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“Moats Are Lame”: 3 Top Investing Themes of the 2010s

By Nicholas Rossolillo - Oct 19, 2019 at 12:06PM

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With a new decade nearly here, it’s time to look back on the biggest and best investing trends of the last 10 years.

A lot changes in a decade.

Ten years ago, the economy was still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession, and the stock market, though it had rebounded somewhat from its lows, was still well off of all-time highs set in October 2007. Few would have guessed that the longest bull market on record was beginning.

^SPX Chart

Data by YCharts.

The 2010s are now coming to an end, and worry is mounting that another recession is inevitable. Recession or not, it's worth reviewing the investment motifs that have fueled the last decade of returns, as they will likely be the drivers of growth in the next 10 years -- the beginning of them, anyway. Here are my favorite themes, quotes, and other business trends from the 2010s.

1. "Moats are lame"

During the first-quarter 2018 earnings conference call for Tesla (TSLA -0.06%) CEO Elon Musk gave the world this gem of a quote when answering a question about "competitive moats" and Tesla's charging stations:

First of all, I think moats are lame. It's nice sort of quaint in a vestigial way. If your only defense against invading armies is a moat, you will not last long. What matters is the pace of innovation. That is the fundamental determinant of competitiveness.

It was my favorite earnings call ever and will be a tough one for any CEO to beat. This statement, in particular, is worth unpacking. It offers some real insight into what has been happening in business and investing in the last decade. Historically, investors have searched high and low for companies with defensible business models, ones that are difficult for potential competitors to enter because of high costs or some enduring advantage the business maintains over everyone else. A slew of trends intersected over the last decade to challenge the idea of a competitive moat. Technological advancements, shifting consumer trends, venture capital willing to play the long (and sometimes money-losing) game, and changing brand loyalties have all been disruptive to the moat investing theory.

Technology has always been a disruptor of the status quo, but the pace of disruption and the subsequent rise of upstart businesses in the last decade has quickened. It isn't just Tesla that has benefited. I'm also thinking of Amazon (AMZN 0.19%) CEO Jeff Bezos' mantra "your margin is my opportunity," referring to the company's willingness to aggressively go after other retailers' business even if it meant little (or oftentimes no) profit -- all in the name of innovation and progress. Amazon seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the largest companies on the planet, with its stock booming 1,750% over the last 10-year stretch. Disruption was also prevalent in 2007, with Apple's (AAPL -2.46%) iPhone being responsible for setting the stage for the reshaping of communications. It too had a stellar run in the 2010s to make it one of the top dogs in the market. Steve Jobs passed in October 2011, but his legacy will be an especially long-lasting one.

Businesses and investors slow to pick up on where technology is headed have suffered (retail apocalypse, anyone?), while those with a keen eye for visionary ideas have ridden gains to new record highs. Does that mean the business concept of defensibility is dead and constant disruption is the new norm? Probably not. Investment in innovation will only continue if the long-term payoff is still there. Nevertheless, another decade of disruption appears to be in the cards, since "digital transformation" -- organizations updating their operations to a digital-first strategy -- is only just beginning to take hold around the globe.

A laptop, smartphone, and cup of coffee sitting on a table in front of a window overlooking a sunrise.

Image source: Getty Images.

2. Clouds on the horizon become gale-force winds of change

Speaking of digital transformation, "the cloud" came into its own during the 2010s and has been rocket fuel for organizations looking to make a digital upgrade to spur on future growth or higher profitability. But what is "the cloud"?

Put simply, the cloud refers to software or some other type of service delivered via a data center. The concept isn't new, as many organizations have been building their own data centers and servers for decades -- usually within or near the office building it was intended for. The concept of the cloud in today's language, though, came from the idea that excess network or server capacity could be "rented" via an internet connection -- saving money for businesses without the resources to build a dedicated data center and allowing those with excess capacity to generate extra revenue.

Amazon was again a revolutionary in this department. The e-commerce giant caught on to the idea that it could farm out its extra storage and computing power to others, birthing Amazon Web Services (AWS), now Amazon's primary source of profitability.

Other tech companies caught on and started building public cloud services. The market for these public data centers and the services they support is now dominated by AWS, Microsoft's (MSFT -0.37%) Azure, and Alphabet's (GOOGL -1.35%) (GOOG -1.47%) Google Cloud. The cloud has given rise to mobility, giving consumers and business employees the ability to access data and services on the go as long as they have an internet connection. Myriad digital services have arisen from the movement as well, from basic personal and business software like Microsoft Office 365 to streaming media (more on that in a minute) to ride-hailing on a platform like Uber to complex business needs like digital infrastructure and artificial intelligence.

The growth of the cloud is far from over. The pace of new data center construction has slowed in the last couple of years, but the industry is gearing up for phase two: edge computing. Smaller data centers and other small computing systems intended to do heavy lifting are getting built closer to the source of data and end-users, powering more mission-critical operations like connected manufacturing, healthcare, and autonomous machines. Build-out of edge computing systems could overtake the cloud in the decade ahead as technological demands continue to increase.

3. A subscription for everything

Now ubiquitous with television and home entertainment, TV streaming really didn't become a thing until the 2010s. Thank you, Netflix (NFLX 3.55%). But while streaming shows and movies has become big business over the last 10 years, Netflix's monthly subscription model has had more far-reaching effects than just how consumers spend their free time.

To be fair, Netflix did not come up with the subscription service model, but Netflix and its cloud-delivered programming certainly helped pioneer what has become a subscription economy. Originally envisaged as software-as-a-service (SaaS), it now encompasses a wide array of digital platforms, services, and digital infrastructure paid for by customers via recurring payments.

The subscription model has gained in popularity for various reasons: ease of switching, low cost of entry, convenience, etc. Sometimes new subscription services pop up as a sort of gimmick or test, like how the auto industry has been trying out car subscription services. Others have quickly built small empires on the model, luring in customers with easy sign-up and low-obligation terms.

One argument against the subscription model is that all of those monthly obligations add up and create a big bill for consumers and organizations. Over the long term, a perpetual subscription can also be more expensive than just making an up-front purchase. However, given the rampant disruption and innovation going on, it looks like the subscription economy is here to stay.

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