Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Warren Buffett Articles VII

Here's another classic.

The following write-up is taken from a compilation by Cesar 'Bud' Labitan called The Warren Buffett Business Factors.


Intelligent Investing

On December 6, 1994, we attended a session at the New York Society of Financial Analysts entitled "A Tribute to Ben Graham". Ben Graham would have been celebrating his 100th birthday if he had been alive. Three of Graham's former students spoke at length: Warren Buffett, Irving Kahn, and Walter Schloss, all very successful investors.

"This is the 100th anniversary of Ben's birth, I believe. And on the creative side, if what I consider his three basic ideas are really ground into your intellectual framework, I don't see how you can help but do reasonably well in stocks. His three basic ideas - and none of them are complicated or require any mathematical talent or anything of the sort - are:

1. that you should look at stocks as part Ownership of a business,

2. that you should look at market fluctuations in terms of his "Mr. Market" example and make them your friend rather than your enemy by essentially profiting from folly rather than participating in it, and finally,

3. the three most important words in investing are "Margin of safety" - which Ben talked about in his last chapter of The Intelligent Investor - always building a 15,000 pound bridge if you're going to be driving 10,000 pound trucks across it.

I think those three ideas 100 years from now will still be regarded as the three cornerstones of sound investment. And that's what Ben was all about. He wasn't about brilliant investing. He wasn't about fads or fashion. He was about sound investing. And what's nice is that sound investing can make you very wealthy if you're not in too big a hurry. And it never makes you poor - which is even better. So I think that it comes down to those ideas - although they sound so simple and commonplace that it kind of seems like a waste to go to school and get a Ph.D. in Economics and have it all come back to that. It's a little like spending eight years in divinity school and having somebody tell you that the ten commandments were all that counted. There is a certain natural tendency to overlook anything that simple and important. But those are the important ideas. And they will still be the important ideas 100 years from now. And we will owe them to Ben.

In Berkshire’s investments, Charlie and I have employed the principles taught by Dave Dodd and Ben Graham. I think the best book on investing ever written is “The Intelligent Investor”, by Ben Graham. Ben wrote “Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike.” I learned from Ben that the key to successful investing was the purchase of shares in good businesses when market prices were at a large discount from underlying business values. Ben identified this "margin of safety" in bargain purchasing as the cornerstone of intelligent investing. He wrote: "Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety." Years after reading that, I still think those are the right three words. And, the failure of investors to heed this simple message caused them staggering losses.

Our equity-investing strategy remains little changed from what it was years ago: "We select our marketable equity securities in much the way we would evaluate a business for acquisition in its entirety. We want the business to be one (a) that we can understand; (b) with favorable long-term prospects; (c) operated by honest and competent people; and (d) available at a very attractive price." We have seen cause to make only one change in this creed: Because of both market conditions and our size, we now substitute "an attractive price" for "a very attractive price."

But how, you will ask, does one decide what's "attractive"? In answering this question, most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition:

"value" and "growth."

Indeed, many investment professionals see any mixing of the two terms as a form of intellectual cross-dressing. We view that as fuzzy thinking (in which, it must be confessed, I myself engaged some years ago). In our opinion, the two approaches are joined at the hip: Growth is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive.

In addition, we think the very term "value investing" is redundant. What is "investing" if it is not the act of seeking value at least sufficient to justify the amount paid? Consciously paying more for a stock than its calculated value - in the hope that it can soon be sold for a still-higher price - should be labeled speculation (which is neither illegal, immoral nor - in our view - financially fattening).

Whether appropriate or not, the term "value investing" is widely used. Typically, it connotes the purchase of stocks having attributes such as a low ratio of price to book value, a low price-earnings ratio, or a high dividend yield. Unfortunately, such characteristics, even if they appear in combination, are far from determinative as to whether an investor is indeed buying something for what it is worth and is therefore truly operating on the principle of obtaining value in his investments. Correspondingly, opposite characteristics - a high ratio of price to book value, a high price-earnings ratio, and a low dividend yield - are in no way inconsistent with a "value" purchase.

Similarly, business growth, per se, tells us little about value. It's true that growth often has a positive impact on value, sometimes one of spectacular proportions. But such an effect is far from certain. For example, investors have regularly poured money into the domestic airline business to finance profitless (or worse) growth. For these investors, it would have been far better if Orville had failed to get off the ground at Kitty Hawk: The more the industry has grown, the worse the disaster for owners.

Growth benefits investors only when the business in point can invest at incremental returns that are enticing - in other words, only when each dollar used to finance the growth creates over a dollar of long-term market value. In the case of a low-return business requiring incremental funds, growth hurts the investor.

In The Theory of Investment Value, written over 50 years ago, John Burr Williams set forth the equation for value, which we condense here: The value of any stock, bond or business today is determined by the cash inflows and outflows - discounted at an appropriate interest rate - that can be expected to occur during the remaining life of the asset. Note that the formula is the same for stocks as for bonds. Even so, there is an important, and difficult to deal with, difference between the two: A bond has a coupon and maturity date that define future cash flows; but in the case of equities, the investment analyst must himself estimate the future "coupons." Furthermore, the quality of management affects the bond coupon only rarely - chiefly when management is so inept or dishonest that payment of interest is suspended. In contrast, the ability of management can dramatically affect the equity "coupons."

The investment shown by the discounted-flows-of-cash calculation to be the cheapest is the one that the investor should purchase - irrespective of whether the business grows or doesn't, displays volatility or smoothness in its earnings, or carries a high price or low in relation to its current earnings and book value. Moreover, though the value equation has usually shown equities to be cheaper than bonds, that result is not inevitable:

When bonds are calculated to be the more attractive investment, they should be bought.

Leaving the question of price aside, the best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return. The worst business to own is one that must, or will, do the opposite - that is, consistently employ ever-greater amounts of capital at very low rates of return. Unfortunately, the first type of business is very hard to find: Most high-return businesses need relatively little capital. Shareholders of such a business usually will benefit if it pays out most of its earnings in dividends or makes significant stock repurchases.

Though the mathematical calculations required to evaluate equities are not difficult, an analyst - even one who is experienced and intelligent - can easily go wrong in estimating future "coupons." At Berkshire, we attempt to deal with this problem in two ways. First, we try to stick to businesses we believe we understand. That means they must be relatively simple and stable in character. If a business is complex or subject to constant change, we're not smart enough to predict future cash flows. Incidentally, that shortcoming doesn't bother us. What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don't know. An investor needs to do very few things right as long as he or she avoids big mistakes.

Second, and equally important, we insist on a margin of safety in our purchase price. If we calculate the value of a common stock to be only slightly higher than its price, we're not interested in buying. We believe this margin-of-safety principle, so strongly emphasized by Ben Graham, to be the cornerstone of investment success.

Now, we believe that it's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. When buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements. We know that time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.

We have a corporate policy of reinvesting earnings for growth, diversity and strength, which has the incidental effect of minimizing the current imposition of explicit taxes on our owners. However, you can be subjected to the implicit inflation tax, and when you wish to transfer your investment in Berkshire into another form of investment, or into consumption, you also will face explicit taxes. Probably no business in America changed hands in 1946 at book value that the buyer believed lacked the ability to earn more than 1% on book. But investors with bond-buying habits eagerly made economic commitments throughout the year on just that basis. Similar conditions prevailed for the next two decades as bond investors happily signed up for twenty or thirty years on terms outrageously inadequate by business standards.

An investor cannot obtain superior profits from stocks by simply committing to a specific investment category or style. He can earn them only by carefully evaluating facts and continuously exercising discipline. Investing in arbitrage situations, per se, is no better a strategy than selecting a portfolio by throwing darts.

Common stocks are the most fun. When conditions are right that is, when companies with good economics and good management sell well below intrinsic business value - stocks sometimes provide grand-slam home runs. We often find no equities that come close to meeting our tests. We do not predict markets, we think of the business. We have no idea - and never have had - whether the market is going to go up, down, or sideways in the near- or intermediate term future.

The bond universes were dissimilar in several vital respects. For openers, the manager of a fallen angel almost invariably yearned to regain investment-grade status and worked toward that goal. The junk-bond operator was usually an entirely different breed. Behaving much as a heroin user might, he devoted his energies not to finding a cure for his debt-ridden condition, but rather to finding another fix. Additionally, the fiduciary sensitivities of the executives managing the typical fallen angel were often more finely developed than were those of the junk-bond-issuing financiopath. Wall Street's enthusiasm for an idea was proportional not to its merit, but rather to the revenue it would produce. Mountains of junk bonds were sold by those who didn't care to those who didn't think - and there was no shortage of either.

So how should Berkshire's over-performance in the market last year be viewed? Clearly, Berkshire was selling at a higher percentage of intrinsic value at the end of 1993 than was the case at the beginning of the year. On the other hand, in a world of 6% or 7% long-term interest rates, Berkshire's market price was not inappropriate if Charlie Munger and I can attain our long-standing goal of increasing Berkshire's per-share intrinsic value at an average annual rate of 15%. We have not retreated from this goal. We again emphasize that the growth in our capital base makes 15% an ever-more difficult target to hit.

The true investor welcomes volatility. Ben Graham explained why in Chapter 8 of The Intelligent Investor. There he introduced "Mr. Market," an obliging fellow who shows up every day to either buy from you or sell to you, whichever you wish. The more manic-depressive this chap is, the greater the opportunities available to the investor. That's true because a wildly fluctuating market means that irrationally low prices will periodically be attached to solid businesses. It is impossible to see how the availability of such prices can be thought of as increasing the hazards for an investor who is totally free to either ignore the market or exploit its folly.

In assessing risk, a beta purist will disdain examining what a company produces, what its competitors are doing, or how much borrowed money the business employs. In contrast, we'll happily forgo knowing the price history and instead will seek whatever information will further our understanding of the company's business. After we buy a stock, consequently, we would not be disturbed if markets closed for a year or two.

In our opinion, the real risk that an investor must assess is whether his aggregate after-tax receipts from an investment (including those he receives on sale) will, over his prospective holding period, give him at least as much purchasing power as he had to begin with, plus a modest rate of interest on that initial stake. Though this risk cannot be calculated with engineering precision, it can in some cases be judged with a degree of accuracy that is useful. The primary factors bearing upon this evaluation are:

1) The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated;

2) The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;

3) The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself;

4) The purchase price of the business;

5) The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor's purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return.

These factors will probably strike many analysts as unbearably fuzzy, since they cannot be extracted from a database of any kind. Is it really so difficult to conclude that Coca-Cola and Gillette possess far less business risk over the long term than any computer company or retailer? Worldwide, Coke sells about 44% of all soft drinks, and Gillette has more than a 60% share (in value) of the blade market. Leaving aside chewing gum, in which Wrigley is dominant, I know of no other significant businesses in which the leading company has long enjoyed such global power.

Obviously, every investor will make mistakes. By confining himself to a relatively few, easy-to-understand cases, a reasonably intelligent, informed and diligent person can judge investment risks with a useful degree of accuracy.

In many industries, Charlie and I can't determine whether we are dealing with a "pet rock" or a "Barbie." We couldn't solve this problem, moreover, even if we were to spend years intensely studying those industries. Sometimes our own intellectual shortcomings would stand in the way of understanding, and in other cases the nature of the industry would be the roadblock. For example, a business that must deal with fast-moving technology is not going to lend itself to reliable evaluations of its long-term economics. Did we foresee thirty years ago what would transpire in the television-manufacturing or computer industries? Of course not. (Nor did most of the investors and corporate managers who enthusiastically entered those industries.) Why, then, should Charlie and I now think we can predict the future of other rapidly-evolving businesses? We'll stick instead with the easy cases. Why search for a needle buried in a haystack when one is sitting in plain sight?

Some investment strategies - for instance, our efforts in arbitrage over the years - require wide diversification. If significant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one of many mutually- independent commitments. Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment - one that indeed has a significant possibility of causing loss or injury - if you believe that your gain, weighted for probabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number of similar, but unrelated opportunities. Most venture capitalists employ this strategy. Should you choose to pursue this course, you should adopt the outlook of the casino that owns a roulette wheel, which will want to see lots of action because it is favored by probabilities, but will refuse to accept a single, huge bet.

Another situation requiring wide diversification occurs when an investor who does not understand the economics of specific businesses nevertheless believes it in his interest to be a long-term owner of American industry. That investor should both own a large number of equities and space out his purchases. By periodically investing in an index fund, for example, the know-nothing investor can actually out-perform most investment professionals. Paradoxically, when "dumb" money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb.

On the other hand, if you are a know-something investor, able to understand business economics and to find five to ten sensibly-priced companies that possess important long-term competitive advantages, conventional diversification makes no sense for you. It is apt simply to hurt your results and increase your risk. I cannot understand why an investor of that sort elects to put money into a business that is his 20th favorite rather than simply adding that money to his top choices - the businesses he understands best and that present the least risk, along with the greatest profit potential.

Charlie and I make few predictions. One we will confidently offer, however, is that the future performance of Berkshire won't come close to matching the performance of the past. The problem is not that what has worked in the past will cease to work in the future. To the contrary, we believe that our formula - the purchase at sensible prices of businesses that have good underlying economics and are run by honest and able people - is certain to produce reasonable success. We expect, therefore, to keep on doing well. However, a fat wallet is the enemy of superior investment results. And Berkshire in 1994 has a net worth of $11.9 billion compared to about $22 million when Charlie and I began to manage the company. Though there are as many good businesses as ever, it is useless for us to make purchases that are inconsequential in relation to Berkshire's capital. (As Charlie regularly reminds me, "If something is not worth doing at all, it's not worth doing well.") We now consider a security for purchase only if we believe we can deploy at least $100 million in it. Given that minimum, Berkshire's investment universe has shrunk dramatically.

Nevertheless, we will stick with the approach that got us here and try not to relax our standards. Ted Williams, in “The Story of My Life”, explains why: "My argument is, to be a good hitter, you've got to get a good ball to hit. It's the first rule in the book. If I have to bite at stuff that is out of my happy zone, I'm not a .344 hitter. I might only be a .250 hitter." Charlie and I agree and will try to wait for opportunities that are well within our own "happy zone."

We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen. Thirty years ago, no one could have foreseen the huge expansion of the Vietnam War, wage and price controls, two oil shocks, the resignation of a president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a one-day drop in the Dow of 508 points, or treasury bill yields fluctuating between 2.8% and 17.4%.

But, surprise - none of these blockbuster events made the slightest dent in Ben Graham's investment principles. Nor did they render unsound the negotiated purchases of fine businesses at sensible prices. Imagine the cost to us, then, if we had let a fear of unknowns cause us to defer or alter the deployment of capital. Indeed, we have usually made our best purchases when apprehensions about some macro event were at a peak. Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.

A different set of major shocks is sure to occur in the next 30 years. We will neither try to predict these nor to profit from them. If we can identify businesses similar to those we have purchased in the past, external surprises will have little effect on our long-term results.

What we promise you - along with more modest gains - is that during your ownership of Berkshire, you will fare just as Charlie and I do. If you suffer, we will suffer; if we prosper, so will you. And we will not break this bond by introducing compensation arrangements that give us a greater participation in the upside than the downside.

We further promise you that our personal fortunes will remain overwhelmingly concentrated in Berkshire shares: We will not ask you to invest with us and then put our own money elsewhere. In addition, Berkshire dominates both the investment portfolios of most members of our families and of a great many friends who belonged to partnerships that Charlie and I ran in the 1960's. We could not be more motivated to do our best.

Luckily, we have a good base from which to work. In 1984, Berkshire's insurance companies held securities having a value of $1.7 billion, or about $1,500 per Berkshire share. Leaving aside all income and capital gains from those securities, Berkshire's pre-tax earnings that year were only about $6 million. We had earnings, yes, from our various manufacturing, retailing and service businesses, but they were almost entirely offset by the combination of underwriting losses in our insurance business, corporate overhead and interest expense.

During the decade, employment has grown from 5,000 to 22,000 (including eleven people at World Headquarters). We achieved our gains through the efforts of a superb corps of operating managers who get extraordinary results from some ordinary-appearing businesses. Casey Stengel described managing a baseball team as "getting paid for home runs other fellows hit." That's my formula at Berkshire, also.

The businesses in which we have partial interests are equally important to Berkshire's success. A few statistics will illustrate their significance: In 1994, Coca-Cola sold about 280 billion 8-ounce servings and earned a little less than a penny on each. But pennies add up. Through Berkshire's 7.8% ownership of Coke, we have an economic interest in 21 billion of its servings, which produce "soft-drink earnings" for us of nearly $200 million. Similarly, by way of its Gillette stock, Berkshire has a 7% share of the world's razor and blade market (measured by revenues, not by units), a proportion according us about $250 million of sales in 1994. And, at Wells Fargo, a $53 billion bank, our 13% ownership translates into a $7 billion "Berkshire Bank" that earned about $100 million during 1994.

It's far better to own a significant portion of the Hope diamond than 100% of a rhinestone, and the companies just mentioned easily qualify as rare gems. Best of all, we aren't limited to simply a few of this breed, but instead possess a growing collection.