The Anna Maria Island Sun Newspaper

Vol. 10 No. 23 - March 17, 2010

BUSINESS

Anna Maria Island Sun News Story

There’s an investment lesson in Toyota’s problems

Investment Corner

Interpreting investment trends and indicators is rarely an exact science. It strikes me, and I’ve written about this many times, that most investment decision processes break down when the decision maker gains confidence that recent trends will continue far into the future and he/she begins to concentrate his/her portfolio into those areas that have had the most recent success.

Rarely do investors say, “Wow, that stock is cheap” after a 60 percent drop and rush in to buy. Instead we love to buy commodities when oil is way over $100 per barrel, and gold when it doubled to over $1,000 an ounce.

The world’s largest auto maker, Toyota Motor Corporation of Japan, is an interesting analogy of why things that get really good can’t stay that way forever. The lesson learned from analyzing the story of one company can be applied to any industry, a country or a financial asset class such as stocks, bonds or real estate.

Let me start by saying that I do not own a Toyota, but that I believe it became a great company by building innovative, high quality vehicles that became accepted as top-notch around the world. I travel frequently for business, and often rent vehicles during these trips. The Toyota Camry is a staple in the rental car lots across the country and I have driven one many times.

Perhaps 2 to 3 years ago, I started to notice that the Camrys I leased were starting to feel a little lower quality. Plastic hubcaps, less amenities in the cabin, and in general, a “cut corners to save money” appearance. I did not predict the trouble Toyota is experiencing today with the safety issues, but I surmised the company was struggling with trying to maintain high profit growth as it grew to dominate its industry, and further monetary gains were becoming tougher.

This is easy to understand. It’s hard to take over the automotive world and continue high growth, when you have already taken it over. Sales growth slows as companies become larger, competitors start to copy your success and perhaps even improve on it. To continue to grow profits, Toyota was forced to start to cut corners on costs – like using cheap hubcaps instead of alloy wheels and perhaps not pay as much attention to the aspects of high quality which got it to where it is today.

It is the same process we all have to deal with as we make investment decisions. It is easier to buy the company which appears to have everything going for it and has likely had everything going for several years. Eventually, every successful firm reaches a point of maturity where it can no longer grow as fast and becomes the object of intense competition from other companies.

Increased competition and the consumer looking for alternatives to high prices causes growth to moderate in the lifecycle of every company, industry, country or region. So, as we make decisions in our investment portfolios, asking the questions about what can go wrong, or at least asking yourself if you are buying based on an unreasonable expectation of the long term growth prospects for a company or an industry, would seem to be a good idea.

I doubt Toyota’s long-term future is in doubt, and it probably will use this experience to get back to its roots of emphasizing quality over quantity. The real question for us, as investors, is whether we will try to break the cycle of buying recent success and over-paying for it as we make decisions in our investment plans.

Tom Breiter is president of Breiter Capital Management, Inc., an Anna Maria based investment advisor. He can be reached at 778-1900. Some of the investment concepts highlighted in this column may carry the risk of loss of principal, and investors should determine appropriateness for their personal situation before investing.

Tom Breiter is president of Breiter Capital Management, Inc., an Anna Maria based investment advisor. He can be reached at 778-1900. Some of the investment concepts highlighted in this column may carry the risk of loss of principal, and investors should determine appropriateness for their personal situation before investing.


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