-IF YOU DON'T LOAD UP ON GREAT OPPORTUNITIES, THEN YOU'RE MAKING A BIG MISTAKE-
And the Berkshire system is not “bonkers”. It’s so damned elementary that even bright people are going to have limited, really valuable insights in a very competitive world when they’re fighting against other very bright, hardworking people.
And it makes sense to load up on the very few good insights you have instead of pretending to know everything about everything at all times. You’re much more likely to do well if you start out to do something feasible instead of something that isn’t feasible. Isn’t that perfectly obvious?
How many of you have 56 brilliant ideas in which you have equal confidence? Raise your hands, please. How many of you have two or three insights that you have some confidence in? I rest my case.
I’d say that Berkshire Hathaway’s system is adapting to the nature of the investment problem as it really is.
We’ve really made the money out of high quality businesses. In some cases, we bought the whole business. And in some cases, we just bought a big block of stock. But when you analyze what happened, the big money’s been made in the high quality businesses. And most of the other people who’ve made a lot of money have done so in high quality businesses.
Over the long term, it’s hard for a stock to earn a much better return than the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns 6% on capital over 40 years and you hold it for that 40 years, you’re not going to make much different than a 6% return — even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns 18% on capital over 20 or 30 years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you’ll end up with a fine result.
So the trick is getting into better businesses. And that involves all of these advantages of scale that you could consider momentum effects.
How do you get into these great companies? One method is what I’d call the method of finding them small get ’em when they’re little. For example, buy Wal-Mart when Sam Walton first goes public and so forth. And a lot of people try to do just that. And it’s a very beguiling idea. If I were a young man, I might actually go into it.
But it doesn’t work for Berkshire Hathaway anymore because we’ve got too much money. We can’t find anything that fits our size parameter that way. Besides, we’re set in our ways. But I regard finding them small as a perfectly intelligent approach for somebody to try with discipline. It’s just not something that I’ve done.
Finding ’em big obviously is very hard because of the competition. So far, Berkshire’s managed to do it. But can we continue to do it? What’s the next Coca-Cola investment for us? Well, the answer to that is I don’t know. I think it gets harder for us all the time….
And ideally and we’ve done a lot of this — you get into a great business which also has a great manager because management matters. For example, it’s made a great difference to General Electric that Jack Welch came in instead of the guy who took over Westinghouse — a very great difference. So management matters, too.
And some of it is predictable. I do not think it takes a genius to understand that Jack Welch was a more insightful person and a better manager than his peers in other companies. Nor do I think it took tremendous genius to understand that Disney had basic momentums in place which are very powerful and that Eisner and Wells were very unusual managers.
So you do get an occasional opportunity to get into a wonderful business that’s being run by a wonderful manager. And, of course, that’s hog heaven day. If you don’t load up when you get those opportunities, it’s a big mistake.
Occasionally, you’ll find a human being who’s so talented that he can do things that ordinary skilled mortals can’t. I would argue that Simon Marks — who was second generation in Marks & Spencer of England — was such a man. Patterson was such a man at National Cash Register. And Sam Walton was such a man.
These people do come along — and in many cases, they’re not all that hard to identify. If they’ve got a reasonable hand — with the fanaticism and intelligence and so on that these people generally bring to the party — then management can matter much.
However, averaged out, betting on the quality of a business is better than betting on the quality of management. In other words, if you have to choose one, bet on the business momentum, not the brilliance of the manager.
But, very rarely, you find a manager who’s so good that you’re wise to follow him into what looks like a mediocre business.
-MAKE A FEW GREAT INVESTMENTS AND SIT ON YOUR ASSETS-
Another very simple effect I very seldom see discussed either by investment managers or anybody else is the effect of taxes. If you’re going to buy something which compounds for 30 years at 15% per annum and you pay one 35% tax at the very end, the way that works out is that after taxes, you keep 13.3% per annum.
In contrast, if you bought the same investment, but had to pay taxes every year of 35% out of the 15% that you earned, then your return would be 15% minus 35% of 15% — or only 9.75% per year compounded. So the difference there is over 3.5%. And what 3.5% does to the numbers over long holding periods like 30 years is truly eye-opening. If you sit back for long, long stretches in great companies, you can get a huge edge from nothing but the way that income taxes work.
Even with a 10% per annum investment, paying a 35% tax at the end gives you 8.3% after taxes as an annual compounded result after 30 years. In contrast, if you pay the 35% each year instead of at the end, your annual result goes down to 6.5%. So you add nearly 2% of after-tax return per annum if you only achieve an average return by historical standards from common stock investments in companies with tiny dividend payout ratios.
But in terms of business mistakes that I’ve seen over a long lifetime, I would say that trying to minimize taxes too much is one of the great standard causes of really dumb mistakes. I see terrible mistakes from people being overly motivated by tax considerations.
Warren and I personally don’t drill oil wells. We pay our taxes. And we’ve done pretty well, so far. Anytime somebody offers you a tax shelter from here on in life, my advice would be don’t buy it.
In fact, any time anybody offers you anything with a big commission and a 200-page prospectus, don’t buy it. Occasionally, you’ll be wrong if you adopt “Munger’s Rule”. However, over a lifetime, you’ll be a long way ahead — and you will miss a lot of unhappy experiences that might otherwise reduce your love for your fellow man.
There are huge advantages for an individual to get into a position where you make a few great investments and just sit back and wait: You’re paying less to brokers. You’re listening to less nonsense. And if it works, the governmental tax system gives you an extra 1, 2 or 3 percentage points per annum compounded.
And you think that most of you are going to get that much advantage by hiring investment counselors and paying them 1% to run around, incurring a lot of taxes on your behalf’? Lots of luck.
Are there any dangers in this philosophy? Yes. Everything in life has dangers. Since it’s so obvious that investing in great companies works, it gets horribly overdone from time to time. In the “Nifty-Fifty” days, everybody could tell which companies were the great ones. So they got up to 50, 60 and 70 times earnings. And just as IBM fell off the wave, other companies did, too. Thus, a large investment disaster resulted from too high prices. And you’ve got to be aware of that danger….
So there are risks. Nothing is automatic and easy. But if you can find some fairly-priced great company and buy it and sit, that tends to work out very, very well indeed — especially for an individual.
-AND THERE'S THE ULTIMATE NO-BRAINER - LIKE FINDING MONEY IN THE STREET-
Within the growth stock model, there’s a sub-position: There are actually businesses, that you will find a few times in a lifetime, where any manager could raise the return enormously just by raising prices — and yet they haven’t done it. So they have huge untapped pricing power that they’re not using. That is the ultimate no-brainer.
That existed in Disney. It’s such a unique experience to take your grandchild to Disneyland. You’re not doing it that often. And there are lots of people in the country. And Disney found that it could raise those prices a lot and the attendance stayed right up.
So a lot of the great record of Eisner and Wells was utter brilliance but the rest came from just raising prices at Disneyland and Disneyworld and through video cassette sales of classic animated movies.
At Berkshire Hathaway, Warren and I raised the prices of See’s Candy a little faster than others might have. And, of course, we invested in Coca-Cola — which had some untapped pricing power. And it also had brilliant management. So a Goizueta and Keough could do much more than raise prices. It was perfect.
You will get a few opportunities to profit from finding underpricing. There are actually people out there who don’t price everything as high as the market will easily stand. And once you figure that out, it’s like finding in the street — if you have the courage of your convictions.
-MODELS FROM BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INVESTMENTS: COKE, GILLETTE, GEICO & THE WASHINGTON POST-
If you look at Berkshire’s investments where a lot of the money’s been made and you look for the models, you can see that we twice bought into two newspaper towns which have since become one newspaper towns. So we made a bet to some extent….
In one of those — The Washington Post — we bought it at about 20% of the value to a private owner. So we bought it on a Ben Graham style basis — at one-fifth of obvious value — and, in addition, we faced a situation where you had both the top hand in a game that was clearly going to end up with one winner and a management with a lot of integrity and intelligence. That one was a real dream. They’re very high class people — the Katharine Graham family. That’s why it was a dream — an absolute, damn dream.
Of course, that came about back in ’73-74. And that was almost like 1932. That was probably a once-in-40-years type denouement in the markets. That investment’s up about 50 times over our cost.
If I were you, I wouldn’t count on getting any investment in your lifetime quite as good as The Washington Post was in ’73 and ’74.
But it doesn’t have to be that good to take care of you.
Let me mention another model. Of course, Gillette and Coke make fairly low priced items and have a tremendous marketing advantage all over the world. And in Gillette’s case, they keep surfing along new technology which is fairly simple by the standards of microchips. But it’s hard for competitors to do.
So they’ve been able to stay constantly near the edge of improvements in shaving. There are whole countries where Gillette has more than 90% of the shaving market.
GEICO is a very interesting model. It’s another one of the 100 or so models you ought to have in your head. I’ve had many friends in the sick business fix up game over a long lifetime. And they practically all use the following formula —I call it the cancer surgery formula:
They look at this mess. And they figure out if there’s anything sound left that can live on its own if they cut away everything else. And if they find anything sound, they just cut away everything else. Of course, if that doesn’t work, they liquidate the business. But it frequently does work.
And GEICO had a perfectly magnificent business submerged in a mess, but still working. Misled by success, GEICO had done some foolish things. They got to thinking that, because they were making a lot of money, they knew everything. And they suffered huge losses.
All they had to do was to cut out all the folly and go back to the perfectly wonderful business that was lying there. And when you think about it, that’s a very simple model. And it’s repeated over and over again.
And, in GEICO’s case, think about all the money we passively made…. It was a wonderful business combined with a bunch of foolishness that could easily be cut out. And people were coming in who were temperamentally and intellectually designed so they were going to cut it out. That is a model you want to look for.
And you may find one or two or three in a long lifetime that are very good. And you may find 20 or 30 that are good enough to be quite useful.
-THE INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT BUSINESS: DON'T PRACTICE PSYCHOLOGICAL DENIAL-
Finally, I’d like to once again talk about investment management. That is a funny business because on a net basis, the whole investment management business together gives no value added to all buyers combined. That’s the way it has to work.
Of course, that isn’t true of plumbing and it isn’t true of medicine. If you’re going to make your careers in the investment management business, you face a very peculiar situation. And most investment managers handle it with psychological denial just like a chiropractor. That is the standard method of handling the limitations of the investment management process. But if you want to live the best sort of life, I would urge each of you not to use the psychological denial mode.
I think a select few — a small percentage of the investment managers — can deliver value added. But I don’t think brilliance alone is enough to do it. I think that you have to have a little of this discipline of calling your shots and loading up — you want to maximize your chances of becoming one who provides above average real returns for clients over the long pull.
But I’m just talking about investment managers engaged in common stock picking. I am agnostic elsewhere. I think there may well be people who are so shrewd about currencies and this, that and the other thing that they can achieve good longterm records operating on a pretty big scale in that way. But that doesn’t happen to be my milieu. I’m talking about stock picking in American stocks.
I think it’s hard to provide a lot of value added to the investment management client, but it’s not impossible.