More Wit and Wisdom from the World’s Most Successful Investor

By Lee Bellinger / March 31, 2014

Buffett Alert

Warren Buffett released his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders on February 28, 2014. As usual, his letter contained more than the requisite information about Berkshire’s finances. It was also filled with pithy observations about our economy and markets and timeless, plain-spoken advice that all investors would do well to consider.

We at Independent Living don’t necessarily agree with all of his points. He fully admits that he gets things wrong sometimes.

We all make mistakes, and we all have our own unique biases, predispositions, and approaches to investing. But we all can learn from a master of his craft, and that’s what Warren Buffett is to investing. So please enjoy the following excerpts we selected from Warren Buffett’s latest letter and apply his lessons to your own investing habits as you may see fit.

On Performance

Over the stock market cycle between year ends 2007 and 2013, we over performed the S&P. Through full cycles in future years, we expect to do that again. If we fail to do so, we will not have earned our pay. After all, you could always own an index fund and be assured of S&P results.

Since 1970, our per-share investments have increased at a rate of 19.3% compounded annually, and our earnings figure has grown at a 20.6% clip. It is no coincidence that the price of Berkshire stock over the 43-year period has increased at a rate very similar to that of our two measures of value.

On His “All-in Wager”

Late in 2009, amidst the gloom of the Great Recession, we agreed to buy BNSF, the largest purchase in Berkshire’s history. At the time, I called the transaction an “all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.”

That kind of commitment was nothing new for us: We’ve been making similar wagers ever since Buffett Partnership Ltd. acquired control of Berkshire in 1965. For good reason, too. Charlie and I have always considered a “bet” on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing.

Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 237 years by betting against America? If you compare our country’s present condition to that existing in 1776, you have to rub your eyes in wonder. And the dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. America’s best days lie ahead.

On Investing in

Transportation and Energy

BNSF carries about 15% (measured by ton-miles) of all inter-city freight, whether it is transported by truck, rail, water, air, or pipeline. Indeed, we move more ton-miles of goods than anyone else, a fact establishing BNSF as the most important artery in our economy’s circulatory system. Its hold on the number-one position strengthened in 2013.

BNSF, like all railroads, also moves its cargo in an extraordinarily fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly way, carrying a ton of freight about 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. Trucks taking on the same job guzzle about four times as much fuel.

Our confidence is justified both by our past experience and by the knowledge that society will forever need massive investments in both transportation and energy. It is in the self-interest of governments to treat capital providers in a manner that will ensure the continued flow of funds to essential projects. It is meanwhile in our selfinterest to conduct our operations in a way that earns the approval of our regulators and the people they represent.

On the Coming

Public Pension Crisis

Local and state financial problems are accelerating, in large part because public entities promised pensions they couldn’t afford. Citizens and public officials typically under-appreciated the gigantic financial tapeworm that was born when promises were made that conflicted with a willingness to fund them. During the next decade, you will read a lot of news – bad news – about public pension plans.

On Insurance

Simply put, insurance is the sale of promises. The “customer” pays money now; the insurer promises to pay money in the future if certain events occur. Sometimes, the promise will not be tested for decades. (Think of life insurance bought by those in their 20s.) Therefore, both the ability and willingness of the insurer to pay – even if economic chaos prevails when payment time arrives – is all-important.

On Gimmicked Wall Street

Earnings Numbers

Every dime of depreciation expense we report, however, is a real cost. And that’s true at almost all other companies as well. When Wall Streeters tout EBITDA as a valuation guide, button your wallet.

On Knowing Your Limitations

You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren’t, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don’t swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick “no.”

On Speculating

If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating.

There is nothing improper about that. I know, however, that I am unable to speculate successfully, and I am skeptical of those who claim sustained success at doing so. Half of all coin-flippers will win their first toss; none of those winners has an expectation of profit if he continues to play the game. And the fact that a given asset has appreciated in the recent past is never a reason to buy it.

On the Futility of

Daily Market Watching

Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays.

On TV Prognosticators

Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time.

Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. (When I hear TV commentators glibly opine on what the market will do next, I am reminded of Mickey Mantle’s scathing comment: “You don’t know how easy this game is until you get into that broadcasting booth.”)

On Market Volatility

It should be an enormous advantage for investors in stocks to have those wildly fluctuating valuations placed on their holdings – and for some investors, it is. After all, if a moody fellow with a farm bordering my property yelled out a price every day to me at which he would either buy my farm or sell me his – and those prices varied widely over short periods of time depending on his mental state– how in the world could I be other than benefited by his erratic behavior? If his daily shout-out was ridiculously low, and I had some spare cash, I would buy his farm. If
the number he yelled was absurdly high, I could either sell to him or just go on farming.

Owners of stocks, however, too often let the capricious and often irrational behavior of their fellow owners cause them to behave irrationally as well. Because there is so much chatter about markets, the economy, interest rates, price behavior of stocks, etc., some investors believe it is important to listen to pundits – and, worse yet, important to consider acting upon their comments.

A “flash crash” or some other extreme market fluctuation can’t hurt an investor any more than an erratic and mouthy neighbor can hurt my farm investment. Indeed, tumbling markets can be helpful to the true investor if he has cash available when prices get far out of line with values. A climate of fear is your friend when investing; a euphoric world is your enemy.

On Stock Picking vs. Indexing

The goal of the non-professional should not be to pick winners – neither he nor his “helpers” can do that – but should rather be to own a cross-section of businesses that in aggregate are bound to do well. A low-cost S&P 500 index fund will achieve this goal.

On Market Timing

The main danger is that the timid or beginning investor will enter the market at a time of extreme exuberance and then become disillusioned when paper losses occur. (Remember the late Barton Biggs’ observation: “A bull market is like sex. It feels best just before it ends.”)

The antidote to that kind of mistiming is for an investor to accumulate shares over a long period and never to sell when the news is bad and stocks are well off their highs. Following those rules, the “know-nothing” investor who both diversifies and keeps his costs minimal is virtually certain to get satisfactory results. Indeed, the unsophisticated investor who is realistic about his shortcomings is likely to obtain better longterm results than the knowledgeable professional who is blind to even a single weakness.

Nevertheless, both individuals and institutions will constantly be urged to be active by those who profit from giving advice or effecting transactions. The resulting frictional costs can be huge and, for investors in aggregate, devoid of benefit. So ignore the chatter, keep your costs minimal, and invest in stocks as you would in a farm.