Johnson’s collection of brands are well-known. Their consumer products can sell for 2x as much as an exact non-brand name copy of the formula because people tend to buy it anyway. This patent-shield-wielding juggernaut offers a 3.40% yield and more than 10% annualized dividend growth over the past five years.
Brookfield Infrastructure (BIP)
Just about any utility company or pipeline has a large economic moat due to the local monopoly they have on their communities. A utility or pipeline invests in a large amount of assets that return a stable cash flow over time, and nearly untouched by competitors.
I picked BIP in particular because their operations are global, and I wanted to point out that a company with a huge moat does not have to be a huge company. BIP has ownership or partial ownership of the following:
Transelec- Electric transmission lines in Chile
NGPL- Natural gas storage and pipeline in the US
Powerco- Electricity and gas distribution in New Zealand
IEG- Electricity and natural gas connections in UK
Ontario Transmission- Electric transmission lines in Canada
TGN- The only natural gas distributor in Tasmania
DBCT- Coal terminal that supplies port export services from Australia
WestNet Rail- Australian rail infrastructure
PD Ports- Collection of shipping ports in UK
Euroports- Ports in Europe and China
Island Timberlands- timberland in British Columbia
Longview Timber- timberland in Northwestern US
Peterborough Hospital- UK hospital
Long Bay Forensic and Prison Hospitals- Australian hospital
Royal Melbourne Showgrounds- Exhibition Center in Australia
BIP offers a yield of 5.50% and their last distribution raise was nearly 4%. Looking forward, BIP management hopes to boost the distribution by 3-7% per year. Still, their leveraged position and exposure to cyclical infrastructure should be carefully considered.
United Parcel Service (UPS)
UPS is a logistics company that is strong mainly because of its massive scale. It has an international distribution system that allows it to ship packages all over the world. The company uses hundreds of planes and thousands of vehicles to ship millions of packages each day.
Unlike a retailer, however, one can barely even start a business in this field. The barrier to entry is massive. One can’t start a delivery service without an enormous capital investment, and there’s no reason to even try because UPS is large enough to do it better and cheaper than you no matter where you start it. This keeps the number of players in this industry fairly low.
UPS offers a dividend yield of 2.80% and 7% dividend growth.
Usually, large companies with strong moats tend to have an equally famous brand name, but this is certainly not the case for Microsoft. In fact, their brand name is infamous for crashing PCs, buggy software, inferior updates, and annoying paperclips. Although it’s true that everyone knows Microsoft, almost everyone has something negative to say about Microsoft, and yet we still use their products. Why? Because their moat is just absolutely huge.
The strength of their moat comes in the form of high switching costs. It’s difficult to switch to one of their competitors even if you want to. Everyone is familiar with Windows, but not everyone is familiar with Apple products or Linux. Windows has a huge percentage of the PC software market share. Even more powerful in terms of switching cost is Microsoft Office. Nobody can switch, because unless a large portion of the market switches at the same time, nobody will be able to read the documents of the people that switched first. There are even entire training and licensing programs about learning and becoming certified in Microsoft Office usage.
Microsoft currently offers a dividend yield of 2.60% and has grown its dividend by an annualized 10% over the past five years. The danger, however, is that Microsoft’s epic moat may be matched by the speed in which it is crumbling away. Innovative companies like Google and Apple are stealing its market share, and online document software threatens the future of the Microsoft Office model.
Compass Minerals (CMP)
Compass Minerals owns some of the largest salt mines in the world including the largest underground rock salt mine. In addition, their mines tend to be located near excellent rail networks, and they effectively use the Great Lakes, Mississippi River, Ohio River for transportation of their salt. There are a finite number of huge salt mines in the world, and because the transportation costs are so high for such a heavy-volume mineral, location plays a huge role.
CMP offers a 2% yield and 7% dividend growth. The company has quite a bit of leverage but has been effectively reducing it.
A moat isn’t everything, and some of these companies have pretty substantial threats to their economic advantages. Google and Apple are attacking Microsoft, Amazon and Costco are attacking Walmart, UPS has Fed Ex and a union to deal with, Johnson and Johnson is letting its collection of brands receive bad press with poor quality, and BIP, CNI, and all of them are affected by what the global economy is like at any given time.
But these aren’t just any old moats; they’re some of the biggest around, and the companies skillful enough to put up these moats might be good enough to keep them. Companies with huge moats don’t go away overnight, and if their valuations are reasonable, they may make solid investments. A thorough analysis should be performed on any stock before investing.
Full Disclosure: At the time of this writing, I own shares of JNJ and BIP, but none of the others mentioned.
You can see my full list of individual holdings here.
Good post, I would appreciate more of this kind. With short summaries of your view.
I like that you add companies that you dont have in your portfolio but still like. If I find the time I will do this in my blog. Showing companies that are “almost right” for me. Some readers will think that the aspect that i dislike isnt as crucial to them. We seem to have different views on goodwill for example:)
(But my primary focus is to complete my analysis of the stocks i do have in my portfolio. Ive had my blog for like 3 months and done two thirds..I wish the day had 48 hours)
Now I can continue researching a few of the above but you have saved me the timeconsuming look for new candidates.
I count 6 companies not 7 on your list…
MoneyMan @ FinancialOdyssey
Very nice list. I’ve been thinking of getting into some Wal-Mart myself. I do think you are right about Microsoft’s dangers. I think going with a non-dividend stock like apple is a much better choice, right now AAPL seems unstoppable.
Good catch! I deleted one from the list but forgot to change the title!
Luckily Seeking Alpha caught my error before posting it on their site.
I have more posts of this type planned. The next one will be a list of five dividend companies with low valuations. It’s at least a week away though.
I’m looking forward to your analysis of HCBK.
Overall, I’m fairly certain that Microsoft will do decently in the upcoming years. But I’m not quite certain enough to consider it an “investment” rather than a “speculation”.
I plan to do a stock analysis of Microsoft, and I’ll be able to make a better decision. I’ve already reviewed them to some extent for my own portfolio, and planned to post a complete stock analysis of them, but it was just such a huge undertaking so I put it on hold. I estimate it will take 3x longer than one of my typical stock analysis articles to adequately cover Microsoft.
I’m also fairly bullish on Apple, considering their international opportunities. But the fact that the entire company seems to hinge on one man turns me off a bit as an investor. It’s still on my watch list, though.
One of the few individual holdings I still have (most personal & professional assets are in etfs and funds) is WMT. I’m taking the div while waiting for the consumers to spend more $$$ shopping :)
That’s a good pick in my opinion. I think WMT will eventually find its way into my portfolio, but there are several stocks on my watch and buy lists before it.
The stock performance has not been very good over this past decade, but that’s because it used to be overvalued and now is not. In terms of financial performance, it has done very well. With dividends, share repurchases, core growth, a huge moat, recession-resistant business, international exposure, and an attractive valuation, it looks pretty good in terms of risk-adjusted returns.
I’ve decided to add back in the seventh company. I took it out because it’s Friday’s stock analysis but forgot to change the title. I already have other sites linking to this article with “7” rather than “6”, so it’s back in.
It seems like your economic moats is just a justification to purchase a dividend-growth stock? Rather than comparing the metrics like you usually do. Would it be useful to check out each competitor’s numbers? like UPS vs FEDEX?
This is just an overview of some companies, not thorough analysis of them. In my stock analysis reports, this would fall into my “investment thesis” category where I discuss some of the more qualitative aspects of the business. Something like a strong brand name is hard to quantify, as are other moats like switching costs.
For most stocks I purchase, I make sure there is some economic moat that keeps that company separate from their competitors. An exception is insurance companies, but there are other things that attract me to that industry.
For this post I picked UPS over FDX simply because UPS is larger than FDX. FDX is an example of a company large enough to compete with UPS.
Great post Matt. Surprised not to see a few others in your economic moat list, for example, what abuot KO? Too much competition from PEP?
Like the addition of Compass to the list. Great company!
Hi Financial Cents,
Coke definitely has a huge moat. This is certainly not an exhaustive list of large moats. At some future time I’ll probably post more about large moat companies.
Compass will have a full analysis posted tomorrow.
Warren Buffett is my hero. But lets be realistic about this. his stocks have not performed over the last 10 years. He purchases old dying companies. He got wells fargo, generel electric and even gm which blew me away. He even said he had no idea they purchased it. Sure Warren. But look at what he said. Technology is to unpredictable. He passes on google and apple and even precious metals. He took wells fargo over gold really? He said gold has no value? Then he took target over walmart and out of stubborness finally decided to drop target and get walmart. Another mistake that any of us can see that walmart is a power house. But the biggest mistakes that shows he made a mistake was when he decided finally out of all these years to realize technology has value and decided he was wrong and got intel and ibm. The time has just flown by him so fast. So its understanding he doesn’t understand the technology stuff and have no real understanding of where the future is going. He still buying news paper companies, trains and banks. And thats fine he thinks it will bounce back but i feel bad for a lot of new investors who are trying to mimic what he is doing. Cause that old school stuft is over with and Mr Buffetts been great. Buti ts time for him to hang it up with the stock market and just stick with his private investing. He does wonderful at that.