Economic moat

Warren Buffett first coined the phrase ‘economic moat’ as a way of summing up how robust a firm is in the long term.

An economic moat refers to a company's ability to withstand competition for its products and services, just as moats used to protect castles from attack. The "wider" the moat, the bigger the company's competitive advantage.

One of the cornerstones of Warren Buffett's investment philosophy has been to buy the shares of companies with exceptionally wide economic moats - although Buffett is often described as a value investor, both he and his business partner Charlie Munger have often said that it is better to buy a great company at a fair price than a fair company at a great price.

Moats come in various guises, but they all make it difficult for competitors to take away a company's customers. For example, a company may be the lowest-cost producer of a product, or it may have a patent on a technology or manufacturing process. Strong brands are also seen as a form of moat because customers have a high degree of conscious or unconscious loyalty to them (Coa-Cola and Pepsi essentially sell flavoured fizzy water, but remain dominant and highly profitable in their sector).

One way to spot a company with a wide moat is to look at its financial track record. If you can see stable and growing profits, high profit margins and a high return on capital employed (ROCE), then you may have identified a company with a moat. Of course, you then have to work out whether this moat can continue to withstand attacks.

The shares of companies with moats tend to be quite expensive and they can still be bad investments if you pay too much for them. However, sometimes you can pick them up for a decent price during times of stockmarket panics or crashes.

Recommended

Resource curse
Glossary

Resource curse

The term “resource curse” refers to the observation that countries with abundant natural resources also tend to be less economically developed than th…
14 Jan 2021
Balance of payments
Glossary

Balance of payments

The balance of payments refers to the accounts that sum up a country's financial position relative to other countries.
8 Jan 2021
Yield-curve control
Glossary

Yield-curve control

Yield-curve control is when a central bank aims to control long-term interest rates by pledging to buy (or sell) as many long-term bonds as needed to …
25 Dec 2020
Intangible assets
Glossary

Intangible assets

An intangible asset is anything that a company owns that isn’t physical.
25 Sep 2020

Most Popular

Bitcoin: fool’s gold or the new gold?
Bitcoin

Bitcoin: fool’s gold or the new gold?

With bitcoin hitting new highs last week, and close to becoming a mainstream investment, is it really gold for the 21st century?
15 Jan 2021
Leasehold reforms promise the end of a nightmare for many homeowners
Property

Leasehold reforms promise the end of a nightmare for many homeowners

Horror stories about unscrupulous landlords profiting from a legal relic of the feudal era are about to get a happy ending, says Simon Wilson.
16 Jan 2021
The MoneyWeek Podcast: bitcoin special
Bitcoin

The MoneyWeek Podcast: bitcoin special

Merryn talks to bitcoin experts Dominic Frisby and Charlie Morris to get the lowdown on the cryptocurrency to find out why it's such a huge global phe…
15 Jan 2021