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Course 204
Different Types of Profit Margins


Ultimately, every business is trying to make money. There are various ways to measure a company's profitability, but the most basic is profit margin. Margin is an easy concept to understand: It's the percentage of a company's revenue that is left after expenses are paid, calculated by dividing profit (revenue minus expenses) by revenue. But there are actually three types of margin that come in handy when analyzing a stock, each based on a different measure of profit and each useful in its own way.

Types of Margin

To understand the differences between the three major types of margin, it helps to break down a company's expenses into three parts. First, there is the cost of goods sold, or cost of revenues. This represents the expenses most directly involved in creating revenue, such as raw materials and labor costs for a manufacturer or the wholesale price of goods for a retailer. Subtracting cost of goods sold from revenue gives gross income, and dividing that figure by revenue gives gross margin. This number is close to most people's intuitive notion of profit margin. For example, if it costs you $8 to make a widget and you sell it for $10, your gross margin is $2 divided by $10, or 20%. But any business of a reasonable size will also have expenses that are less directly involved in creating revenue. These are called operating expenses and include costs for marketing, research and development, and administrative salaries--more peripheral expenses that are nonetheless necessary for the company's everyday operations and that are particularly necessary for the company to grow. Subtracting both cost of goods sold and operating expenses from revenue gives you the company's operating income. Operating margin equals operating income divided by revenue. This figure provides a more accurate picture than gross margin of how profitable a company's overall day-to-day operations are. In our example, suppose you spend $1 to advertise your widget; that cuts your 20% gross margin down to a 10% operating margin. Finally, there are expenses that are not related to the day-to-day operations of the company but that have to be accounted for: costs such as interest expense, taxes, and some noncash charges such as write-offs. Subtracting these expenses from operating income results in net income, which in turn is used to calculate net margin. This is the margin figure you'll find in most sources of stock information, since it's the most accurate measure of how profitable a company is when everything is taken into account. If in the widget example, you have to pay $0.50 in tax on your $1.00 operating profit, you are left with a net margin of 5%.

How Margins Interact

Looking at how these various margins relate to each other for a given company can be instructive. For example, consider Coca-Cola KO and PepsiCo PEP. In 1997, Coke's net margin was 21.9%, while Pepsi's was less than half that--10.2%. Most of that difference arose from Coke's higher gross margin of 68%, as opposed to Pepsi's 59%. Those are both good figures for the beverage industry, but Coke's legendary brand name allows it more pricing flexibility, while its exclusive focus on producing syrup--not bottling or making potato chips--keeps down the cost of goods sold. That translates into a significantly higher gross margin, and that 9% advantage in gross margin is magnified when operating expenses and taxes (similar for both companies) are taken out. On the other end of the scale, consider Cott COTTF, the Canadian company that makes discount private-label soft drinks for grocery stores. Cott's gross margin in 1997 was only 16%, a small fraction of Coke's and Pepsi's. But Cott's operating expenses were also much less, since it doesn't have a well-known brand to maintain and spends far less on sales and marketing than the two giants do. As a result, Cott posted a net margin of 2.5% in 1997. But profits are more precarious for a company with low gross margins, and Cott lost money in both 1996 and 1998. Operating expenses are particularly important for retailers, whose gross margins are generally much lower than those of companies in other industries. Consider a couple of discount retailers, Wal-Mart WMT and Kmart KM. Wal-Mart's gross margin in 1997 was lower than Kmart's (20.4% versus 21.8%), because of its policy of keeping prices as low as possible. But Wal-Mart's net margin was more than three times higher (2.9% versus 0.8%), because its operating expenses were significantly lower than Kmart's. Next, consider the leading Web retailer, AMZN. Amazon's gross margins have been about 20% every year; that's significantly lower than those of its main competitors, Borders BGP and Barnes & Noble BKS, which both have gross margins of about 30%. On top of that, Amazon's operating expenses (mostly marketing and sales) have been about 40% of revenues, giving the company a negative operating margin of 20% (that is, its operating losses are 20% of its revenues). Assuming that Amazon won't be able to boost its gross margin very much in the competitive environment of the Web, it would have to cut its operating expenses in half just to post a net profit. In comparison, Yahoo's YHOO operating expenses ate up 60% of its revenues in the second half of 1998, but it still managed to post a net profit during that time because it had a gross margin near 90%. That doesn't necessarily mean that Yahoo is the better company; it just has a different business model that inherently makes higher gross margins possible. By themselves, profit margins are only a first step in evaluating a company's profitability. But as one of the building blocks of returns on capital, profit margin is a very important number, and understanding the different kinds of margins and how they interact can give you deeper insight into how a company operates.

Quiz 204
There is only one correct answer to each question.

1 Cost of goods sold is an important element in figuring:
a. Net margin.
b. Gross margin.
c. Operating margin.
2 Operating expenses include:
a. Taxes.
b. Marketing.
c. Interest.
3 Which of the following is false?
a. A company's net margin will always be lower than its gross margin.
b. A company's operating margin will always be lower than its gross margin.
c. A company's gross margin will always be lower than its net margin.
4 If Company A has a gross margin of 50% and Company B has a gross margin of 20%:
a. Company A's operating margin is higher than Company B's.
b. Company B's operating margin is higher than Company A's.
c. Company B could have a higher operating margin than Company A if its operating expenses are much lower.
5 Net margin:
a. Is the most commonly used margin number and the most accurate measure of a company's overall profitability.
b. Does not take into account taxes or interest payments.
c. Is always closely correlated with gross margin.
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