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ASX stocks that have stood the test of time

People love new things, and investors are no different. Currently, investors are fixated on artificial intelligence. Before that it was electric vehicles. Further back it was cryptocurrency. And prior to that, it was software. New technologies are fast moving and grab media attention.

Less talked about are older technologies. These are slower moving, though have stood the test of time. Think of air conditioning or water filtration.

There’s something to be said for valuing things which have endured. Because the longer something’s lasted, the longer it’s likely to last. It’s proven that people know the product or service, and often depend on it.

For this reason, I like older businesses. These are businesses that have done something right to have lasted. They’ve proven stronger than competitors. They’ve probably applied a certain formula for years and decades. And they’ll probably continue to apply that formula in future.

The Lindy effect

There’s a term for the above and it’s called the Lindy effect. The theory is that how long an idea or technology may last is correlated with how long it has already lasted. Put a different way, old things have better odds of getting older still than newer things.

The term was first invented by a media columnist before being taken on by statisticians, including Nassim Taleb, who popularized it. In his book, Antifragile, Taleb, said of the Lindy effect:

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not "aging" like persons, but "aging" in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!”

Taleb elaborated further in his later book, Skin in the Game, where he linked the Lindy effect to fragility. For Taleb, “time is equivalent to disorder, and resistance to the ravages of time, that is, what we gloriously call survival, is the ability to handle disorder”. And “things that have survived are hinting to us ex post that they have some robustness”.

Market application

On this point, I remember getting an odd request when I was an equities analyst at a stockbroker in Asia. One of the more successful funds in the region at that time, First State, was a large client of my firm, and they requested analysts provide them with annual write-ups on the histories of 20 nominated companies.

First State didn’t just want things you could get from Google. It wanted anecdotes, background on leaders past and present, and insights into company culture.

First State may have heard of the Lindy effect because they were one of the few investment firms that valued the history of companies, and wanted to learn what made them tick over long periods of time.

Some of the oldest companies on the ASX

In the spirit of valuing enduring businesses, here’s a list of some of the oldest companies listed on the ASX. Note that the youngest company on the list is 95 years old, and the oldest has lasted 206 years.

AGL (ASX:AGL)

This company was formed in 1837 to light up the town of Sydney via gas. It was the second company to list on the Sydney Stock Exchange, initially as the Australian Gas Light Company in 1871.

Now it’s the largest generator and seller of electricity. There’s been plenty of change of late after merging with Alinta and then demerging to create separate retail and infrastructure companies.

The company has had recent challenges with the moves toward net-zero climate emissions, though it remains a premier energy provider and it’s likely to remain that way for a long time to come.

Washington H. Soul Pattison (ASX:SOL)

This investment company began life as a pharmacy in 1872. It’s then that Caleb Soul opened the chemist in Pitt Street, Sydney. In 1886, Lewy Pattinson opened a pharmacy in Balmain. Caleb and Lewy became friends and in 1902, Washington Soul bought out Pattinson and a year later, listed on the Sydney Stock Exchange.

Today, the company has a diverse portfolio of assets across many industries. Amazingly, it’s managed to pay a dividend in every year since listing. And SOL has rewarded patient shareholders handsomely for many decades.

ANZ (ASX:ANZ)

The Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited (ANZ) dates back to 1835. Its current corporate structure was set up in 1970 when ANZ merged with the English, Scottish and Australian Bank (ES&A). It was the largest bank merger in Australia’s history at that time. ANZ itself was formed in 1951 as the result of a merger of the Bank of Australasia and the Union Bank of Australia – and these banks’ histories go back to 1835 and 1837 respectively.

ANZ is now the second largest Australian bank by assets.

Australian Foundation Investment Company (ASX:AFI)

AFIC dates back to 1928. The company is now the largest Listed Investment Company (LIC) in Australia. It’s attracted a large group of investors due to its conservative investment approach and ability to consistently grow income and dividends.

Westpac (ASX:WBC)

Westpac calls itself Australia’s oldest bank. It started as the Bank of New South Wales in 1817. In 1956, it was granted a license to operate as a retail bank, meaning it could pay interest on savings deposits. In 1982, it merged with the Commercial Bank of Australia. And in that year, the company changed its name to Westpac. A decade later in 1992, Westpac lost $2 billion and was raided by Kerry Packer as it fought for survival.

Today, the bank is comfortably ensconced in the banking oligopoly which is unlikely to change in the decades ahead.

BHP (ASX:BHP)

It’s hard to believe but BHP began life as Broken Hill Proprietary in 1885. It owned a single silver, zinc, and lead mine in the outback. BHP merged with Billiton in 2001. Billiton began with a tin mine in what’s now Indonesia in 1851.

In 2015, the company decided to spin off assets mostly belonging to Billiton into South 32. And the Billiton part of the name was dropped two years later.

Today, BHP is the world’s largest mining company by market capitalization.

Equity Trustees (ASX:EQT)

This company is embedded in the Melbourne establishment. The walls of its headquarters are decorated with portraits of former Prime Ministers, Premiers, and Governors-General who’ve served on its board. Former Prime Ministers Robert Menzies and Stanley Bruce were once on the board.

Throughout much of its history, Equity Trustees has offered estate planning services to the wealthy. Yet that’s changed of late as the company has become a leading player in the superannuation trusteeship sector. It now has more than $150 billion in funds under management, administration, and supervision.

Whitefield (ASX:WHF)

This company is an LIC with a difference. It only invests in industrial companies, therefore stays away from resources.

Initially, the company invested in mortgages, taking advantage of a resurgent housing market during the 1920s. But with the Great Depression, and then price controls on house prices and rents during World War Two, Whitefield pivoted to investing in companies that would benefit from growth in the broad industrial economy. That’s how the investment strategy evolved towards owning a diversified portfolio of Australian share for long-term wealth creation.

Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO)

The company was founded in 1873 when a group of investors bought a mine on the Rio Tinto, in Huelva, Spain from the Spanish Government. It’s grown through a long history of mergers and acquisitions. Today, it’s the world’s second largest materials company and not only focuses on mining but refining, especially iron ore and bauxite. It’s dual listed on both the London Stock Exchange and ASX.

 

James Gruber is an assistant editor at Firstlinks and Morningstar.com.au. This article is general information.

 

11 Comments
Mike
September 04, 2023

AMP have been around for over 170 years. That’s gone well.

James Gruber
September 04, 2023

Mike,

So that's your criticism? First of all, the article doesn't state all old companies stand the test of time. Second, it doesn't state that all old companies are good companies. It instead suggests that the longer companies last, the probability of survival increases. And that often they have a secret sauce for their enduring survival.

AMP has clearly been going downhill for 30 years. I worked there once, and know it well.

Steve F
September 01, 2023

And yet AFI has consistently underperformed the ASX 200 over the long term. Just buy an index fund. People don't understand the very nature of a market cap index is actaully a form of active investing, because out performing companies rise to the top over time and underperforming ones drop in ranking and eventually drop out all together. Natural selection in financial markets, not this buy and hold hundred year old companies nonsense.

Alan Jacobs
September 01, 2023

Well said. Not to mention the benefits of effective diversification and low cost.

Harvey Dickinson
September 03, 2023

"And yet AFI has consistently underperformed the ASX 200 over the long term", possibly true, but the index has never outperformed the index and don't forget the "conduit" nature of an index fund, the complications that involves and where it is common for such funds to "underperform" with franking. But why not both ?

Mic Smith
September 04, 2023

Hi Steve,
AFI has quite low fees yet suffers from the problems of all these LICs. There are over 50 of them of the ASX and they CANNOT be all star performers - especially so since they are ripping so much out of you with fees! They typically charge 1% or more pa and want performance fees of at least 10% of any benchmark outperformance.

So you are right, you likely to be better off with an index fund some of which are incredibly cheap now and offer management fees of less than 0.1% and no performance fees.

Peter C
September 01, 2023

Westpac snd ANZ almost didn’t survive the early 1990’s recession but NAB with its more risk averse management sailed through.
Off course CBA, Qantas, CSL and Telstra are also old businesses but have only been listed for a couple of decades.

Danny
September 01, 2023

The banks have only stood the test of time because they haven't gone broke. That's where it ends, as the next generation will be able to source all the services banks offer from other suppliers. Westpac and ANZ have barely delivered positive shareholder returns over a decade or more, and are saved only by their fully franked dividends. CBA is the only bank that has delivered an acceptable TSR for a decade or two, so it should have been the only bank to appear in this list. As for AGL ..... if losing 75% of its value over 4 years constitutes "standing the test of time", then I am a monkey's uncle!

John
August 31, 2023

Whitefield has done well for many, many years. I never understood why its market cap is so small in comparison with BKI, ARG, AFI, WAM etc. Surely it should be at +$1B mcap.

Henny
September 06, 2023

I’d like to know why too. But James Gruber doesn’t reply to comments. The author should interact with his readers otherwise what’s the point of a comments section.

James Gruber
September 06, 2023

Hi Henny,


John had an observation rather than a question, hence why I didn't reply. And, by the way, I responded to one previous comment in this post, and have regularly responded to previous posts.


There are two possible reasons for Whitefield's size. The first is that perhaps Whitefield didn't start off with as much capital as the others. And the second is that while it could have raised capital to grow, it perhaps didn't want to dilute existing shareholders in doing so. Sometimes bigger isn't always better.

 

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