You don’t have to be an economic expert to recognize that very, very big things are happening in the US economy. While our economic outlook does not typically play a big role in our investment process, as we’ve written about in the past, (see here and here) we think it is critically important for investors to understand the economic context in which they are investing.

For much of the last decade, the key question investors needed to ask themselves to understand growth prospects was “by how much might demand increase over time?” But with the economy growing at historically unprecedented speed, the critical question has now been turned on its head so that investors need to understand “by how much might this company be able to increase supply?”

This key question, and its new mirror image, are a microeconomic expression of the macroeconomic question on everyone’s mind, “Can America expand our economic output capacity fast enough to meet the rapidly rising demand? Or, will demand overshoot supply leading to inflation?”

Without making any forecast about the future, investors can still seek to understand the critical aspects of the current economic context.

For instance, Americans have never made so much money! While the recession that struck in March 2020 was the fastest economic decline in history and very deep, American households brought in more income in 2020 than any year on record. That this was achieved due to massive transfer payments from the government is important for understanding context. But regardless, income received via wages or transfer payments represents American consumers’ purchasing power. And in the first quarter of 2021, income shot even higher.

This 30-year chart shows just how dramatic and historically unprecedented the surge in income has been.

Consumers have been both restricted in their ability to spend money and have likely desired to hold higher levels of savings due to the high levels of economic uncertainty. But this delay in spending means that American households currently have approximately $3 trillion more in their checking and savings accounts than they did pre-pandemic. And now, as those savings are starting to be spent even while wages begin to accelerate, consumer spending has rocketed to new all time highs. Indeed consumer spending today is almost certainly higher than it would have been if COVID had never happened.

With pre-pandemic consumer spending running at about $15 trillion a year, the $3 trillion in excess savings would fuel a 20% jump in spending. Or, if released slowly over the next 3-5 years, would be sufficient to provide a 4%-7% annual boost to consumer spending, which makes up 70% of the US economy.

While the stimulus bills passed during COVID were focused on helping households and businesses survive the COVID shock so that they could continue operating once the pandemic passed, the $4 trillion in infrastructure bills currently being debated are not meant to support the economy during COVID, but to invest the equivalent of nearly 20% of annual GDP into the physical and human capital of the United States.

Since this money is expected to be spent over eight years, it is better understood as a 2.5% of GDP ongoing investment for most of the next decade. While the full $4 trillion is unlikely to be passed, even just the Republican counteroffer of nearly $1 trillion still qualifies as a large, ongoing driver of additional demand. And don’t lose site of the fact that the Senate just voted on a bipartisan basis to approve $250 billion of new spending over the next five years to invest in scientific research and development. In any other year, a $250 billion research and development bill passing on a bipartisan basis would have been big news, but in today’s economic context, it is given only passing attention by many observers.

So, you don’t need to make any sort of forecast to simply observe that a tidal wave of money is going to be coursing through the US economy, not just in 2021 but for an as yet unknown period of time. A truly macro agnostic investor would simply ignore all of this and thus, implicitly assume that the most likely state of the economy in the years ahead would be the historically “normal” economic trends we’ve seen in the past. But to us, ignoring multi-trillion dollar tidal waves of money is not the mark of an investor who understands the difficulty of economic forecasting, but rather is a myopic point of view that ignores the unprecedented reality of the current US and global economy.

At the macroeconomic level, the amount of excess output capacity in the US economy to absorb increased demand is simply unknown. Up until the Financial Crisis, the Congressional Budget Office and other nonpartisan economic observers believed that the capacity of the US economy to deliver output increased by about 3% a year. This was made up of roughly 1% from population growth and 2% from enhanced productivity.

However, in the decade after the Financial Crisis, economic observers watched real economic output increase by just 2%, rather than 3%, per year and over time came to the conclusion that something structural had changed, which meant that the US economy was now permanently unable to increase our economic output in the ways that generations of Americans had done successfully ever since we emerged as a developed economy and global world leader in the wake of World War II.

In this chart, the red line shows the actual GDP of the united states. The other lines are the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) estimates of what potential GDP – our countries capacity to produce goods and services – would be over time. Each of the other lines are marked with a year, which is the year in[…]

Columbia Business School is where Ben Graham, the father of value investing, taught Warren Buffett how to invest. In the decades since, the school’s MBA program with its value investing program has established itself as one of the very best graduate programs for aspiring investors. One offering of the program is their Graham & Doddsville newsletter (named after Warren Buffett’s classic essay “The Super Investors of Graham and Doddsville”) in which they feature long form interviews with top investors. In the most recent issue, they profile Ensemble Capital’s CIO, Sean Stannard Stockton.

In the interview, Sean discusses:

  • The mistakes he made early in his career and how they shaped his investment philosophy.
  • The evolution of Ensemble’s approach over the years and why it is so critical for investors to constantly improve and adjust their approach.
  • Why companies that pay employees well and do not exploit their customers can yield the best long term results for shareholders.
  • A deep dive on Home Depot explaining the key elements that have made it one of our top holdings.

You can read Sean’s full interview here and learn more about the Graham & Doddsville newsletter here.

For more information about positions owned by Ensemble Capital on behalf of clients as well as additional disclosure information related to this post, please CLICK HERE.

During our first quarter portfolio update, we profiled portfolio holding Home Depot (HD). Below is a replay of our live commentary on the company from our quarterly portfolio update webinar and an excerpt from our QUARTERLY LETTER.

(CLICK HERE to watch the video if you are viewing this in an email)

The big orange sign of Home Depot is a familiar sight for homeowners across the country. Despite the rise of Amazon, Home Depot has generated outstanding results for shareholders during the rise of eCommerce, even as Home Depot’s end market in housing suffered the worst collapse in a century. Over the last fifteen years, a period which began at the peak of the housing bubble, Home Depot’s stock has generated annual returns of 17% a year, outperforming the S&P 500 by approximately 7% a year.

But while homeowners can attest to their continued shopping at Home Depot, they may not be aware that only about half the company is dedicated to serving Do It Yourself homeowners, with the other half acting as a key supplier to small contractors – which the company calls Pros – who depend on Home Depot as a mission critical business partner.

While the company does not report on their contractor business separately from their homeowner business, they have regularly offered comments indicating that contractors make up just 4% of their customer base, but about 45% of revenue. Basic math implies that this means the average contractor customer spends about twenty times the amount that the average homeowner customer spends. In an industry where you want to drive high levels of sales per store, the contractor customer profile is super attractive. It is Home Depot’s focus on and success in serving contractors that has led to them generating about 30% more revenue per store than competitor Lowe’s which has far fewer professional contractor customers.

Therefore, we think about Home Depot as two different businesses built on top of a single operational platform that allows them to better leverage their cost structure. This has led the company to generate returns on invested capital of about 45%, putting them top tier of high return on capital retailers.

Everyone likes growth, but one way to think about companies like Home Depot that generate high returns on invested capital is that these businesses can grow without needing to invest as much in their business to generate any given level of growth compared to companies with lower returns on capital. In the case of Home Depot, their success in growing the business without needing to invest that much to do so is well illustrated by the fact that over the last decade, the number of stores they operate has only increased by 2%, even while revenue has nearly doubled.

On the Pro side of their business, Home Depot is the first choice for small contractors who are not large enough to buy directly from distributors at the scale required to get discounted pricing. If you own a house and have had a contractor do some sort of work, you are familiar with the way that most every job ends up needing some part or tool that the contractor does not have on hand. In this circumstance, the contractor wants to make as time efficient of a trip as possible to go pick up the part and complete the job. Since the contractor passes along the cost of parts to the homeowner, it is the efficiency with which Home Depot is able to get them back to the job site and working, rather than the lowest possible price for the part, that drives the contractor’s shopping behavior. In fact, a number of contractors we’ve talked to describe driving past a Lowe’s to get to a further away Home Depot store because it is their preferred supplier.

Home Depot has also invested heavily in their online capabilities. Truly an “omnichannel” retailer that strives to be able to serve both Pro and Do It Yourself customers via in store shopping, online delivery, or curbside pickup, the company has been held up by Google’s Cloud services group as a case study of a data driven retailer using modern data and analytics to drive results.

Of course, when competing with Amazon, having a strong eCommerce or Omnichannel strategy is just table stakes. But due to the nature of home improvement spending, where parts are often needed the same day and in many cases are heavy, bulky objects, the fact that well over 50% of Home Depot’s online orders are picked up in store, despite offering 2-day delivery to 90% of US households, speaks to the unique nature of this category and why we do not view Amazon as a meaningful threat.

While the company has been able to drive growth without building many new stores, they have indeed invested aggressively into three core areas. They’ve invested into their existing stores to keep them up to date and efficiently run. They’ve invested in technology, such as a mobile app that can locate a part in a given store and guide you directly to the aisle it is on. And importantly, they’ve invested in their supply chain, warehouses, and delivery capabilities to allow them to thrive in an omnichannel world. Unlike many retailers who still manage their online offering as a separate division, Home Depot operates as a single company, with a single supply chain, and simply offers different means for customers to shop their single set of inventory.

Their Pro Online investments have been of particular note, given it is with their Pro customers that their offering is most differentiated. The company talks about Pro Online as a “platform for Pros to build their business.” While Amazon, like most consumer facing online retailers, offers the same user interface for consumers and business customers, Home Depot recognizes that the needs of their Pro customers are[…]

During our first quarter portfolio update, we profiled portfolio holding Fastenal (FAST). Below is a replay of our live commentary on the company from our quarterly portfolio update webinar and an excerpt from our QUARTERLY LETTER.

(CLICK HERE to watch the video if you are viewing this in an email)

Fastenal is a supplies distribution service business for industrial manufacturing, non-residential, and other companies in the US. They make it possible to economically and efficiently move lots of daily consumable, high volume products used by employees, manufacturing facilities, and construction sites across vast distances from Asia to the US and from coast to coast.

These include heavy, low value parts like $0.02 screws and rivets (ie, the original “fasteners” business) to supplies employees use to get their jobs done like gloves, masks, safety goggles, and janitorial supplies. Its network of 2,000 free-standing company stores dotted across the country, nearly 1,300 dedicated mini-“stores” on-site at customer factories, and 100,000 vending machines at customer facilities create a vast embedded distribution network that physically maintain the company’s relationship with its customers on a daily basis as a critical and integral part of their manufacturing operations.

In effect, a partnership with Fastenal ensures that the supplies needed by customers, are stocked on a timely and capital efficient basis. And in order to do that job well, Fastenal has to ensure it can be a reliable, efficient, (and what’s now become very clear in the past year), and agile procurement and inventory management partner to its customers.

That is at the heart of its value proposition; that it can get supplies customers need to keep their factories running and employees productive every day without missing a beat, at a cost that is significantly lower than the customer can do in-house while sourcing from a broad and reliable global supplier base.

If the materials needed by factories and their employees to build things aren’t sufficiently stocked in the right distribution outlet, then work stops. This is obviously very disruptive and costly for the customer and would undo the customer’s trust in the Fastenal partnership. Of course, the key to building and delivering on the promise of such an entrusted relationship are the employees that comprise the company’s daily operations and interactions with customers, whom Fastenal constantly talks about and celebrates to show its value and commitment towards them. This is also demonstrated by the importance it places on employee safety, development, decentralized decision making, and internal promotion and compensation policies.

That combination of dedication to its customers’ mission-critical operational needs, empowering its employees, and sourcing and working with a distributed base of quality suppliers around the world has resulted in a business that has grown above industry growth rates and generated durable returns on capital for shareholders over decades.

One thing the pandemic did in the past year was test not just people’s resilience around the world, but also that of companies providing essential products and services. From the start, it tested the distributed global supply chain, especially as it relates to safety supplies like disinfectants, masks, wipes, etc. Every company has been challenged to restructure its safety and health practices to ensure the safety of its employees and customers. A big part of this challenge has been to procure supplies needed to meet these goals to safely continue operations. Fastenal’s globally distributed workforce was able to adapt very quickly to source and deliver needed supplies to both existing customers and many new customers, even in less traditional segments of the company’s business like healthcare, government, and education. In many ways, the pandemic, in retrospect, highlighted and tested Fastenal’s expertise and value proposition – and the company and its employees came through with flying colors. While its normal operations supplies business was obviously disrupted in 2020, its safety supplies business thrived and brought in new customers in new market segments to boot.

It’s instructive to see how Fastenal was able to procure safety supplies to accommodate such a huge spike in growth of over 100% in the second quarter of 2020 when everyone else was also scrambling to source materials in short supply. In its latest annual report, the company published an interesting chart that really speaks to its sourcing agility, scale, and expertise: while 80% of safety supplies were provided by existing primary suppliers in 2019, they only accounted for 40% of the total in 2020. Since safety supplies sales grew 50% y/y in 2020, Fastenal was not only able to source new suppliers for the incremental growth but also backfill shortfalls its primary suppliers had during the year.

That resulted in a year of sales that was actually better overall than the average “benchmark” year, despite disruptions in its main line of work for industrial customers whose factories were shut down or disrupted during the year.

Also interesting is that Fastenal has been able to continue to grow faster than the industrial market over the past decade, probably the most challenging for the industry in recent times. US industrial production has basically been in a recession since the 2009 Great Financial Crisis, having barely grown since its last peak in 2007.

Yet Fastenal grew its revenues 2.6 times from $2 billion to $5.3 billion while maintaining operating margins of roughly 20% and returns on invested capital in the mid 20%. This comes from a combination of growing its customer base, expanding beyond its traditional industrial companies, and increasing the value it provides customers by deepening its relationships and value-added procurement services (onsite stores and factory placed vending machines and bin stocking technologies) thereby taking greater share of customers’ cost wallet. Yet, $5 billion is still a small share of the $100+ billion sourcing opportunity available ahead to grow into for decades to come.

Looking forward, the industrial economy looks poised to accelerate. The combination of unprecedented direct stimulus to consumers, untapped cash in the form[…]

During our first quarter 2021 portfolio update, Ensemble Capital’s Chief Investment Officer Sean Stannard-Stockton, and Senior Investment Analysts Arif Karim and Todd Wenning, discussed the current market and economic situation, and two of our holdings, Fastenal (FAST) and Home Depot (HD).

Below is a replay of the full webinar as well as a link to Ensemble Capital’s quarterly letter.

(CLICK HERE to watch the video if you are viewing this in an email)

While our quarterly webinar is an unscripted, more casual discussion, we also produce a quarterly letter that covers the same topics but in written form and with somewhat more detail. You can find a copy of our fist quarter letter HERE.

For more information about positions owned by Ensemble Capital on behalf of clients as well as additional disclosure information related to this post, please CLICK HERE.