In David Einhorn’s 2006 speech at the Value Investing Congress he provided some great insights on the importance of focusing on low ROEs in capital intensive businesses. Here’s an excerpt from the speech:
Coming back to my main theme. I believe it is very important to analyze ROE and marginal returns on capital…but only in capital intensive businesses. It may surprise you, but I prefer at the right price capital intensive businesses with low ROEs, where I think the ROE will improve, to high-, or at least medium-ROE businesses.
The problem with high ROEs in capital intensive businesses is that it is hard to sustain the ROEs. Here, high returns attract competition both from new entrants that come with new capital and existing competitors that try to see what the better performing competitor is doing to copy it. The new capital and the copycats often succeed in driving down the superior ROEs. Really bad things happen to earnings when a 25% ROE turns into a 10% ROE.
This is why I prefer the low ROEs. Great things happen to earnings when a 10% ROE becomes a 15% ROE. ROE can improve three ways: better asset turns, better margins and by adding financial leverage. I like to look for companies that can expand the ROEs in as many of these levers as possible.
You can read the entire speech here:
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