By Ben McClure
Each industry has differences in terms of its customer base, market share among firms, industry-wide growth, competition, regulation and business cycles. Learning about how the industry works will give an investor a deeper understanding of a company's financial health.
Some companies serve only a handful of customers, while others serve millions. In general, it's a red flag (a negative) if a business relies on a small number of customers for a large portion of its sales because the loss of each customer could dramatically affect revenues. For example, think of a military supplier who has 100% of its sales with the U.S. government. One change in government policy could potentially wipe out all of its sales. For this reason, companies will always disclose in their 10-K if any one customer accounts for a majority of revenues.
Understanding a company's present market share can tell volumes about the company's business. The fact that a company possesses an 85% market share tells you that it is the largest player in its market by far. Furthermore, this could also suggest that the company possesses some sort of "economic moat," in other words, a competitive barrier serving to protect its current and future earnings, along with its market share. Market share is important because of economies of scale. When the firm is bigger than the rest of its rivals, it is in a better position to absorb the high fixed costs of a capital-intensive industry.
One way of examining a company's growth potential is to first examine whether the amount of customers in the overall market will grow. This is crucial because without new customers, a company has to steal market share in order to grow.
In some markets, there is zero or negative growth, a factor demanding careful consideration. For example, a manufacturing company dedicated solely to creating audio compact cassettes might have been very successful in the '70s, '80s and early '90s. However, that same company would probably have a rough time now due to the advent of newer technologies, such as CDs and MP3s. The current market for audio compact cassettes is only a fraction of what it was during the peak of its popularity.
Simply looking at the number of competitors goes a long way in understanding the competitive landscape for a company. Industries that have limited barriers to entry and a large number of competing firms create a difficult operating environment for firms.
One of the biggest risks within a highly competitive industry is pricing power. This refers to the ability of a supplier to increase prices and pass those costs on to customers. Companies operating in industries with few alternatives have the ability to pass on costs to their customers. A great example of this is Wal-Mart. They are so dominant in the retailing business, that Wal-Mart practically sets the price for any of the suppliers wanting to do business with them. If you want to sell to Wal-Mart, you have little, if any, pricing power.
Certain industries are heavily regulated due to the importance or severity of the industry's products and/or services. As important as some of these regulations are to the public, they can drastically affect the attractiveness of a company for investment purposes.
In industries where one or two companies represent the entire industry for a region (such as utility companies), governments usually specify how much profit each company can make. In these instances, while there is the potential for sizable profits, they are limited due to regulation.
In other industries, regulation can play a less direct role in affecting industry pricing. For example, the drug industry is one of most regulated industries. And for good reason - no one wants an ineffective drug that causes deaths to reach the market. As a result, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that new drugs must pass a series of clinical trials before they can be sold and distributed to the general public. However, the consequence of all this testing is that it usually takes several years and millions of dollars before a drug is approved. Keep in mind that all these costs are above and beyond the millions that the drug company has spent on research and development.
All in all, investors should always be on the lookout for regulations that could potentially have a material impact upon a business' bottom line. Investors should keep these regulatory costs in mind as they assess the potential risks and rewards of investing.
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