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 (NYSE: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 it purchases products to sell, it purchases so many at a time, that it can demand pretty much any price it wants. Simply by being so huge, it can buy products cheaper than any of its competitors, and therefore can sell at a lower price while simultaneously having an excellent profit margin compared to other retailers. Since it sells at a lower price, everyone flocks to Wal-Mart to buy things, and the retailer gets even bigger, continuing to dominate its 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 (NASDAQ:COST) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) 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 (NYSE: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 it has a healthy pipeline of new products coming out to be patented.
In addition, Johnson and Johnson’s collection of brands are well-known. Its 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 (NYSE: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 its 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 (NYSE: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, its 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 the company's products. Why? Because Microsoft's moat is just absolutely huge.
The strength of its moat comes in the form of high switching costs. It’s difficult to switch to one of its competitors even if you want to. Everyone is familiar with Windows, but not everyone is familiar with Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) 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 (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Apple are stealing its market share, and online document software threatens the future of the Microsoft Office model.
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 Wal-Mart, UPS has Fed Ex (NYSE:FDX) 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.