Would Buffett Consider Google a Great Investment?

May 31, 2009 6:51 AM ETGOOG, BRK.A3 Comments
Wide Moat Investing profile picture
Wide Moat Investing

Some recent fussing over Google (GOOG) has followed from an unlikely source—the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) annual meeting. During a Sunday press conference, Charlie Munger quipped that “Google has a huge new moat. In fact I’ve probably never seen such a wide moat.”

Unfortunately, Charlie’s brevity and the reporters’ lack of curiosity leave the reader to surmise what he really means. Warren Buffett kindly filled a bit of the gap when he added that Google’s search-linked advertising is “incredible.”

At a basic level, their observations are hard to dispute. Any time a brand name enters our common lexicon, one can assume that their product has attained sufficient “share of mind” to command pricing power. Even the most ardent Yahoo-er (YHOO) would not be so uncouth as to “yahoo” the web for an answer.

As if seeking confirmation, many leaped to conclude that Buffett and Munger now find Google a great investment. Yet a wide moat does not a great investment make. And I can think of no better criteria for an investment than those which have served Buffett and Munger so well over the years, and which are annually reproduced in Berkshire’s annual reports. An investment must have:

  1. demonstrated consistent earning power,
  2. earn good returns on equity while employing little or no debt,
  3. have honest and able management,
  4. operate in simple businesses, and
  5. be available at a fair price (somewhat below its intrinsic value, to provide a margin of safety).

Given these criteria, Google couldn’t pass as a viable investment for two reasons—it is too difficult (likely impossible) to forecast what the “search” market will look like in ten years, and Google’s equity currently sells at a premium price. One only needs to look back ten years ago to see a Google with no “share of mind.” For Buffett and Munger, Google’s moat—like Microsoft’s (MSFT)—is extremely wide, but its durability is unknowable.

Disclosure: I, and persons whose accounts I manage, own shares of Berkshire Hathaway at the time of this writing.

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Wide Moat Investing profile picture
Wide Moat Investing (http://widemoatinvesting.wordpress.com/) is a blog written from Charlottesville, Virginia that wants to better understand what makes a good business great, and hopefully uncover some investment opportunities along the way. As Warren Buffett once told his shareholders, “I don’t want an easy business for competitors. I want a business with a moat around it. I want a very valuable castle in the middle and then I want a duke who is in charge of that castle to be very honest and hardworking and able. Then I want a moat around that castle. The moat can be various things: The moat around our auto insurance business, GEICO, is low cost.”At the blog, we will analyze and value businesses particularly by examining their economic "moats." To do so, we will employ a variety of quantitative or qualitative methods, inspired by the methods of successful investors like Warren Buffett, Philip Fisher, Benjamin Graham, Seth Klarman, and Charlie Munger.

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