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

By Lee Bellinger / March 26, 2015

Warren Buffett released his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in March. 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 from Warren Buffett’s latest letter and apply his lessons to your own investing habits as you see fit.

On Flexibility

Our flexibility in capital allocation – our willingness to invest large sums passively in non-controlled businesses – gives us a significant advantage over companies that limit themselves to acquisitions they can operate. Our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for Berkshire’s endless gusher of cash.

On Experience

I’ve mentioned in the past that my experience in business helps me as an investor and that my investment experience has made me a better businessman. Each pursuit teaches lessons that are applicable to the other. And some truths can only be fully learned through experience.

On Insurance

We are far more conservative in avoiding risk than most large insurers. For example, if the insurance industry should experience a $250 billion loss from some mega-catastrophe – a loss about triple anything it has ever experienced – Berkshire as a whole would likely record a significant profit for the year because of its many streams of earnings. We would also remain awash in cash and be looking for large opportunities in a market that might well have gone into shock. Meanwhile, other major insurers and reinsurers would be far in the red, if not facing insolvency…

Simply put, insurance is the sale of promises. The “customer” pays money now; the insurer promises to pay money in the future should certain unwanted events occur.

Sometimes, the promise will not be tested for decades. (Think of life insurance bought by people 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 Honest Accounting Practices

Every dime of depreciation expense we report is a real cost. That’s true, moreover, at most other companies. When CEOs tout EBITDA as a valuation guide, wire them up for a polygraph test.

Our public reports of earnings will, of course, continue to conform to GAAP. To embrace reality, however, you should remember to add back most of the amortization charges we report.

On Blunders

Fortunately, my blunders normally involved relatively small acquisitions. Our large buys have generally worked out well and, in a few cases, more than well. I have not, nonetheless, made my last mistake in purchasing either businesses or stocks. Not everything works out as planned.

On the Declining Value of the Dollar

During the 1964-2014 period, the S&P 500 rose from 84 to 2,059, which, with reinvested dividends, generated the overall return of 11,196%… Concurrently, the purchasing power of the dollar declined a staggering 87%. That decrease means that it now takes $1 to buy what could be bought for 13¢ in 1965 (as measured by the Consumer Price Index).

There is an important message for investors in that disparate performance between stocks and dollars. Think back to our 2011 annual report, in which we defined investing as “the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future.”

The unconventional, but inescapable, conclusion to be drawn from the past fifty years is that it has been far safer to invest in a diversified collection of American businesses than to invest in securities – Treasuries, for example – whose values have been tied to American currency. That was also true in the preceding halfcentury, a period including the Great Depression and two world wars. Investors should heed this history. To one degree or another it is almost certain to be repeated during the next century.

Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widelydiversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions. That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk. Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: Volatility is far from synonymous with
risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.

On High Fees and
Other Investment Sins

Investors, of course, can, by their own behavior, make stock ownership highly risky. And many do. Active trading, attempts to “time” market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees to managers and advisors, and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy. Indeed, borrowed money has no place in the investor’s tool kit: Anything can happen anytime in markets. And no advisor, economist, or TV commentator – and definitely not Charlie [Munger] nor I – can tell you when chaos will occur. Market forecasters will fill your ear but will never fill your wallet.

The commission of the investment sins listed above is not limited to “the little guy.” Huge institutional investors, viewed as a group, have long underperformed the unsophisticated index-fund investor who simply sits tight for decades. A major reason has been fees: Many institutions pay substantial sums to consultants who, in turn, recommend high-fee managers. And that is a fool’s game.

There are a few investment managers, of course, who are very good – though in the short run, it’s difficult to determine whether a great record is due to luck or talent. Most advisors, however, are far better at generating high fees than they are at generating high returns. In truth, their core competence is salesmanship.

On Reality Checks

Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality – you can count on that…. Never forget that 2+2 will always equal 4. And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.

On Investing vs. Speculating

A sound investment can morph into a rash speculation if it is bought at an elevated price.

On Being Prepared

The reason for our conservatism, which may impress some people as extreme, is that it is entirely predictable that people will occasionally panic, but it is not at all predictable when this will happen. Though practically all days are relatively uneventful, tomorrow is always uncertain. (I felt no special apprehension on December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001.) And if you can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, you must be prepared for whatever it does….

We will always be prepared for the thousand-year flood; in fact, if it occurs we will be selling life jackets to the unprepared.

On America’s Future

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…

The dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. Gains won’t come in a smooth or uninterrupted manner; they never have. And we will regularly grumble about our government. But, most assuredly, America’s best days lie ahead.

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