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16 ASX stocks to buy and hold forever

In his letter to shareholders in 2022, Warren Buffett, identified two stocks that he expects Berkshire Hathaway to own forever: American Express and Coca-Cola.

In this year’s letter, he elaborates on this. “When you find a truly wonderful business, stick with it,” he writes. “Patience pays, and one wonderful business can offset the many mediocre decisions that are inevitable.”

Buffett goes on to identify other businesses that he thinks Berkshire will own forever. They include Occidental Petroleum, and five large Japanese conglomerates - Itochu, Marubeni, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, and Sumitomo. Buffett likes Occidental for its vast oil and gas holdings and market-leading carbon initiatives, and the Japanese businesses for their capital allocation and management skills.

It got me thinking about which ASX stocks that investors could buy and hold forever.

The criteria

It’s not an easy task. First, you must be confident that a company can last for a long time. After all, the average company in the S&P 500 has a lifespan of close to 20 years, and for the ASX, it’s unlikely to be much different. It rules out a lot of companies. For instance, ones that rely on a single drug for their success, those which have mines with finite lives, and stocks that are so big already that it makes growth difficult (something which Buffett highlights about Berkshire in his letter).

Second, it’s not just about longevity. You want to own stocks that will perform at least in line with or better than the indices. Otherwise, there’s not much point in buying them and you may as well own a broad index ETF instead.

I’ve come up with the following criteria to try to identify the ASX stocks that can be held indefinitely:

  1. Part of the ASX 300. Ideally, you want to own well-established firms that have some history of success. The smallest company in the ASX 300 has a market capitalization of under $600 million. This criterion then excludes most small caps and includes mid and large caps.
  2. Long runway of growth opportunities. This is key. It knocks out most companies in the ASX 300. For instance, ones that are mature and focus on Australia, thereby limiting growth options. Also, those that have short-lived assets. It means leaning towards companies that have global operations, and/or large markets to operate in.
  3. Economic moats. Moats are sustainable competitive advantages. They help companies defy the laws of capitalism, which suggest that businesses which have high returns of capital will have those returns competed away. Competitive edges can come from many things including network effects, intangible assets, cost advantages, switching costs, or efficient scale. You can find out more about moats here.
  4. Good returns on capital. If I had to name one metric to identify a quality company, it would be return on capital. Put simply, it’s the profits that a stock makes from the equity and debt that’s put into the business.
  5. Sound balance sheets. Ideally, you want to own companies that don’t rely on too much debt to generate returns. Excessive debt makes companies fragile.
  6. Don’t rely on exceptional managers to succeed. Having good managers in place certainly helps. But if you’re going to own a stock for a long time, it can’t be reliant on one or two managers to succeed. The business needs to be so good that it doesn’t need an exceptional CEO.
  7. Unlikely to be disrupted. This overlaps with other criteria, though is worth adding. When you buy a company for the long term, you are essentially betting on things that won’t change. For instance, for Buffett, he foresees that people will still be drinking Coca-Cola in 100 years, they’ll still need credit cards, and they'll need energy to power their daily lives.

It’s an extensive list of rules, though necessary given the purpose is to find the best businesses and own them indefinitely.

Note that the criteria doesn't include valuation. The list is of quality companies that are worth buying at some point in future, though not necessarily right away. 

What doesn’t make the cut – banks, miners, supermarkets

I realise that the exclusions from my list are likely to be as controversial, if not more controversial, than the inclusions. Let’s first go through some of what I’ve excluded and why:

  1. The 4 major banks. I haven’t included any of the banks in the list. There are several reasons for this. First, there are limited growth opportunities for them as they’re almost exclusively focused on Australia. Second, they’re reliant on credit growth, which has had a stupendous 40 years that’s unlikely to be repeated in the next 40. Third, they rely on the housing market, where the future again is unlikely to be as rosy as the past. For these reasons, my view is the banks will struggle to beat indices over the long term.
  2. The major miners. BHP and Rio Tinto don’t make the list. Size is a major factor as it requires massive investments and returns just to move the needle for these behemoths. Also, mining is highly cyclical and capital intensive, which limits returns in the long term. Finally, the tailwind from Chinese infrastructure and property is over and that will make it harder going for iron ore in future.
  3. Woolworths and Coles. Yes, these grocery retailers operate in an oligopoly, but they’re in a mature market with limited growth prospects.

The list

Here is my list of ASX stocks that you could hold forever:


Source: Morningstar

Let’s go through them, one by one:

Argo Investments (ASX:ARG)

One of two listed investment companies (LICs) in the lineup. Argo has a long, storied investment history. It’s managed to provide healthy returns with low costs and conservative management.

ASX Ltd (ASX:ASX)

Stock exchanges are incredible businesses. They are essentially like gatekeepers to trading securities. That makes them asset light, high return businesses. There are avenues for growth via data and technology too.

Auckland International Airport (ASX:AIA)

Airports are generally fantastic businesses as they’re often monopolies with pricing power. With Sydney Airport no longer listed (a shame), Auckland International Airport is the next best thing. It relies on airport traffic and more broadly, New Zealand being a destination that people want to visit. 

Aurizon (ASX:AZJ)

This one is subject to debate. I like rail assets. Rail has an enduring cost advantage over road transport for bulk commodities. The downside of the industry is that it requires huge investment, and that limits returns on capital. With Aurizon, it’s also over-reliant on coal. However, this reliance will reduce over time, and should hopefully be less of a concern.

Australian Foundation Investment Company (AFIC) (ASX:AFI)

Another LIC that’s been around for a long time. It has a proven history of decent returns with shareholder-friendly policies. The best part about LICs such as AFIC and Argo is that they pay consistent, growing dividends over time.

Cochlear (ASX:COH)

This stock is a more controversial inclusion than most would think. Healthcare companies reliant on devices or drugs are subject to potential disruption. Just ask ResMed. Cochlear’s hearing implants do seem to have greater barriers to disruption. And the company continues to invest and innovate their products to stay ahead of the game.

EQT Holdings (ASX:EQT)

EQT is one of the two big players in trustee services. The other is Perpetual, where a number of suitors are lurking, primarily attracted to its trustee business. EQT has been around for 135 years and is exceptionally well connected, with a who’s who of people who’ve served on its board. It also benefits from tailwinds of growing wealth in Australia and an ageing population. It’s a keeper.

James Hardie (ASX:JHX)

Since it pioneered the development of fiber-cement technology in the 1980s, it’s dominated the fiber-cement siding category for houses in the US and Australia. It has a long runway of growth and an economic moat based on brand and scale that should keep competitors at bay, resulting in above average returns for decades to come.

Medibank Private (ASX:MPL)

With an ageing population, higher demand for healthcare will put pressure on the public health system. That makes private health insurers such as Medibank a no-brainer in my opinion. Yes, it operates in a heavily regulated industry where premium increases must be approved by government, but steady, growing profits seem assured, unless management does something silly.

Propel Funeral Partners (ASX:PFP)

There’s a lot to like about the funeral industry (the businesses, not the services). A growing population means steady growth in deaths. And the industry remains highly fragmented, leaving plenty of room for consolidation for the likes of Propel. Consolidation of industries has historically provided some of the best returns on the ASX and elsewhere. Hopefully, Propel doesn’t get acquired like InvoCare.

REA Group (ASX:REA)

Owns realestate.com.au – the premier online listing platform for Australian residential real estate. Even during the downturn in listings in 2022, it was able to substantially lift pricing – which demonstrated its immense pricing power and moat. In the top three business on the ASX, in my view.

SkyCity Entertainment Group (ASX:SKC)

How can I pick a casino operator after the recent shenanigans at Star and Crown? Well, SkyCity has long-dated and exclusive licences in Auckland and Adelaide. Unless they operate in the appalling ways of their competitors, their monopoly assets should continue to generate nice, long-term returns.

The Lottery Corporation (ASX:TLC)

The company has a near-monopoly on long-dated licences across all states and territories, except Western Australia. Though it’s a mature business, it has considerable pricing power and should deliver steady and sound returns for a long time to come.

Transurban (ASX:TCL)

It owns long-term toll roads in Australia and around the world. A superb business as any car owner can attest too. Yes, the toll roads are subject to expiries, though Transurban has the scale to retain the roads and buy more. Government scrutiny and intervention are the main risks for this stock.

Washington H Soul Pattinson (ASX:SOL)

This is a family-owned conglomerate that’s proven its chops over a long period. It has large stakes in Brickworks, TPG, and New Hope Corporation. And it’s expanding in areas such as aged care and financial services. The company’s edge comes from its investing prowess. The risk is that Robert Millner isn’t getting younger and those that follow may not be as canny. However, the management team he’s put in place appears capable of handling the company when he retires.

Wesfarmers (ASX:WES)

Wesfarmers is the only top 10 ASX company in the list. Warren Buffett famously dislikes owning retailers, and there are good reasons for that. They operate in very competitive industries, can be cyclical, and sometimes faddish. Wesfarmers is primarily a retailer as that’s where ~80% of earnings come from. The bulk of it is from Bunnings, and it’s this division that makes Wesfarmers a worthy inclusion. Bunnings has scale, an economic moat, and some growth to power Wesfarmers long into the future. Bunnings managed to see off Masters and it’s difficult to imagine another competitor coming into the hardware industry at scale. The risks in owning Wesfarmers are if it gets complacent with Bunnings and lets standards slip, and more so, if management uses the cash from Bunnings to diversify into lower returning industries (the jury is out on its lithium push).

What wasn’t considered

There are several things that weren’t considered when compiling this list. The most notable is valuation, as noted above. Blindly buying quality companies without regards to valuation isn’t the best strategy. Waiting for a hiccup to buy into such stocks is a better course of action.

For instance, James Hardie was hammered in 2022 when there were fears about a US recession and the impact that might have on the housing market. That proved a buying opportunity as there was nothing wrong with the company, it was the economic environment that was driving a steep fall in price. The stock has since bounced back hard as recession fears abated.

The list above also doesn’t consider an investor's personal circumstances and portfolios. If you want a portfolio for dividend income, then that would require different criteria and an alternative list of companies. 

 

James Gruber is an assistant editor at Firstlinks and Morningstar.com.au.

 

36 Comments
Daryl
March 07, 2024

I reckon you could add FGG & FGX to your LIC inclusion list. FGG giving you International diversification. Both low cost fee structure and well managed by Geoff Wilson and Co.

James Gruber
March 07, 2024

Hi Daryl, nice suggestions. FGG and FGX aren't in the list because they aren't in the top ASX 300 - as per the first criterion.

Best,
James

Tony Dillon
March 06, 2024

Cochlear (ASX:COH)

Ah! This one is close to my heart. I have three little grandchildren aged 2 to 7, all deaf, and all have cochlear implants.

I see in real time, the impact this company has on the lives of others. Our eldest attends a main-stream school, and she speaks, reads, and writes with little difficulty, and is almost top of her class in Japanese! Her vocabulary and speech is as good as any in her class. She and her brother and sister amaze us every day, and we are so thankful for the Cochlear technology.

Technology which I believe only has upside. For example, the frequency range will only improve with time, and AI has the potential to totally transform artificial hearing. The take up in elderly people is also on the rise, with hearing aid technology unable to assist many who experience profound deafness later in life. Hearing they say, keeps loneliness and depression at bay in the elderly.

I see the future of “bionic” hearing being so good, that I believe our grandchildren will eventually have better hearing capability than those of us with natural hearing.

Peter
March 04, 2024

Thank you James for providing thought provoking articles and responding to comments made. Some of your audience is a hard one to please. Glad it is you and not me. And some of the commentators seem to be missing the dividend effect in companies like AFI. I would hazard a guess that the returns when including dividends would produce a very respectable return and that owning AFI would be a very safe choice. I don't own it as I specialise in small stocks but I can see why a case could be made for owning it and I have recommended it to others who have done very well owning it. Cheers

Sandy
March 04, 2024

Thanks very much for the article James , and the discussion folks.
I would add GMG, I feel its a standout in the Real Estate Sector, moving with the times.
For us we have had BKW as a mainstay which has been great over a long period of time , the brickmaking, tie in of share ownership with SOL and the Industrial land ownership and usage (partnerships with GMG)
ARB small time but continuing to improve Globally.

Sam Kolber
March 03, 2024

The inexorable rise in stock market indices over time has been the result of human ingenuity in conceiving products and processes that are wanted by the evolving human condition. Beating the index forever by restricting yourself to currently known companies, is not possible, because it excludes the new not yet known companies in their high growth phase. The future is unknowable and so are these companies.

Adrian
March 04, 2024

Largely agree, but you can't sit around twiddling your thumbs while you wait

Disgruntled
March 02, 2024

Buy and hold can have an opportunity cost of not getting next mover stocks.

Maybe a core holding of buy and hold dividend payers to give income to buy growth stocks as well. That is what I currently do with my Superannuation and have outperformed Australian Super returns with my Member Direct Account.

Kevin
March 02, 2024

Hiya James. Do you know much about Reece Plumbing? A few times at AGMs people have mentioned to me that I should really have a look at it.Of course I didn't.

A few articles in the paper here in WA about the local heroes ( Wesfarmers ) during the week .I take it they reached an all time high.The articles said that WES had been the second best performing company on the ASX since listing in 1984.I know with the coming retirement of the chairman and the highlights of his career at the AGM last year ( turning $1500 into over $1 million with dividends reinvested etc since 1984 ) I thought second was a bit high,local bias perhaps.The article then went on to say that Reece plumbing got the star prize. Having a bit of time just now did a bit of a look at the ASX web site,30 cents a share in 1994.Company history on their web site,not a lot there.Google search comes up with 2 X 5 for 1 splits and not much else.I'm surprised.

I'd have thought Fortescue,then daylight,then CSL.Perhaps they didn't come up for longevity purposes. A lot can happen in the next 20 and 10 years for those two companies to reach 40 years.

Know anything about Reece? I'm just curious,I'll download an annual report or two and have a look over the coming weeks,really got me curious.

James Gruber
March 04, 2024

Hi Kevin,

Yes, Reece has been a well run, family-owned company for a long time. Its Australian business is fantastic, and with competitor Tradelink up for sale, it may gain further market share.

The US market is the question mark. It entered the market via acquisition five years ago, and has been acquisitive since. It's a much more competitive market than Australia and the jury is still out whether it succeeds.

Australian companies don't have a great track record overseas, but Reece has a reasonable shot at it.

However, the stock appears to be priced for perfection, and then some, at the moment.

Ron
March 01, 2024

James as you touched on earlier can you put together a list of companies for people wanting dividends to see they through retirement years
Ron

Burrow Smorgasboard
March 01, 2024

Great article James and a great place to start. I was wondering.. what (alongside REA) are in the Top 3 ASX businesses, in your opinion? My main argument amongst this lot would be with the LIC's (1. banks , miners and COL/WOW are amongst their largest holdings and 2. they haven't kept up with the indices over 1,5 or 10 years) and infrastructure plays (high debt, low ROC and anaemic growth by nature). I would swap them out for companies in the ilk of CSL, WTC, ALL, XRO, RMD, FPH, PME, JBH, TNE, NWL. Thoughts?

James Gruber
March 01, 2024

Burrow,

My top 3 would be REA, James Hardie, and Cochlear.

Your other suggestions are sound. Your alternative stock ideas make sense, as a whole. ALL was seriously considered for this list. I am not convinced it's a forever stock as I'm not entirely sure what the industry will look like over the very long term. On a 10 year view, ALL is a decent bet. JBH - great company though does it have enough growth beyond the next 5 yrs? PME - never looked at closely because always been hideously expensive. XRO - not convinced on its moat, especially overseas. WTC - deserves consideration. FPH - looks interesting, though I don't know it well enough. TNE - yes, warrants attention. RMD - going to be fascinating how much obesity drugs impact the market (lean towards quite a bit) vs natural market growth.

Burrow Smorgasboard
March 01, 2024

Thanks James, I appreciate your well considered thoughts. I agree, ALL probably not a 'forever' stock. JBH has something special (lowest cost retailer per square metre?) but will need to expand geographically (a risk) or laterally (Good Guys) to keep growing - they've done a good job so far. PME (and WTC) are hideously expensive but I would back them to push JHX out of your Top 3! XRO faces a tough time in the US but is expanding elsewhere and offers a very sticky platform moat. RMD has probably the biggest risk - but not because of obesity drugs. Like COH, it's a 'one disease' company and open to technological disruption.

James Gruber
March 01, 2024

Burrow, you've framed the risks with RMD and COH better than I. Thanks.

Peter
March 01, 2024

Looks like you've achieved your objective James by starting the debate. It's an interesting conversation and I appreciate the different perspectives being offered. I own one of the LICs mentioned and in the time I've held the stock, it's underperformed the index and barely raised its dividend over the past decade. SOL on the other hand...

Peter B
March 01, 2024

Good read. Took profits REA recently hopefully will get a chance to re-enter but jury out on their os forays . I like MQG too - sure good managers come and go but their identification and use of human capital processes have a long track record of success. REH and BXB could potentially make such a list.

James Gruber
March 01, 2024

Peter,

Thanks.

REH a possible. Returns on capital have dropped a lot since US venture yet it's making headway.

I can't get excited by the growth prospects for BXB, though I haven't followed it closely of late.

Best,
James

Ian McGaw
March 01, 2024

James An excellent article. Enlightening as are all your comments on financial matters!
Interested in the choice of AFIC and ARG. Very solid and they have a strong pedigree.
Can I suggest that you might have included the 2 Future Generation Funds : FGG and FGX.

They have : Investment in Social issues and donate to organisations involved in youth mental health from the foregone commission of fund managers, who all have strong reputations. And this is then backed by a very knowledgeable Investment Committee, experienced Board of Directors, a careful conservative investment allocation.

I have no connection with these companies. But for these reasons above and in recognition of the excellent dividend (and reserve) I commend them to you.

Ian

Gary Buchanan
March 03, 2024

Ian. I totally agree with you re FGX and FGG but they might be a bit thinly traded. Great concept. Good performance.Very well managed.However all of ARG, AFI, FGX and FGG consistently underperform the ASX 200.Why not simply own an ASX 200 based ETF? STW is one and it's total return has outperformed all 4 over most time periods.Presumably whilst we have stocks being traded there will always be a top 200 so a 20 year horizon will be no problem.
Gary

James Gruber
March 06, 2024

Hi Ian, FGG and FGX are not in the ASX 300 therefore didn't meet the criteria. FGX has performed well, though FGG less so. Worth considering, certainly. Best, James

SGN
March 01, 2024

ARG and AFI are included in the list.ARG and AFI holds Banks and Big Miners.?
Your list is not suitable for my style of investing.In my opinion Your selection is based on wrong assumption.May be AI created the list ?



Steve Darke
February 29, 2024

ARG and AFI is perplexing, as both of those have large stakes in the big banks and the big miners. They wouldn't even be classifies as a business, being just a company that owns stakes in companies.

James Gruber
March 01, 2024

Steve,

They're investment companies. Their mandates are to grow capital in a steady way, and paying out consistent dividends over time via ASX listed companies. They like banks and miners more than I do, but they've been doing their jobs well for a long time. And it's likely they'll be around in 100yrs doing similar things to what they do today.

Darren
March 09, 2024

Have they been underperforming the index over the long term though? Would it better to buy, say, VAS?

CC
March 01, 2024

But they hold a lot less than the index.
As per latest monthly report ARG only 13% in banks.
And unlike the index these LICs retain some profits so they can smoothen their dividends to gradually rise over the years. AFI did not lower its dividend during the GFC whereas most ASX stocks did. This appeals to some income seeking retirees

John
February 29, 2024

No banks?
I'm not getting out of MQG.AX. Capital growth has been:
2Y 7.2%
5Y 49.9%
10Y 244.3%
Then add in dividends plus roughly 40% franking.
Not shabby at all.

James Gruber
March 01, 2024

Hi John, good debate to have.

The counterargument would be that it doesn't have much of a moat. Like all investment banks, it relies on people, and people come and go. They're had some nice tailwinds from good asset markets, govt privatisations, low rates, etc.

I can see your point, though.

Steve
February 29, 2024

To quote from the article "You want to own stocks that will perform at least in line with or better than the indices. Otherwise, there’s not much point in buying them and you may as well own a broad index ETF instead". Some of the stocks listed fail badly on that criteria (eg AZJ 5 and 10 year total returns of 1.9%). Quite a few are under the index as well. How did you screen on the "meet or beat the index", I would think a 5 and 10 year timeframe best shows consistency of performance without going so far back to be ancient history.
If you can have bog standard LIC's like AFI and ARG, why not some international ETF's that way outperform these (QUAL, MOAT?).

James Gruber
February 29, 2024

Hi Neil, size can be an issue for stocks, though not always. The advantage that Amex and Coke have is they operate globally in huge, growing markets. CSL operates globally though it seems to be pushing the limits of its growth. Buffett in his letter mentions that shareholders can't expect Berkshire to outperform indices anywhere near the extent that it has done in the past. It's now so big that acquisitions need to be enormous to get them to have meaningful contributions to group profits. I hope that provides some clarity. James

Steve
February 29, 2024

Wasn't there an article some time ago that showed the bulk of Berkshires outperformance was based on excellent early growth but was about market average for the last 10 years or so? Reinforces the point that scale makes growth harder to sustain. This was why Lord Hanson broke up his conglomerate many years ago, he saw the parts were worth more than the whole.

James Gruber
March 01, 2024

Steve, the article you refer to is here: https://www.firstlinks.com.au/warren-buffett-lost-edge-20-years-ago

Peter
February 29, 2024

Not a bad list James.

CC
February 29, 2024

No CSL ??
COH is now on a PE of 60, way too expensive

James Gruber
February 29, 2024

Hi CC,

Yes, CSL is a good one to debate. My view is that size is an issue for them. They've had to take on larger acquisitions in recent years and some haven't gone to plan, and that's resulted in returns on capital declining markedly since 2016. On Cochlear, I agree that it's very expensive. I did mention in the article that the list isn't of stocks to buy now, but at some point in future.

Neil
February 29, 2024

James, I'm confused. Using size as a reason for eliminating an Australian stock to hold forever is the antithesis of the Buffett approach you started the article with, which presumably inspired your Australian portfolio focus. Under your criteria, you wouldn't hold Amex, Coca Cola, or any of the Japanese trading houses. Are you able to clarify your thinking?

 

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