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  • Moat Investing

    Efficient Scale: Moats with Natural Monopoly

    Brandon Rakszawski, Senior ETF Product Manager
    April 29, 2021

    The term “economic moat” describes a company’s ability to maintain its competitive advantages and defend its long-term profitability. This moat investing education series explores the five primary sources of moat, according to Morningstar: 1) switching costs; 2) intangible assets; 3) network effect; 4) cost advantage; 5) efficient scale. Here we explore the concept of efficient scale.

    Moats with Efficient Scale Boast Few Competitors

    Virtually every company dreams of a market with few competitors. An environment with only a handful of business rivals can become one where “efficient scale” is possible, according to Morningstar.

    Efficient Scale: When a company serves a market limited in size, new competitors may not have an incentive to enter. Incumbents generate economic profits, but new entrants would cause returns for all players to fall to a level in line with or below the cost of capital.

    Companies that benefit from this dynamic typically operate in a market that may only support one or a few competitors, which limits competitive pressures. Additionally, for efficient scale markets, market entry often requires very high capital costs, which are not justified by the limited profit potential a new competitor might achieve.

    Efficient scale commonly applies to companies involved in telecommunications, utilities, railroads, pipelines, and airports. For example, while the U.S. does not have publicly traded airports, they are common in other areas of the world. Few cities can support more than one major airport. The financial incentive may not exist to compete with an existing airport because, due to limited demand, reduced market returns may not justify the initial capital necessary to build another airport.

    Often a "Narrow" Moat

    Though it can be powerful, efficient scale is one of the least common sources of moat among companies with a “wide moat” rating, or companies with sustainable competitive advantages expected to last 20 years or more, according to Morningstar.

    Across the five sources of moat, efficient scale is the most likely to drive a "narrow moat" rating from Morningstar, meaning that economic profits are more likely than not to persist ten years into the future but are highly uncertain thereafter. Returns on invested capital for efficient scale companies tend to be only modestly above capital costs, which makes it difficult to have a high degree of conviction that a company will continually generate economic profit 20 years from now.

    Efficient Scale in Action

    Union Pacific Corp (UNP) is the largest public railroad in North America. In addition to cost advantages, perhaps not surprisingly Union Pacific’s wide economic moat is also based on efficient scale. According to Morningstar, “Would-be entrants are fended off by the steep barrier to entry formed by the need to obtain contiguous rights of way on which to lay continuously welded steel rail spanning a significant portion of North America.” The company’s system stretches across the Western U.S., from the Pacific to the Mississippi, and captures about half of the rail volume in the region.

    Dominion Energy Inc (D) is an integrated energy company. Its activities include electric generation, natural gas transmission, storage, distribution and gathering pipelines, and electric transmission and distribution lines. Morningstar states that Dominion benefits from efficient scale because “once a transmission line is constructed, there is little incentive for competitors to enter a market.”


    Company-specific information based on Morningstar analyst notes last updated as follows: Union Pacific Corp.: 2/24/2021; Dominion Energy Inc.: 2/16/2021.

    Please note that Van Eck Securities Corporation (an affiliated broker-dealer of Van Eck Associates Corporation) may offer investments products that invest in the asset class(es) or industries discussed in this commentary.

    This is not an offer to buy or sell, or a solicitation of any offer to buy or sell any of the securities mentioned herein. The information presented does not involve the rendering of personalized investment, financial, legal, or tax advice. Certain statements contained herein may constitute projections, forecasts and other forward looking statements, which do not reflect actual results, are valid as of the date of this communication and subject to change without notice. Information provided by third party sources are believed to be reliable and have not been independently verified for accuracy or completeness and cannot be guaranteed. The information herein represents the opinion of the author(s), but not necessarily those of VanEck.

    All investing is subject to risk, including the possible loss of the money you invest. As with any investment strategy, there is no guarantee that investment objectives will be met and investors may lose money. Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.

  • Authored by

    Brandon Rakszawski
    Senior ETF Product Manager



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