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Gearing is where the real money is made

A gearing business makes the best investment because this is where earnings grow.

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Let’s talk operating leverage—or as I like to call it, gearing.

Think of your car, you start in neutral, shift up to first, then second. The real speed is when you hit fifth. It takes time and momentum to get there.

When you are investing in little companies, you want to look at rapidly growing businesses. Earnings growth is what creates upside. Unfortunately, most companies find it hard to grow a business quicker than 40 percent a year. I don’t know what it is, but when you start to grow at rapid rates, problems develop. You need middle management. You need more complex accounting and reporting systems. You need better infrastructure.

It’s hard to race ahead and eventually companies that grow too quickly stumble. Usually, these “growth stocks” are priced for perfection. When they stumble, their share prices implode.

So how do you get lower risk growth?

For starters, remember that investors pay for earnings growth—not revenues.

Where does earnings growth come from? Gearing.

Think of a business. There are a lot of fixed costs. Then there are the variable costs that increase based on revenues. If incremental revenues carry very high margins, small increases in revenues can have a very big impact on earnings.

Let’s look at how this works.

There’s an internet company that sells a product with a 50 percent gross margin. It costs $20 million a year to run the company. That money covers management’s salaries, servers, research and everything else an internet company does.

Look at how the pre-tax income line explodes with small changes in revenues. All numbers in millions.

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Year 1

Year 2

Year3

Revenue

50

60

90

Gross Margin

25

30

45

Fixed Costs

20

20

20

Pre-Tax Profits

5

10

25

 

Notice how a 20 percent increase in revenues to $60 million led to a doubling in profits? Notice how when revenues increased by 50 percent to $90 million, the profits more than doubled?

This is gearing. 

In four years, our company has less than doubled the size of the business in terms of revenues. However, the income has gone up five-fold. That’s powerful earnings growth. More importantly, it’s low-risk growth. Investors repeatedly get burnt buying into hot growth stories that falter.

However, the company above is growing a bit over 20 percent a year. That’s manageable. It is less likely that management will screw it up. They have time to plan ahead and think about the needs of their company.

In my decade of investing, it is these gearing businesses that have made me the most money. I am always stunned by just how well a business can sometimes gear.All businesses gear to some degree. However, there are some businesses that gear a whole lot better than others.  

Just remember, operating leverage works both ways. If revenues start dropping, profits will decline even faster.

DISCLAIMER: This article expresses my own ideas and opinions. Any information I have shared are from sources that I believe to be reliable and accurate. I did not receive any financial compensation in writing this post, nor do I own any shares in any company I’ve mentioned. I encourage any reader to do their own diligent research first before making any investment decisions.

(Featured image via Deposit Photos)

Harris Kupperman is the founder of Praetorian Capital, a hedge fund focused on using macro trends to guide stock selection. Mr. Kupperman is also the chief adventurer at Adventures in Capitalism, a website that details his travels and investments. Additionally, Mr. Kupperman is the Chairman and CEO of publicly traded Mongolia Growth Group (YAK: Canada and MNGGF: USA).

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