Competitive advantage does not mean a company earns high returns on capital just because the management is smart. It means that competitors are not able to match its returns on investment. There may be a barrier to market entry, or switching costs for customers are relatively high. The company with competitive advantage can sell its goods at prices well above its cost of sales, without fear that competitors will flood the market and attempt to undersell it. This is reflected in healthy gross margin that is sustained over an extended time, and steady or increasing returns on capital investment.
In the metaphorical toll bridge investment, customers must pay to use the company’s product in order to obtain something they demand. In the literal example of a toll bridge, customers must pay for access to the bridge to a destination. Assuming the demand to reach that destination is persistent enough to justify building the unique bridge, the shares of the company are bid up because of the durability of this demand. The problem with toll bridge investments is that unless demand to reach that destination continues to increase, the company shares will not continue to rise over time. Since the company management recognizes this, it will likely pay a dividend in order to keep investors, as long as earnings continue to support it. Assuming there is no alternative bridge, the company’s competitive position is hard to attack, and management does not have to be world class. Earnings do not rise any faster than economic growth at the bridge destination, the stock price will reflect this. In an attempt to increase earnings more quickly, Management may allocate some income to attempted expansion into other markets, but there it does not possess a competitive advantage and will do no better and possibly worse than competitors who are dominant in those different areas. An example of this is Hawaiian Electric (HE), a regulated electric utility that supplies virtually all power on the Hawaiian Islands. Its growth is limited to the growth of power demand on the Islands.
What if over time demand for reaching the destination not only increased with growth of the most stable economies in the world, but also with the growth of the most rapidly growing economies (thus growing at a rate exceeding the average growth of the world GDP)?
What if the company had exclusive use of 2 toll bridges, with different markets clamoring for access to them? What if the management in fact did not merely rely on the advantaged position afforded by their non-reproducible franchise, but was driven by a historic struggle for economic survival to run the most cost efficient toll bridge possible, therefore focusing its capital allocation on improving its transportation speed and the capacity of its bridges? What if management was systematically incentivized to grow return on invested capital, earnings, free cash flow, and expected to purchase ownership in the company?
What if the toll bridge investment was Canadian National Railway (CNI)?