Your research process is obviously part of your investment philosophy (search, value, portfolio management, risk and you). If you are buying a non-franchise then you must buy assets cheaply since growth won’t increase intrinsic value. Or another way of approaching the problem: time is not on your side. You are dependant upon the market closing the gap between price and value. When investing in a franchise you face the difficulty in accessing the company’s sustainability of competitive advantage and how much should you pay for future growth. Hint: Not much.

warren buffett

You will have to spend many weeks studying your first few companies and industries to practice finding answers to your questions while learning to be an efficient reader of annual reports and proxies.  As you gain experience, you can make better assessments.  For example, say you study the title insurance business or the funeral business.  The title insurance business shows tremendous stability in return on assets but no better than normal profitability. Only one national insurance company went bankrupt in over 100 years (in 2008).  So you can have a high degree of confidence in buying below asset value that those assets will not deteriorate. But why can’t the businesses grow much or develop higher profitability? Most of the value in a title transaction comes from the originator of that transaction—the real estate broker.   Title insurance is like a local monopoly. The same goes for the funeral business.  You will notice unique aspects to various industries as you cast your net widely.

Buffett’s advice:

The Story of Warren Buffett from Of Permanent Value: The Story of Warren Buffett by Andrew Kilpatrick

Buffett rarely gets ideas from talking with other people. He gets them alone by reading and thinking. Maybe Edward Gibbon had it right: “Conversation enriches the understanding, but solitude is the school of genius.”

How to make money

Once Bob Woodward asked Buffett a good way to make more money and Buffett suggested investing. Woodward told Buffett, “I don’t know anything about investing.”  “Yes, you do.” Buffett said, “All it is, is investigative reporting.”

Buffett told Woodward: “Investing is reporting. I told him to imagine an in-depth article about his own paper.  He’d ask a lot of questions and dig up a lot of facts. He knows The Washington Post. And that is all there is to it.”

Buffett continues, “Bob, why don’t you assign yourself a story, get up an hour early every morning and work on a story you have assigned yourself. Now a sensible story to assign yourself would be what is the WPO worth?  Now, if Ben Bradlee gave you that story to work on what would you do for the next week or two? You would go around and talk to people (in the television business). You would try to figure out what the key variables in valuing a TV station and you would look at the four that the Post has and apply those standards to that. You would do the same thing to newspapers. You would try to figure out how the competitive battle between the Star and the Post is going to come out and how much different the world would be if the Post won that war.  All of these things are a lot easier than the problems Woodward would usually be working on. Usually people would want to talk to him but on this subject they would be glad to talk to him and then I said when you get all through with that, add it up and divide by the number of shares outstanding. All he had to do was assign himself the right story, and I assign myself stories from time to time.”

More tips

Munger: “I think both Warren and I learn more  from the great business magazines than we do anywhere else…..I don’t think you can really be a really good investor over a broad range without doing a massive amount of reading.”

Buffett replied, “You might think about picking out 5 or 10 companies where you feel quite familiar with their products, but not necessarily so familiar with their financials…Then get lots of annual reports and all of the articles that have been written on those companies for 5 or 10 years…Just sort of immerse yourself.

“And when you get all through, ask yourself, ‘What do I know that I need to know?’  Many years ago, I would go around and talk to competitors where you feel quite familiar with their products, but not necessarily so familiar with their financials…Then get lots of annual reports and all of the articles that have been written on those companies for 5 or 10 years…Just sort of immerse yourself.

Search Strategy

Most mis-priced stocks tend to fall into two categories: Either they’re well-known but hated, or obscure and unknown.   Warren Buffett seems to agree.  At the Berkshire 1999 annual meeting, he said: “If I had $100,000 to invest, I would probably focus on smaller companies because there would be a greater chance that something was overlooked in that arena.”

“If you gave me a million dollars of capital to manage, I would pretty much almost guarantee that I will make 50% a year.  I think the reason he makes that statement is he would just make 100 percent doing special situations.

Question: According to a business week report published in 1999, you were quoted as saying “it’s a huge structural advantage not to have a lot of money. I think I could make you 50% a year on $1 million. No, I know I could. I guarantee that.” First, would you say the same thing today? Second, since that statement infers that you would invest in smaller companies, other than investing in small-caps, what else would you do differently?

Yes, I would still say the same thing today. In fact, we are still earning those types of returns on some of our smaller investments. The best decade was the 1950s; I was earning 50% plus returns with small amounts of capital. I could do the same thing today with smaller amounts. It would perhaps even be easier to make that much money in today’s environment because information is easier to access.

You have to turn over a lot of rocks to find those little anomalies. You have to find the companies that are off the map – way off the map. You may find local companies that have nothing wrong with them at all. A company that I found, Western Insurance Securities, was trading for $3/share when it was earning $20/share!! I tried to buy up as much of it as possible. No one will tell you about these businesses. You have to find them.

Other examples: Genesee Valley Gas, public utility trading at a P/E of 2, GEICO, Union Street Railway of New Bedford selling at $30 when $100/share is sitting in cash, high yield position in 2002. No one will tell you about these ideas, you have to find them.

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