Growing a business is typically a costly affair. A retailer that wants to grow would ordinarily have to tie up millions of dollars to hold more inventory. A utility company that wants to grow would have to invest billions to build a new power plant.
But there are a handful of businesses that don't have to choose between having cash in the bank and making investments to grow future profits. These rare businesses are what investors call "cash cows," or companies that offer the best of both worlds -- growing profits and bulging bank accounts.
Below, I'll look at three different companies -- Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B), Visa (NYSE:V), and Home Depot (NYSE:HD) -- and explore the traits that make these companies unique for their ability to reward shareholders today without sacrificing larger paydays tomorrow.
1. Berkshire Hathaway
This Omaha conglomerate has a very high-class problem: It generates so much free cash that even Warren Buffett, arguably the greatest investor to ever live, is struggling to deploy it as quickly as it comes in the door.
Berkshire Hathaway is involved in everything from railroads and utilities to insurance and real estate brokers. Its diversified business interests isolate it from shocks, so that when one business lags, another picks up the slack. As a whole, Berkshire's businesses throw off $20 billion of free cash year after year with such regularity, one might think its corporate offices have a U.S. dollar printing press.
Beyond its ability to earn money, Berkshire Hathaway is great at borrowing it. Through the normal course of business, its insurance companies receive cash payments for premiums before money is paid out in claims. That gives Berkshire more than $118 billion in "float" it can invest to generate a profit. Because its insurers earn underwriting profits, the insurance companies effectively borrow money at a negative interest rate.
Unlike the other cash cows on this list, Berkshire also has the benefit of being cash-rich right now. With roughly $104 billion of cash at the end of the third quarter, the company is primed to go on an acquisition spree in the next market downtown. Its relaxed buyback policy also enables Buffett to snap up Berkshire shares, which could buoy its share price in the next bear market.
Case studies could and should be written about Visa's capital-light business model. Visa is invaluable, connecting banks and other financial institutions to one another to provide the back-end work of moving money around every time you swipe a Visa-branded card.
For its valuable role in the payments ecosystem, Visa takes a very small fee on every transaction, which is why it has often been described as a toll road for money. In a telltale sign of just how important it is, consider that services like PayPal, which make their money by helping move money, have decided to build on top of what Visa offers, rather than build a competing network. It's easier to pay the toll than try to build another bridge.
Visa's growth story is almost entirely about a shift from cash payments to cards. As card-based payments make up a greater share of all payments volume, the transaction volume on which Visa earns a fee only grows, driving revenue and profit growth with little investment at all. Increasing online commerce is also a boon for Visa, since it estimates 47% of online personal spending flows over its network, versus 23% of in-person spending.
Consider that in its most recent fiscal year, Visa generated just over $12.7 billion in operating cash flow and spent just $718 million on capital expenditures. Yet, despite spending a fraction of cash flow to reinvest in the business, Visa expects revenue growth in the double digits and projects earnings per share will increase at a rate in the "high teens" in 2019.
Visa isn't underinvesting in its business -- it's just that capital-light. For as long as cards continue to take share from cash payments, Visa can ride the tailwinds to higher revenue and profits and send almost all of its earnings back to shareholders in dividends and buybacks.
3. Home Depot
This home improvement retailer is one of the best retailers, period. Its growing earnings are the byproduct of moving more merchandise through roughly the same number of stores, driving earnings and free cash flow growth without major reinvestment. (Home Depot has only about 3% more stores today than it did at the end of 2008).
Few retailers can operate out of warehouse-like stores with concrete flooring and practical metal shelving (Sears tried...), but Home Depot customers expect it, enabling it to minimize the remodeling costs that are common for other retailers. The proof is in the financials: Since 2013, Home Depot has generated $41.3 billion in free cash flow, exceeding the $38.7 billion in net income earned over the same period.
Of course, Home Depot is a cyclical business. It does best when home prices are rising and new households are forming, important factors in housing construction and remodeling spending. Worries about housing spending have dented shares of the stock, which now trade at a 20% discount to their peak.
Home Depot's business model was battle-tested in the great financial crisis a decade ago, and though profits dipped, the retailer remained solidly profitable throughout the crisis. And while other retailers may succumb to the threat of convenient online stores, it seems unlikely that the USPS will deliver water heaters and 20-foot long PVC pipes straight to your door any time soon.