Property, Plant, and Equipment on the Balance Sheet
One of the most useful lines on a balance sheet the value of property, plant, and equipment, or PP&E. Property, plant, and equipment represents the so-called "fixed assets" of an enterprise. This includes the real estate, buildings, office furniture, file cabinets, computers, factories, vehicles and other tangible things that allow a company to conduct operations in pursuit of generating revenue and, ultimately, a profit.
Generally, property, plant, and equipment cannot be converted into cash quickly. Rather, the real value lies in its ability to productively serve the enterprise. An illustration might help you understand this important concept.
Property, Plant, and Equipment Is Valuable When Productive, Not When Sold
Think of an incredible business like Colgate-Palmolive (NYSE: CL), the maker of a wide variety of consumer and healthcare products. It has been operating since Thomas Jefferson was in the White House. It's made a lot of buy-and-hold investors exceedingly rich and had a steadily growing dividend for generations. The products make life better for billions of people, dominating their respective niches. To put it in perspective, despite already being one of the most respected blue-chip stocks in the world, if you had bought $100,000 of shares in the firm 35 years ago, you'd be a millionaire several times over.
At the end of the fiscal year 2017, the Form 10-K showed $4.072 billion in net property plant and equipment. If Colgate-Palmolive tried to sell that off in an auction, it would receive only a tiny fraction of that amount. The real source of value doesn't come from the machines. It's not in the equipment. Instead, it's in the company's franchise value. You could have the exact same property, plant, and equipment and you wouldn't be able to do much damage to Colgate-Palmolive because it has centuries of lead time in getting people to trust its products.
You'd need the intellectual property, too; the brand name, the trademarks, the trade secrets.
Excellent Businesses Have Low PP&E Relative to Cash Flow and Net Earnings
Over the years, I've talked quite a lot about what it means for a firm to be an excellent business. One of the hallmarks of an excellent business is that it generates high, sustainable returns on capital. That leads to more owner earnings—profits that can be extracted from the business without hurting its competitive position. It also offers built-in protection of purchasing power when inflation comes rearing its ugly head because it takes fewer dollars outlaid to upgrade equipment at the end of its useful life.
Some of the very best businesses you'd want to own don't require any property, plant, and equipment at all. The author and his husband own a company that has a contract with a manufacturing plant. They created an e-commerce solution that solved a lot of its problems. In exchange, they received the right to an on-going cut of the revenue generated by this firm. The business through which they hold this contract, a limited liability company, has no property, plant, and equipment. It collects cash throughout the year and they distribute it to themselves, as the equity owners, for use elsewhere.
That's far preferable than having to pay for all of the machines, building upgrades, computers and other fixed assets ourselves. Economically, the business is superior because they get the joys of ownership without the risks.
When analyzing the balance sheets of companies in a particular sector or industry, be sure to compare the relative property, plant, and equipment of the firms relative to a dollar of after-tax profit generated. If one or more of the businesses are a lot more productive, that can be a sign to look more closely as it could turn out to be a fundamentally superior enterprise.