Words of Wisdom From ‘The Essays Of Warren Buffett’

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‘The Essays Of Warren Buffett’ is one of the important books on value investing. It is compiled by Lawrence A. Cunningham. Buffett shares his investing insights and principles in his letters to his shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. This book covers important bits of Buffett wisdom which is collected from his writings to his shareholders.


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Here, we have taken some of the valuable insights from the book. Hope it is useful.

Important Excerpts From ‘The Essays Of Warren Buffett’

Buffett jokes that calling someone who trades actively in the market an investor “is like calling someone who repeatedly engages in one- night stands a romantic.”


Buffett reminds us that Keynes, who was not only a brilliant economist but also a brilliant investor, believed that an investor should put fairly large sums into two or three businesses he knows something about and whose management is trustworthy.


Instead of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” we get Mark Twain’s advice from Pudd’nhead Wilson: “Put all your eggs in one basket – and watch that basket.”


One of Graham’s most profound contributions is a character who lives on Wall Street, Mr. Market. He is your hypothetical business partner who is daily willing to buy your interest in a business or sell you his at prevailing market prices. Mr. Market is moody, prone to manic swings from joy to despair. Sometimes he offers prices way higher than value; sometimes he offers prices way lower than value. The more manic- depressive he is, the greater the spread between price and value, and therefore the greatest the greater the investment opportunities he offers. Buffett reintroduces Mr. Market, emphasizing how valuable Graham’s allegory of the overall market is for disciplined investment knitting-even though Mr. Market would be unrecognizable to modern finance theorists.


Another leading prudential legacy from Graham is his margin-of-safety principle. This principle holds that one should not make an investment in a security unless there is a sufficient basis for believing that the price being paid is substantially lower than the value being delivered. Buffett follows the principle devotedly, noting that Graham had said that if forced to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, they would be: margin of safety.


If we aren’t happy owning a piece of that business with the Exchange closed, we’re not happy owning it with the Exchange open.


Berkshire’s dividend policy also reflects Buffett’s conviction that a company’s earnings payout versus retention decision should be based on a single test: each dollar of earnings should be retained if retention will increase market value by at least a like amount; otherwise it should be paid out. Earnings retention is justified only when “capital retained produces incremental earnings equal to, or above, those generally available to investors.”


“Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose  price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with membership of your family. ” – Buffett


“We use debt sparingly and, when we do borrow, we attempt to structure our loans on a loan-term fixed-rate basis. We will reject interesting opportunies rather than over- leverage our balance sheet. This conservatism has penalized our results but it is the only  behavior that leaves us comfortable, considering our fiduciary obligations to policyholders, lenders and the money equity holders who have committed unusually large portions of their net worth to our care.”- Buffett


My conclusion from my own experiences and from much observation of other businesses is that a good managerial record ( measured by economic returns) is far more a function of what business boat you get into than it is of how effectively you row  (though intelligence and effort help considerably, of course, in any business, good or bad). Some years ago I wrote : “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”


Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.


We bought all of our Washington Post Company holdings in mid 1973 at a price of not more than one-fourth of the then per-share business value of the enterprise. Calculating the price/value ratio required no unusual insights. Most security analysts, media brokers, and media executives would have estimated WPC’s intrinsic business value at $400 to $500 million just as we did. And its $100 million stock market valuation was published daily for all to see. Our advantage, rather, was attitude: we had learned from Ben Graham 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.


We approach the transaction as if we were buying into a private business. We look at the economic prospects of the business, the people in charge of running it, and the price we must pay. We do not have in mind any time or price for sale. Indeed, we are willing to hold a stock indefinitely so long as we expect the business to increase in intrinsic value at a satisfactory rate. When investing, we view ourselves as business analysts-not as market analysts, not as macroeconomic analysts, and not even as security analysts.


Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.


Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker,” If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the pasty is, you’re the pasty.”


In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated. I have found it highly useful to keep Ben’s Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.


Sometimes, of course, the market may judge a business to be more valuable than the underlying facts would indicate it is. In such a case, we will sell our holdings. Sometimes, also, we will sell a security that is fairly valued or even undervalued because we require funds for a still more undervalued investment or one we believe we understand better.


We need to emphasize, however, that we do not sell holdings just because they have appreciated or because we have held them for a long time. (Of Wall Street maxims the most foolish may be “You can’t go broke taking a profit.”) We are quite content to hold any security indefinitely, so long as the prospective return on equity capital of the underlying business is satisfactory, management is competent and honest, and the market does not overvalue the business.


If something can’t go on forever, it will end.


Over the 63 years, the general market delivered just under a 10% annual return, including dividends. That means $1000′ would have grown to $405000 if all income had been reinvested. A 20% rate of return, however, would have produced $97 millions. That strikes us a statistically-significant differential that might, conceivably, arouse one’s curiosity.


When we own portions of outstanding businesses with outstanding managements, our favorite holding period is forever. We are just the opposite of those who hurry to sell and book profits when companies perform well but who tenaciously hang on to  businesses that disappoint. Peter Lynch aptly likens such behavior to cutting the flowers and watering the weeds.


In fact, 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 clap 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.


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 cease 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 adapt 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. In the words of the prophet Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”


Our stay-put behavior reflects our view that the stock market serves as a relocation center at which money is moved from the active to the patient.


John Maynard Keynes, whose brilliance as a practicing investor matched his brilliance in thought, wrote a letter to a business associate, F.E. Scott, on August 15, 1934 that says it all: “As time goes on, I get more and more convinced that the right method in investment is to put fairly large sums into enterprises which one thinks one knows something about and in the management of which one has confidence rather than limiting one’s risk by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence. One’s knowledge and experience are definitely limited and there ate seldom more than two or three enterprises at any given time in which I personally feel myself entitled to put full confidence.”


Occasionally the stock market offers us the chance to buy non-controlling pieces of extraordinary businesses at truly ridiculous prices-dramatically below those commanded in negotiated transactions that transfer control. For example, we purchase our Washington Post stock in 1973 at $5.63 per share, and per-share operating earnings in 1987 after taxes were $10.30. Similarly, our GEICO stock was purchased in 1976, 1979 and 1980 at an average of $6.67 per share, and after-tax operating earnings per share last year were $9.01. In cases such as these, Mr. Market has proven to be a mighty good friend.


Growth is always a component in the calculation of value. 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.)


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 remaining life of the asset.


Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior. Neither we nor most business managers would dream of feverishly trading highly-profitable subsidiaries because a small move in the Federal Reserve’s discount rate was predicted or because some Wall Street pundit had reversed his views on the market. Why, then, should we behave differently with our minority positions in wonderful businesses? The art of investing in public companies successfully is little different from the art of successfully acquiring subsidiaries. In each case you simply want to acquire, at a sensible price, a business with excellent economics and able, honest management. Thereafter, you need only monitor whether these qualities are being preserved.


Investors making purchases in an overheated market need to recognize that it may often take an extended period for the value of even an outstanding company to catch up with the price they paid.


Intelligent investing is not complex, though that is far from saying that it is easy. What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word “selected”: You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.


Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily-understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, ten and twenty years from now. Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet these standards- so when you see one that qualifies, you should buy a meaningful amount of stock. You must also resist the temptation to stray from your guidelines: If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio’s market value.


If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the “cigar butt” approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit.


It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.


Investors who expect to be ongoing buyers of investments throughout their lifetimes should welcome market fluctuations; instead many illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and unhappy when they fall. They show no such confusion in their reaction to food prices: Knowing they are forever going to be buyers of food, they welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. (It’s the seller of food who doesn’t like declining prices.)


People who buy for non-value reasons are likely to sell for non- value reasons. Their presence in the picture will accentuate erratic price swings unrelated to underlying business developments.


One of the ironies of the stock market is the emphasis on activity. Brokers, using terms such as “marketability” and “liquidity”, sing the praises of companies with high share turnover (those who cannot fill your pocket will confidently fill your ear). But investors should understand that what is good for the croupier is not good for the customer. A hyperactive stock market is the pickpocket of enterprise.


Predicting rain doesn’t count, building arks does.


Other things being equal, the highest stock market prices relative to intrinsic business value are given to companies whose managers have demonstrated their unwillingness to issue shares at any time on terms unfavorable to the owners of the business.


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