Fools familiar with the history of the Olympics might recall its motto. No, not "only on NBC," but "Citius, Altius, Fortius." That's Latin for "swifter, higher, stronger."
Whether you find that motto stirring and inspirational or dated and pompous, you can't deny a certain amount of relevance to the games at hand. Go faster on the bobsled course or speed skating track, and you win. Build up your strength, and you'll do better in the biathlon. Jump higher from the ski jump ramp (and maintain good form), and you'll do well.
Unfortunately, I don't think that motto switches over quite so easily to the world of investing -- although higher earnings, a faster cash conversion cycle, and a stronger balance sheet are all good. So in its place I'd submit the following as a Foolish motto for finding solid stocks that can bring in the gold and silver: Cheaper, Better, Easier.
(No Latin here -- we're Fools, after all, not scholars.)
Point to any product or service in someone's life, and I'll bet that person would be more than happy to get the same quality and pay 10% less. Even uber-wealthy celebrities are known to pitch hissy fits when they don't get comped at a club or given oodles of free swag by top-name designers. In the business world, companies will launch billion-dollar takeovers or fire thousands of people to save a buck, and they'll ruthlessly guard production secrets that give them an edge.
So it's a pretty fair bet to say that just about everyone is interested in "cheaper."
Ahh, but it's not simple, is it? Just like the biathlon looks so much easier on TV, finding companies that excel in their cheapness is harder than it seems. Price is one of the easiest ways for companies to compete, but Foolish investors need to look a little deeper to separate companies with a durable cheapness advantage from those price-cutters who are merely cutting their own throats.
Who are some of the past champions of cheap? How about the likes of McDonald's, Ford, and Wal-Mart
McDonald's and Ford were able to lower the price of their goods and maintain margins because they developed innovative production systems. Wal-Mart's back-office distribution and fulfillment is incredibly lean; that, plus their sheer size and buying power, gives them ample room to pass savings on to shoppers while retaining strong profits for investors.
You can look in many directions to see the new face of successful cheapness. Everybody knows that you can usually find a book or CD at Amazon.com
When you think "better," so many ideas that come to mind. Great R&D, innovative products, and high levels of service can all be hallmarks of "better." Admittedly, it's a really tricky and vague area in which to traffic. After all, how many companies are out there with the slogan of "Our products are inferior, but buy 'em anyway"?
But I'm referring to a higher state of "better" here, in which a company's product or service is so significantly different from the alternatives that the consumer can really appreciate and enjoy the difference. Customers are often willing to pay up for "better," or at least the perception of it -- just ask the folks at Rolls-Royce or Tiffany.
Consider, for instance, companies like Cheesecake Factory or Nike. Neither invented the products they sell, but they've innovated in their own particular fashions, delivering above-average quality to both customers and investors. By building a better mousetrap, and then convincing the consuming public that it really was better, they've been able to enjoy healthy margins, robust returns on capital, and premium prices for their must-have goods.
So who's better today?
How about Whole Foods
And what about our own Motley Fool Rule Breakers pick Intuitive Surgical
It's really no surprise that companies focused on making life easier for the customers would do well. Who doesn't want to make things easier for themselves? We Americans love our leisure, and we love finding easier ways to handle all manner of tasks.
Look back at the history of computers, and you'll see that Apple was selling machines that the average person could use at a time when most of the public still thought that "DOS" was still just Spanish for "two." So, too, for its historic rival Microsoft
There's no shortage of companies striving to make things easier for us (for a price). If you want to watch a DVD and don't feel like buying it, would you rather get one in the mail from Netflix
Guys, how much do you enjoy checking out jewelry for your significant somebody at the mall? You can't look at a ring for three seconds without a counter-vulture pouncing on you. So why not use Blue Nile
Mix and match
More often than not, the best of the best combine two or more of the elements of the "cheaper, better, easier" motto.
Amazon may be cheaper than local bookstores (or record stores, or electronics stores), but it's also convenient. If you hate crowds and/or not finding what you want in a store, Amazon is a great option. Likewise with Southwest Airlines. It built its reputation on cut-rate fares, but I've found very few rivals that match or surpass Southwest's friendly service, timely arrivals, and lack of lost luggage.
It's true that "cheaper, better, easier" is a simplistic approach to investing, but there's nothing wrong with that, so long as it's based on solid thinking. Throughout the history of commerce, customers have consistently rewarded companies that offered goods and services that were cheaper, better, or easier to use than their rivals'. So while following this motto is not the be-all and end-all to better investing, it is a quick, useful test to help determine whether you've found a company that could win the gold in that marathon race known as investing.
Netflix , Amazon.com, and Whole Foods are Motley Fool Stock Advisor picks. Microsoft is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick. Blue Nile made the cut for both Motley Fool Rule Breakers and Motley Fool Hidden Gems . Whether you're a die-hard dividend investor or a growth-stock guru, you'll find a Foolish newsletter that fits your investing style. Try them free for 30 days.
Fool contributor Stephen Simpson owns shares of MSC Industrial but has no financial interest in any other stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares). The Fool has a disclosure policy.