Image Credit: Heath Hinegardner
By Jason Zweig | Nov. 1, 2008 11:59 p.m. ET
Wouldn’t it be nice, in this miserable market, to be Warren Buffett?
Fortunately, a cottage industry has sprung up to teach investors how to emulate the master. Unfortunately, you might as well try to catch a bolt of lightning in a paper cup.
For the first two decades of his career, Mr. Buffett built the bulk of his fortune through his investing prowess, producing one of the best long-term track records of any money manager in history. More recently, however, Mr. Buffett has succeeded not through investing prowess alone, but also through exclusive deals that have come to him because of it.
Only a part of Mr. Buffett’s market-beating performance has come from stock-picking. Even more of his edge has been generated by the operating subsidiaries of his Berkshire Hathaway Inc., like Benjamin Moore paint and Geico insurance. “There’s no question about it,” Mr. Buffett told me during the week. “Certainly over the last decade at least,” the earnings of Berkshire’s operating businesses “have grown at a much faster rate than the [value of the] marketable securities per share.”
It is a lot harder than it used to be to measure just how good a stock-picker Mr. Buffett is. When I asked him if he knew how well Berkshire’s stock portfolio has done in recent years, he answered: “I’ve no idea what the rate of return would be. But, knowing myself how hard it would be to do the calculations right, I’m suspicious of anybody’s numbers.”
An outsider, then, can barely get in the ballpark. Since the end of 1988, Berkshire’s stock portfolio has grown from $3.56 billion to $69.51 billion. That is a spectacular average annual increase of 16.5%, far surpassing the 10.5% annualized return of the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index. Of course, this calculation is only a crude approximation, since it ignores the cash that Mr. Buffett added in — and moved out — along the way.
Over the same period, the growth in Berkshire’s book value per share, which reflects all of Mr. Buffett’s activities, not just his stock-picking, was 19.9%.
In other words, Mr. Buffett’s skill at picking publicly traded stocks pales alongside the value he has added to the company through other means.
As recently as 1995, 73.5% of Berkshire’s total assets consisted of a portfolio of publicly traded stocks that (at least in theory) any investor could have replicated. As of June 30, though, Berkshire’s stockholdings made up just 25% of its total assets.
Mr. Buffett’s stock picks used to drive the train; lately, they are more like the caboose. He has been buying private firms outright and landing “sweetheart” deals in public companies.
Since the beginning of 2006, Berkshire has spent nearly $17 billion buying private companies lock, stock and barrel, including an Israeli cutting-tool maker and a distributor of electronic components.
Meanwhile, on the sweetheart front, in 2008 alone Mr. Buffett has sunk $5 billion into Goldman Sachs Group , $3 billion into General Electric Co. , $3 billion into Dow Chemical Co. and $6.5 billion into the merger of Mars Inc. with Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. — all with preferential terms.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Buffett struck similar bargains with companies whose quality ranged from purebred Gillette to mutts like Champion International, Salomon Brothers and USAir Group. His results were mixed. The lesson here is that even Mr. Buffett learns lessons. In his latest round of sweetheart deals, he gets a generous upside and virtually eliminates any downside, a “heads I win, tails I win” structure that other investors can only dream about.
Whether he buys stocks in what he calls the “auction market” or private businesses in the “negotiated market,” Mr. Buffett tries to secure a margin of safety. That term, defined by his mentor Benjamin Graham, means that the price is so far below a business’s underlying value that severe loss is improbable.
“We do try to buy our businesses like we buy our stocks,” Mr. Buffett told me, “and buy our stocks like we buy our businesses.” By that he means, among other things, that he wants to understand how the enterprise generates cash, how well-managed it is and whether its customers would stay loyal even if it raised the prices of its goods or services. Note carefully: None of these factors are contingent on the current price of the stock.
“Being a businessman makes me a better investor and being an investor makes me a better businessman,” Mr. Buffett explained. “Most businessmen limit themselves to their own field, and most investors don’t really think about businesses. And many businessmen are semi-oblivious to the yardsticks other people use outside that field. I’m always comparing everything to everything else. The question I want to answer is. ‘Where do we get the most for our money in something we can understand?'”
“I prefer, and [Berkshire Vice Chairman] Charlie [Munger] prefers, the permanent ownership of [private] businesses,” Mr. Buffett added. “That’s been my focus for well over 20 years. But it’s just that sometimes, marketable securities are so much more compelling.” Mr. Buffett didn’t say whether he thinks now is one of those times, but he did state publicly earlier this month that “I’ve been buying American stocks.”
Any investor who picks stocks can try to think like Mr. Buffett and, as he pointed out, “the individual actually has an advantage over us, because their costs of buying and selling [stocks] are a helluva lot less than ours.” But that advantage applies only if you actually can think like Mr. Buffett. Above all, there is much more to his success than stock-picking alone. Throughout Mr. Buffett’s long career, he has changed tack repeatedly. At this point, he is on a course most investors will no longer be able to follow.
—Additional reporting by Shelly Banjo
Source: The Wall Street Journal, https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122548632193589047
Roger Lowenstein, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist
Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life
Chapter 20, “‘Margin of Safety’ as the Central Concept of Investment,” in Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor