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[Transcripts <<PART 3>>]
-A MODEL WE'VE HAD TROUBLE WITH - ANTICIPATING COMPETITION AND ITS EFFECTS-
Here’s a model that we’ve had trouble with. Maybe you’ll be able to figure it out better. Many markets get down to two or three big competitors — or five or six. And in some of those markets, nobody makes any money to speak of. But in others, everybody does very well.
Over the years, we’ve tried to figure out why the competition in some markets gets sort of rational from the investor’s point of view so that the shareholders do well, and in other markets, there’s destructive competition that destroys shareholder wealth.
If it’s a pure commodity like airline seats, you can understand why no one makes any money. As we sit here, just think of what airlines have given to the world — safe travel, greater experience, time with your loved ones, you name it. Yet, the net amount of money that’s been made by the shareholders of airlines since Kitty Hawk, is now a negative figure — a substantial negative figure. Competition was so intense that, once it was unleashed by deregulation, it ravaged shareholder wealth in the airline business.
Yet, in other fields—like cereals, for example — almost all the big boys make out. If you’re some kind of a medium grade cereal maker, you might make 15% on your capital. And if you’re really good, you might make 40%. But why are cereals so profitable — despite the fact that it looks to me like they’re competing like crazy with promotions, coupons and everything else? I don’t fully understand it.
Obviously, there’s a brand identity factor in cereals that doesn’t exist in airlines. That must be the main factor that accounts for it.
And maybe the cereal makers by and large have learned to be less crazy about fighting for market share — because if you get even one person who’s hell-bent on gaining market share…. For example, if I were Kellogg and I decided that I had to have 60% of the market, I think I could take most of the profit out of cereals. I’d ruin Kellogg in the process. But I think I could do it.
In some businesses, the participants behave like a demented Kellogg. In other businesses, they don’t. Unfortunately, I do not have a perfect model for predicting how that’s going to happen.
For example, if you look around at bottler markets, you’ll find many markets where bottlers of Pepsi and Coke both make a lot of money and many others where they destroy most of the profitability of the two franchises. That must get down to the peculiarities of individual adjustment to market capitalism. I think you’d have to know the people involved to fully understand what was happening.
-A FEW WORDS ON PATENTS, TRADEMARKS AND FRANCHISES-
In microeconomics, of course, you’ve got the concept of patents, trademarks, exclusive franchises and so forth. Patents are quite interesting. When I was young, I think more money went into patents than came out. Judges tended to throw them out — based on arguments about what was really invented and what relied on prior art. That isn’t altogether clear.
But they changed that. They didn’t change the laws. They just changed the administration — so that it all goes to one patent court. And that court is now very much more pro-patent. So I think people are now starting to make a lot of money out of owning patents.
Trademarks, of course, have always made people a lot of money. A trademark system is a wonderful thing for a big operation if it’s well known.
The exclusive franchise can also be wonderful. If there were only three television channels awarded in a big city and you owned one of them, there were only so many hours a day that you could be on. So you had a natural position in an oligopoly in the pre-cable days.
And if you get the franchise for the only food stand in an airport, you have a captive clientele and you have a small monopoly of a sort.
-A BASIC LESSON OFTEN FORGOTTEN: NEW TECHNOLOGY CAN KILL YOU-
The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it’s going to kill you. And most people do not get this straight in their heads. But a fellow like Buffett does.
For example, when we were in the textile business, which is a terrible commodity business, we were making low-end textiles — which are a real commodity product. And one day, the people came to Warren and said, “They’ve invented a new loom that we think will do twice as much work as our old ones.”
And Warren said, “Gee, I hope this doesn’t work because if it does, I’m going to close the mill.” And he meant it.
What was he thinking? He was thinking, “It’s a lousy business. We’re earning substandard returns and keeping it open just to be nice to the elderly workers. But we’re not going to put huge amounts of new capital into a lousy business.”
And he knew that the huge productivity increases that would come from a better machine introduced into the production of a commodity product would all go to the benefit of the buyers of the textiles. Nothing was going to stick to our ribs as owners.
That’s such an obvious concept — that there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that’s still going to be lousy. The money still won’t come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.
Conversely, if you own the only newspaper in Oshkosh and they were to invent more efficient ways of composing the whole newspaper, then when you got rid of the old technology and got new fancy computers and so forth, all of the savings would come right through to the bottom line.
In all cases, the people who sell the machinery — and, by and large, even the internal bureaucrats urging you to buy the equipment — show you projections with the amount you’ll save at current prices with the new technology. However, they don’t do the second step of the analysis which is to determine how much is going stay home and how much is just going to flow through to the customer. I’ve never seen a single projection incorporating that second step in my life. And I see them all the time. Rather, they always read: “This capital outlay will save you so much money that it will pay for itself in three years.”
So you keep buying things that will pay for themselves in three years. And after 20 years of doing it, somehow you’ve earned a return of only about 4% per annum. That’s the textile business.
And it isn’t that the machines weren’t better. It’s just that the savings didn’t go to you. The cost reductions came through all right. But the benefit of the cost reductions didn’t go to the guy who bought the equipment. It’s such a simple idea. It’s so basic. And yet it’s so often forgotten.
-THE NATIONAL CASH REGISTER MODEL IS EXACTLY WHAT YOU'RE LOOKING FOR-
Then there’s another model from microeconomics which I find very interesting. When technology moves as fast as it does in a civilization like ours, you get a phenomenon which I call competitive destruction. You know, you have the finest buggy whip factory and all of a sudden in comes this little horseless carriage. And before too many years go by, your buggy whip business is dead. You either get into a different business or you’re dead — you’re destroyed. It happens again and again and again.
And when these new businesses come in, there are huge advantages for the early birds. And when you’re an early bird, there’s a model that I call “surfing” — when a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows….
But people get long runs when they’re right on the edge of the wave — whether it’s Microsoft or Intel or all kinds of people, including National Cash Register in the early days.
The cash register was one of the great contributions to civilization. It’s a wonderful story. Patterson was a small retail merchant who didn’t make any money. One day, somebody sold him a crude cash register which he put into his retail operation. And it instantly changed from losing money to earning a profit because it made it so much harder for the employees to steal….
But Patterson, having the kind of mind that he did, didn’t think, “Oh, good for my retail business.” He thought, “I’m going into the cash register business.” And, of course, he created National Cash Register.
And he “surfed”. He got the best distribution system, the biggest collection of patents and the best of everything. He was a fanatic about everything important as the technology developed. I have in my files an early National Cash Register Company report in which Patterson described his methods and objectives. And a well-educated orangutan could see that buying into partnership with Patterson in those early days, given his notions about the cash register business, was a total 100% cinch.
And, of course, that’s exactly what an investor should be looking for. In a long life, you can expect to profit heavily from at least a few of those opportunities if you develop the wisdom and will to seize them. At any rate, “surfing” is a very powerful model.
-FIGURE OUT WHERE YOU HAVE AN EDGE THEN, PLAY THERE AND ONLY THERE-
However, Berkshire Hathaway , by and large, does not invest in these people that are “surfing” on complicated technology. After all, we’re cranky and idiosyncratic — as you may have noticed.
And Warren and I don’t feel like we have any great advantage in the high-tech sector. In fact, we feel like we’re at a big disadvantage in trying to understand the nature of technical developments in software, computer chips or what have you. So we tend to avoid that stuff, based on our personal inadequacies.
Again, that is a very, very powerful idea. Every person is going to have a circle of competence. And it’s going to be very hard to advance that circle. If I had to make my living as a musician…. I can’t even think of a level low enough to describe where I would be sorted out to if music were the measuring standard of the civilization.
So you have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.
If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it’s hopeless — that other people blow right by you. However, if you want to become the best plumbing contractor in Bemidji, that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you’d gradually know all about the plumbing business in Bemidji and master the art. That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline. And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence — which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.
So some edges can be acquired. And the game of life to some extent for most of us is trying to be something like a good plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Very few of us are chosen to win the world’s chess tournaments.
Some of you may find opportunities “surfing” along in the new high-tech fields — the Intels, the Microsofts and so on. The fact that we don’t think we’re very good at it and have pretty well stayed out of it doesn’t mean that it’s irrational for you to do it.
-TO A MAN WITH PROFICIENCY IN MATH, EFFICIENT MARKET THEORY LOOKS LIKE A NAIL-
Well, so much for the basic microeconomics models, a little bit of psychology, a little bit of mathematics, helping create what I call the general substructure of worldly wisdom. Now, if you want to go on from carrots to dessert, I’ll turn to stock picking — trying to draw on this general worldly wisdom as we go.
I don’t want to get into emerging markets, bond arbitrage and so forth. I’m talking about nothing but plain vanilla stock picking. That, believe me, is complicated enough. And I’m talking about common stock picking.
The first question is, “What is the nature of the stock market?” And that gets you directly to this efficient market theory that got to be the rage — a total rage — long after I graduated from law school.
And it’s rather interesting because one of the greatest economists of the world is a substantial shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway and has been for a long time. His textbook always taught that the stock market was perfectly efficient and that nobody could beat it. But his own money went into Berkshire and made him wealthy. So, like Pascal in his famous wager, he hedged his bet.
Is the stock market so efficient that people can’t beat it? Well, the efficient market theory is obviously roughly right — meaning that markets are quite efficient and it’s quite hard for anybody to beat the market by significant margins as a stock picker by just being intelligent and working in a disciplined way.
Indeed, the average result has to be the average result. By definition, everybody can’t beat the market. As I always say, the iron rule of life is that only 20% of the people can be in the top fifth. That’s just the way it is. So the answer is that it’s partly efficient and partly inefficient.
And, by the way, I have a name for people who went to the extreme efficient market theory — which is “bonkers”. It was an intellectually consistent theory that enabled them to do pretty mathematics. So I understand its seductiveness to people with large mathematical gifts. It just had a difficulty in that the fundamental assumption did not tie properly to reality.
Again, to the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. If you’re good at manipulating higher mathematics in a consistent way, why not make an assumption which enables you to use your tool?
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