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My favourite parts of Warren Buffett’s 2011 Letter to Shareholders

Every year since 2008, i’ve been reading Warren Buffett’s letters to shareholders. They are an excellent source of investing and business intellect and usually pretty funny as well.

You can download the 2011 letter to shareholders or visit the letters archive.  Interesting quotes from this year’s letter are below:

Page 4, paragraph 1:

Don’t let that reality spook you. Throughout my lifetime, politicians and pundits have constantly moaned about terrifying problems facing America. Yet our citizens now live an astonishing six times better than when I was born. The prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential – a system that has worked wonders for over two centuries despite frequent interruptions for recessions and even a Civil War – remains alive and effective.

Page 7, paragraph 3:
This “what-will-they-do-with-the-money” factor must always be evaluated along with the “what-do-we-have-now” calculation in order for us, or anybody, to arrive at a sensible estimate of a company’s intrinsic value. That’s because an outside investor stands by helplessly as management reinvests his share of the company’s earnings. If a CEO can be expected to do this job well, the reinvestment prospects add to the company’s current value; if the CEO’s talents or motives are suspect, today’s value must be discounted. The difference in outcome can be huge. A dollar of then-value in the hands of Sears Roebuck’s or Montgomery Ward’s CEOs in the late 1960s had a far different destiny than did a dollar entrusted to Sam Walton.

Page 7, second last paragraph:

Our second advantage relates to the allocation of the money our businesses earn. After meeting the needs of those businesses, we have very substantial sums left over. Most companies limit themselves to reinvesting funds within the industry in which they have been operating. That often restricts them, however, to a “universe” for capital allocation that is both tiny and quite inferior to what is available in the wider world. Competition for the few opportunities that are available tends to become fierce. The seller has the upper hand, as a girl might if she were the only female at a party attended by many boys. That lopsided situation would be great for the girl, but terrible for the boys.

Page 8, paragraph 2:

In addition to evaluating the attractions of one business against a host of others, we also measure businesses against opportunities available in  marketable securities, a comparison most managements don’t make. Often, businesses are priced ridiculously high against what can likely be earned from investments in stocks or bonds. At such moments, we buy securities and bide our time… We have been able to take money we earn from, say, See’s Candies or Business Wire (two of our best-run businesses, but also two offering limited reinvestment opportunities) and use it as part of the stake we needed to buy BNSF.

Page 9, paragraph 3:

GEICO also jump-started my net worth because, soon after meeting Davy, I made the stock 75% of my $9,800 investment portfolio. (Even so, I felt over-diversified.)

Page 14, paragraph 4:

A housing recovery will probably begin within a year or so. In any event, it is certain to occur at somepoint… At Berkshire, our time horizon is forever.

Page 16, 3rd last paragraph:

Our borrowers get in trouble when they lose their jobs, have health problems, get divorced, etc. The recession has hit them hard. But they want to stay in their homes, and generally they borrowed sensible amounts in relation to their income. In addition, we were keeping the originated mortgages for our own account, which means we were not securitizing or otherwise reselling them. If we were stupid in our lending, we were going to pay the price. That concentrates the mind.

If home buyers throughout the country had behaved like our buyers, America would not have had the crisis that it did. Our approach was simply to get a meaningful down-payment and gear fixed monthly payments to a sensible percentage of income.

Home ownership makes sense for most Americans, particularly at today’s lower prices and bargain interest rates. All things considered, the third best investment I ever made was the purchase of my home, though I would have made far more money had I instead rented and used the purchase money to buy stocks.

But a house can be a nightmare if the buyer’s eyes are bigger than his wallet and if a lender – often protected by a government guarantee – facilitates his fantasy. Our country’s social goal should not be to put families into the house of their dreams, but rather to put them into a house they can afford.

Page 18, paragraph 2:

Even before higher rates come about, furthermore, we could get lucky and find an opportunity to use some of our cash hoard at decent returns. That day can’t come too soon for me: To update Aesop, a girl in a convertible is worth five in the phone book.

Page 18, paragraph 5:

Within ten years, I would expect that $376 million to double. By the end of that period, I wouldn’t be surprised to see our share of Coke’s annual earnings exceed 100% of what we paid for the investment. Time is the friend of the wonderful business.

Page 18 to 19:

It’s easy to identify many investment managers with great recent records. But past results, though important, do not suffice when prospective performance is being judged. How the record has been achieved is crucial, as is the manager’s understanding of – and sensitivity to – risk (which in no way should be measured by beta, the choice of too many academics). In respect to the risk criterion, we were looking for someone with a hard-to-evaluate skill: the ability to anticipate the effects of economic scenarios not previously observed.

The hedge-fund world has witnessed some terrible behavior by general partners who have received huge payouts on the upside and who then, when bad results occurred, have walked away rich, with their limited partners losing back their earlier gains. Sometimes these same general partners thereafter quickly started another fund so that they could immediately participate in future profits without having to overcome their past losses. Investors who put money with such managers should be labeled patsies, not partners.

Page 19, paragraph 3:

Over time, we may add one or two investment managers if we find the right individuals. Should we do that, we will probably have 80% of each manager’s performance compensation be dependent on his or her own portfolio and 20% on that of the other manager(s). We want a compensation system that pays off big for individual success but that also fosters cooperation, not competition.

Page 21, paragraph 1:

We have that flexibility because realized gains or losses on investments go into the net income figure, whereas unrealized gains (and, in most cases, losses) are excluded. For example, imagine that Berkshire had a $10 billion increase in unrealized gains in a given year and concurrently had $1 billion of realized losses. Our net income – which would count only the loss – would be reported as less than our operating income. If we had meanwhile realized gains in the previous year, headlines might proclaim that our earnings were down X% when in reality our business might be much improved. If we really thought net income important, we could regularly feed realized gains into it simply because we have a huge amount of unrealized gains upon which to draw. Rest assured, though, that Charlie and I have never sold a security because of the effect a sale would have on the net income we were soon to report. We both have a deep disgust for “game playing” with numbers, a practice that was rampant throughout corporate America in the 1990s and still persists, though it occurs less frequently and less blatantly than it used to.

Page 21, final paragraph

Part of the appeal of Black-Scholes to auditors and regulators is that it produces a precise number. Charlie and I can’t supply one of those. We believe the true liability of our contracts to be far lower than that calculated by Black-Scholes, but we can’t come up with an exact figure – anymore than we can come up with a precise value for GEICO, BNSF, or for Berkshire Hathaway itself. Our inability to pinpoint a number doesn’t bother us: We would rather be approximately right than precisely wrong.

…(I always love explanations of that kind: The Flat Earth Society probably views a ship’s circling of the globe as an annoying, but inconsequential, anomaly.). You can be highly successful as an investor without having the slightest ability to value an option. What students should be learning is how to value a business. That’s what investing is all about.

Page 24, paragraph 2:

Furthermore, not a dime of cash has left Berkshire for dividends or share repurchases during the past 40 years. Instead, we have retained all of our earnings to strengthen our business, a reinforcement now running about $1 billion per month. Our net worth has thus increased from $48 million to $157 billion during those four decades and our intrinsic value has grown far more. No other American corporation has come close to building up its financial strength in this unrelenting way.

By being so cautious in respect to leverage, we penalize our returns by a minor amount. Having loads of liquidity, though, lets us sleep well. Moreover, during the episodes of financial chaos that occasionally erupt in our economy, we will be equipped both financially and emotionally to play offense while others scramble for survival. That’s what allowed us to invest $15.6 billion in 25 days of panic following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008.

Successful Investing, Worldly Wisdom and Your Circle of Competence

Capitalism’s Holy Grail

Coming up with a system to succeed in the stock market and achieve market beating gains year after year is not an easy task. One might define the capitalist’s holy grail as finding the one system that will acheive the maximum possible returns year upon year.

“If you don’t get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.” Charlie Munger, A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business

No Shortage of Stock Market Strategies

Finding Low price to earnings ratios, high dividend yields, high return on capital and only buying businesses that are priced below their intrinsic asset value would probably set you in the right direction as you entangle the stock market web and attempt to increase the value of your investments.

I have recently read several interviews with the Value Investing meritocracy of Buffet, Munger, Schloss, Robertson and Lynch and begun to invest myself over the past 3 months.

Without discounting the importance of understanding the strategies and financial ratios above, my reading has implied that succeeding in the stock market is less about strictly studying and following the investment strategies of others and more about finding a strategy that you can understand and which also falls within your ‘circle of competence’.

While reading a particular interview with one of the great investors above, you are swayed to believe that their way is the way to succeed, the only way. And seeing as each of their companies has averaged annual returns after fees of over 25% for at least ten years, perhaps you would not be far off the truth (their companies are Berkshire Hathaway, Walter J Schloss Associates, The Tiger Fund and the Magellan Fund if you’re interested).

But the truth is, each of their investment strategies is undeniably linked to their range of personal skills. Schloss sticks to buying businesses with a significant margin of safety below asset or book Value and doesn’t worry too much about the type of business or its management because that is not his area of expertise. Buffett understands and appreciates this method that they both picked up from Benjamin Graham but adds the necessity for the business to be a quality business in a profitable and sustainable industry to his list of investment requirements.

“It is better to buy great business at a fair price than a fair business at a great price”, Buffett says. Schloss feels otherwise.

Stick to Your Circle of Competence

Knowing that each of their investment strategies were fundamentally different from each other despite having commonalities, it became clear that if Warren Buffett were trying to use the strategies employed by Schloss, he would not have been as successful; and vice versa.

I had a tendency before doing all this reading to look for the objectively ideal strategy, the best and most efficient way to invest my money. Now I am seeking a strategy that I can understand, that I will have an edge in applying and that is likely to be successful (this final point is where past analysis is helpful).

Althought I suggest reading the writings of the masters above to get a better definition, I will quickly define what I just described as my ‘circle of competence'; an area in which you can excel and ideally an area that you enjoy.

Without intending to turn this piece into a guide to finding your own circle of competence, I found Munger’s article that I linked to above to provide the best guidance I have yet received, in only 5 to 6 pages, to equip someone new to investing (or just life) with the tools you need to succeed.

If you’re Stuck for Fundamentals – Try Some of Munger’s Worldy wisdom

Munger states that we all need a latticework of models to choose from when going through life. He speaks of those who go through life with limited ways of looking at the world as not reaching their full potential:

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines – because all the wisdom of the world is
not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large,
are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got
to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

So whilst I recommend reading the article in full, here are the most important models he describes:

  1. Mathematics – permutations and combinations –algebra – think in terms of decision trees and permutations and combinations – spend time to devote to apply elementary maths to real life problems.
  2. Accounting – know it plus its limitations.
  3. Who what where when and why? Science and engineering backed models are best.
  4. Statistics? understand well enough – know what a normal or Gaussian distribution looks like and that most things end up distributed like that. “I’m like a poker player who has learned to play pretty well without mastering Pascal”.
  5. Engineering – stuff like backup system, breakpoints, the physics notion of a critical mass, cost benefit analysis.
  6. Understanding of biology / physiology –Helps to understand what is and what is not going on.
  7. Cognitive functioning is helpful to know -The pyshology of misjudgment is the most important part to learn of psychology – 20 little principles that interact with each other. The mind is subject to manipulation – “the mind of man at one and the same time is both the glory and the shame of the universe”.

Try some of my related articles below if you enjoyed this one :)