Warren Buffett admitted in 2019 that he made the wrong call in not buying Google, now known as Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOG). He regrets not having "some insights into certain businesses" especially given Google was making "a lot of money" at the time of its IPO from Geico. This article analyzes the reasons for his regrets - the wide moat, the autonomous growth prospects, and the incredibly high and consistent ROCE that GOOG enjoys and he missed. And his investment regrets seem to offer more insights on the business of GOOG and value investing than some of his investment success. Lastly, this article also shares my thoughts on why he never bought GOOG after he had those insights, and my reflections on its implications of value investing under the current market.
Google derives more than 80% of its revenue from advertising, but it is not an advertising company. Its true moat is in its "free" search services, where it totally dominates, as seen in the chart below. As seen, Google has been maintaining nearly 90% market share of the global search traffic - and it has been maintaining such dominance for OVER A DECADE!
Furthermore, it is unlikely that such dominance would change in the future (barring any major regulation or antitrust legislation change) due to the so-called "network effects". The network effects refer to the fact that the value of certain products or services increases as more people use them. In other words, certain networks become increasingly more valuable or it become bigger. Not every network enjoys this magic feature, and as a matter of fact, most networks suffer a diminishing marginal rate of return - i.e., the additional return decreases as the network becomes bigger. A chain restaurant network is an example. As the network becomes larger, the nodes begin to compete against each other for customers and the return diminishes.
But certain networks, like the search services Google provides, enjoy this magic trait - the network becomes more profitable as it becomes bigger. There is nothing new about the concept. It was true of railways, telephones, and fax machines. All these examples share these common traits: A) the larger the network becomes, the more valuable it becomes (one segment of railway linking city A and B is far more valuable when this segment also links to other railways linking other cities); and B) the larger the network becomes, the higher the switching cost (if everyone uses a fax machine and you do not want to use one, good luck to you).
Again, there is nothing new about the concept. But the internet age dramatically amplified the potency of the network effects. Once a lead is established - for whatever the reason, smart AI algorithms, advanced ML algorithms, or just dumb luck (GOOG certainly had benefited from all three) - the network effects would just kick in, take over, and compound itself.
It is a self-sustaining positive feedback loop: more users in this network will lead to more relevant and accurate search results will be, which will make the network lead to an even better and more valuable for the users, which will attract more new users to join and make it harder for existing users to leave, which again will lead back to more users and an even larger network.
If you, like this author, are a long-term investor who subscribes to Buffett's concepts of owner's earning, perpetual growth rate, and equity bond, then the long-term return is simpler. It is "simply" the summation of the owner's earning yield ("OEY") and the perpetual growth rate ("PGR"), i.e.,
Longer-Term ROI = OEY + PGR
Because in the long term, all fluctuations in valuation are averaged out (all luck at the end even out). And it doesn't really matter how the business uses the earning (payout as dividend, retained in the bank account, or repurchase stocks). As long as used sensibly (as GOOG has done in the past), it will be reflected as a return to the business owner.
OEY is the owner's earnings divided by the entry price. All the complications are in the estimation of the owner's earning - the real economic earning of the business, not the nominal accounting earning. Here is a crude and conservative estimate, I will just use the free cash flow ("FCF") as the owner's earning. It is conservative in the sense that rigorously speaking, the owner's earning should be free cash flow plus the portion of CAPEx that is used to fuel the growth (i.e., the growth CAPEx). At its current price levels, the OEY is ~3.2% for GOOG (~31.6x price to FCF - no cheap at all, but wait for the PGR part).
The next and more important item is the PGR. To understand and estimate it, we will need to first estimate the return on capital employed ("ROCE"). Note that ROCE is different from the return on equity (and more fundamental and important in my view). ROCE considers the return of capital ACTUALLY employed, and therefore provides insight into how much additional capital a business needs to invest in order to earn a given extra amount of income - a key to estimate the PGR. For businesses like GOOG, I consider the following items capital actually employed:
1. Working capital, including payables, receivables, inventory. These are the capitals required for the daily operation of their businesses.
2. Gross Property, Plant, and Equipment. These are the capitals required to actually conduct business and manufacture their products.
3. Research and development expenses are also considered as a capital investment for such a business.
Based on the above considerations, the ROCE of GOOG over the past decade is shown below. As seen, GOOG was able to maintain a remarkably high and stable ROCE over the long term: on average 55% for the past decade. Thanks to such ultra-high ROCE, it only requires a bit of reinvestment to fuel future growth, as elaborated in the next section.
Source: author and Seeking Alpha
Buffett said multiple times that there are businesses which, at the end of the day, point to a bunch of depreciated properties and equipment and tell the investors, "these are our profits." He hates his business.
GOOG is the exact opposite of such businesses - it generates plenty of cash and at the same time only needs a very low level of reinvestment to fuel further growth. First, GOOG is essential debt-free. Interest expenses are negligible compared to profits. Then as seen in the chart below, the business generates so much cash that it has so much financial flexibility in terms of capital allocation. As seen, in recent years, GOOG only needs 18% of its operation cash ("OPC") to cover the maintenance CAPEx. GOOG does not pay a dividend (even though it can easily afford it).
So this leaves a whopping 72% of the OPC to be dispensable cash, and the company can choose what to do with it: reinvest to fuel further growth, retain it to the bank account, pay a dividend, pay down debt, buy back shares, et al. It obviously makes total sense to reinvest all of it to fuel further growth given its 55% ROCE. At this ROCE, $1 reinvested would be fuel $0.55 of additional earning! But the problem is that for businesses at this scale, there are just not that many opportunities to reinvest the earnings. As a result, GOOG has been allocating a large part of the remaining earning, on average 37% in recent years, to buy back shares. Such repurchases, besides reflecting the confidence of the management in their own business and the cash generation capability, again also signals the lack of good reinvestment opportunities that could move the needle.
But all things considered, with 55% ROCE, GOOG does not need that much reinvestment to grow. My estimation is that GOOG has been reinvesting about 10% of its earnings to fuel future growth. With a 55% ROCE, it could maintain a 5.5% PGR (PGR = ROCE * fraction of earning reinvested = 55% * 10% = 5.5%).
Source: author and Seeking Alpha
Now we have both pieces of the puzzle in place to estimate the long-term return, as shown in the next chart. At its current price levels, the OEY is again estimated to be ~3.2%, and the PGR is about 5.5% as mentioned above. So the total return in the long term at the current valuation is about 8.7%, pretty decent even with the current relatively expensive valuation.
Source: author and Seeking Alpha
So in summary, here are my thoughts on why Buffett regrets on GOOG. It is a business that meets all his criteria as an autonomous and perpetual compounder - wide moat, high switching cost, high ROCE, lots of cash generated and only a little cash required, and a toll bridge role in the business ecosystem - and he missed all of that.
Then the next interesting question for me was that - why he never bought it? The valuation was not that far from his typical entry zone as late as 2011 (when the PE was below 20x). But he never bought, why?
The short answer is of course I do not know. I can only speculate. And I think one possible reason is that he found a better idea - Apple Inc. (AAPL) around that time he regretted GOOG. His AAPL investment was detailed in my other article and I won't go into details here. In summary, he was able to purchase AAPL under what I call the Buffett's 10x Pretax Rule - the observation that many of his largest and best deals were purchase with a price below or near 10x pretax earning. Besides AAPL, the list also included Coca-Cola (KO), American Express (AXP), Wells Fargo (WFC), Walmart (WMT), Burlington Northern, and even his recent $25B repurchases of BRK.A as analyzed in my other article.
As seen from the chart below, he was able to purchase AAPL around 10x pretax earning around 2016~2107. And AAPL features an even higher ROCE than GOOG. As a result, it was no-brainer and he must feel more comfortable with the AAPL idea - judging from the fact more than 1/3 of BRK's book value is in AAPL stocks currently.
Source: author and Seeking Alpha data
It is also interesting to look at the following chart, comparing the PE vs ROCE of a few large positions in Buffett's BRK portfolio together with GOOG. This chart shows three of the large BRK holdings that I have written about recently (V, AAPL, and ABBV). The ROC data are directly pulled from my previous analyses, and in case you want to see the details of how I got these numbers, you can look up recent articles under these tickers. I am not sure what the picture will look like as we add more data points on it (I do plan to organize my notes on his other major holdings and add more data points onto this plot).
But with the few data points I have now, I cannot help drawing/seeing the green line - what I call a Buffett value line. It is a line linking ABBV and AAPL - a good business at a good price and a high-quality business at a high price. So from a value investor point of view, it only makes sense to make investments along this line or below it. Because investment along this line or below represents a trade-off between quality and price that is equivalent or better than ABBV or AAPL. It makes no sense to invest above this line, as anything above this line represents an inferior trade-off between quality and price - we'd be better off to just invest in ABBV and AAPL.
So this Buffett value line really is my other speculation why he does not buy into GOOG. As good as the business this, it is at least not better than other investments that he saw/sees.
Finally, if you are wondering about why he is still holding V given it is far above the value line, the answer is again I really do not know. There are so many aspects that need to be considered with a position of V's size in his portfolio - tax liabilities, alternative investment candidates, opportunity cost, et al. I know I would trade V for ABBV and/or AAPL myself under current conditions. But I simply do not know what his considerations are.
Source: author and Seeking Alpha data
This article analyzes Buffett's regrets for not buying GOOG earlier. Indeed, GOOG is a business that meets all of Buffett's criteria as an autonomous and perpetual compounder - wide moat, high switching cost, high and consistent ROCE, lots of cash generated and only a little cash required, and a toll bridge role in the business ecosystem - and he missed all of that. The analyses show that GOOG still offers potential return close to double digits (about 9%) in the long term even with the current elevated valuation.
And finally, this article shared my reflections/stipulations on this investment regret of his, which seems to offer more insights on the business of GOOG and value investing than some of his investment success. Underlying all his decisions is the same value-driven philosophy and long-term thinking.
Thx for reading and look forward to hearing your comments!
This article was written by
** Disclosure: I am associated with Sensor Unlimited.
** Master of Science, 2004, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Department of Management Science and Engineering, with concentration in quantitative investment
** PhD, 2006, Stanford University, Stanford, CA
Department of Mechanical Engineering, with concentration in advanced and renewable energy solutions
** 15 years of investment management experiences
Since 2006, have been actively analyzing stocks and the overall market, managing various portfolios and accounts and providing investment counseling to many relatives and friends.
** Diverse background and holistic approach
Combined with Sensor Unlimited, we provide more than 3 decades of hands-on experience in high-tech R&D and consulting, housing market, credit market, and actual portfolio management. We monitor several asset classes for tactical opportunities. Examples include less-covered stocks ideas (such as our past holdings like CRUS and FL), the credit and REIT market, short-term and long-term bond trade opportunities, and gold-silver trade opportunities.
I also take a holistic view and watch out on aspects (both dangers and opportunities) often neglected – such as tax considerations (always a large chunk of return), fitness with the rest of holdings (no holding is good or bad until it is examined under the context of what we already hold), and allocation across asset classes.
Above all, like many SA readers and writers, I am a curious investor – I look forward to constantly learn, re-learn, and de-learn with this wonderful community.
Disclosure: I/we have a beneficial long position in the shares of AAPL either through stock ownership, options, or other derivatives. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.