Thursday, January 19, 2006

Warren Buffett on "The prices of many raw materials and corporate margins"

It depends on the business. Our carpet business has been very affected by rising oil prices. We have lagged being able to put through the hikes to our customers. We want to protect our retailers somewhat. Johns-Manville uses a lot of natural gas, so the rise of natural gas prices has hurt margins.

Businesses with strong positions tend to be able to pass through higher raw material costs, just as they can pass through higher personnel costs. Higher materials costs is really a form of tax, but on the consumer, not on the business. Corporate profitability as a percentage of GDP is at an all-time high right now, so it wouldn't be surprising if that number were to fall. Notably, corporate taxes as a percentage of all taxes paid is at an all-time low.

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We like to buy businesses that we think have untapped pricing power. In 1972 when we were looking at See's, we asked ourselves, if prices were raised by 10 cents per pound, would sales fall? We believed they would not. You're not in a great business if you have to have long management discussions before you raise prices. The newspaper industry 30 years ago had a lock on advertisers' business, because it owned the only megaphone in town that local advertisers could use to reach consumers. Rate hikes were a big yawn to most publishers. They didn't care about alienating subscribers or advertisers. They raised prices when newsprint prices went up, and then raised prices when newsprint prices went down. Now publishers agonize over price increases. They don't want to drive advertisers away to other media. And they don't want to drive away readers; when they leave, they never come back. You can learn a lot about a business by the machinations it goes through to raise prices. It's been tough to raise prices in the beer business lately, which is not a good economic sign.

Notes From The 2005 "Woodstock-of-Capitalists"

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