Buffett, Klarman, Graham on the Parable of Mr. Market (full document can also be downloaded here)

These investors will describe the mental attitude that an investor should take towards prices. 

Warren Buffett once said that if he was teaching a class on investing he would focus on two things:

1. How to value a business

2. How to think about prices

These notes will examine prices and Mr. Market.  Berkshire Hathaway 1987: Marketable Securities – Permanent Holdings

Whenever Charlie (Munger) and I buy common stocks for Berkshire’s insurance companies 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.

Our approach makes an active trading market useful, since it periodically presents us with mouth-watering opportunities. But by no means is it essential: a prolonged suspension of trading in the securities we hold would not bother us any more than does the lack of daily quotations on World Book or Fechheimer. Eventually, our economic fate will be determined by the economic fate of the business we own, whether our ownership is partial or total.

Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success.[1] He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market‘s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

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.

But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: 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 patsy is, you’re the patsy.” (Never invest without knowing your edge.)   Ben’s Mr. Market allegory may seem out-of-date in today’s investment world, in which most professionals and academicians talk of efficient markets, dynamic hedging and betas. Their interest in such matters is understandable, since techniques shrouded in mystery clearly have value to the purveyor of investment advice. After all, what witch doctor has ever achieved fame and fortune by simply advising “Take two aspirins”?

The value of market esoterica to the consumer of investment advice is a different story. 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.

Following Ben’s teachings, Charlie and I let our marketable equities tell us by their operating results – not by their daily, or even yearly, price quotations – whether our investments are successful. The market may ignore business success for a while, but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine.” The speed at which a business’s success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company’s intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price.

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.  —

Seth Klarman mentioning Mr. Market in Margin of Safety

Foreword

When I was a boy I spent some time in a ranch in Montana. On Saturday nights we would drive into town to a cozy tavern where there was a perpetual poker game. This arrangement provided the house with two advantages from which it profited mightily. First, it sold whiskey to the players, and second, it furnished a permanent dealer—a girl, as it happened—who didn’t drink herself. The cowboys’ mission was to have a good time after a tough week. Hers was to make money for her employer. She knew the odds, (she was rational) and almost always pulled further and further ahead as the night wore on and the cowboys, lubricated by booze, became ever jollier and more prone to exciting but illogical bets (emotional investors, the Cowboys were Mr. Market, Ben Graham’s term for the emotional swings in the market).

In all games the difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional plays the odds, while the amateur, whether he realizes it or not, is among other things a thrill seeker. Investment, too, is part science and part a game, and just as in poker, you need to sort out your motives. The essence of the whole matter is buying a company in the market for less than its appraised value. Fortunately, most of the other investment players are quite emotional, so if you are thorough and patient, you can find good deals. However, they will rarely be easy, since many other people are looking for the same thing. Thus, to prosper in the investment game, as in any other, requires that you be right—so you’ll win—and different—so you’ll get attractive odds. I hope that this book will help you do that.

Taking Advantage of Mr. Market

Financial-market participants must choose between investment and speculation. Those who (wisely) choose investment are faced with another choice, this time between two opposing views of the financial markets. One view, widely held among academics and increasingly among institutional investors, is that the financial markets are efficient and that trying to outperform the averages is futile. Matching the market return is the best you can hope for. Those who attempt to outperform the market will incur high transaction cost and taxes, causing them to under perform instead.

The other view is that some securities are inefficiently priced, creating opportunities for investors to profit with low risk. This view was perhaps best expressed by Benjamin Graham, who posited the existence of a Mr. Market, an ever helpful fellow, Mr. Market stands ready every business day to buy or sell a vast array of securities in virtually limitless quantities at prices that he sets. He provides this valuable service free of charge. Sometimes Mr. Market sets prices at levels where you would neither want to buy or to sell. Frequently, however, he becomes irrational. Sometime he is optimistic and will pay for more than securities are worth. Other times he is pessimistic, offering to sell securities for considerable less than underlying value. Value investors—who buy at a discount from underlying value—are in a position to take advantage of Mr. Market irrationality.

Some investors—really speculators—mistakenly look to Mr. Market for investment or for investment guidance. They observe him setting a lower price for a security and, unmindful of his irrationality, rush to sell their Holdings, ignoring their own assessment of underlying value. Other times they see him raising prices and, trusting his lead, buy in at the higher figure as if he knew more than they. The reality is that Mr. Market knows nothing, being the product of the collective action of thousands of buyers and sellers who themselves are not always motivated by investment fundamentals. Emotional investors and speculators inevitably lose money; investors who take advantage of Mr. Market’s periodic irrationality, by contrast, have a good chance of enjoying long-term success.

Mr. Market’s daily fluctuations may seem to provide feedback for investors’ recent decisions. For a recent purchase decision rising prices provide a positive reinforcement; falling prices, negative reinforcement. If you buy a stock that subsequently rises in price, it is easy to allow the positive feedback provided by Mr. Market to influence your judgment. You may start to believe that the security is worth more than you previously thought and refrain from selling, effectively placing the judgment of Mr. Market above your own. You may even decide to buy more shares of this stock, anticipating Mr. Market’s future movements. As long as the price appears to be rising, you may choose to hold, perhaps even ignoring deteriorating business fundamentals or a diminution in underlying value.

Similarly, when the price of a stock declines after its initial purchase, most investors, somewhat naturally, become concerned. They start to worry that Mr. Market may know more than they do or that their original assessment was in error. It is easy to panic and sell at just the wrong time. Yet if the security is truly a bargain when it was purchased, the rational course of action would be to take advantage of this even better bargain and buy more. Louis Lowenstein has warned us not to confuse the real success of an investment with its mirror of success in the stock market. The fact that a stock rises does not ensure that the underlying business is doing well or that the price increase is justified by a corresponding increase in underlying value. Likewise, a price fall in and of itself does not necessarily reflect adverse business developments or value deterioration[2].

It is vitally important for investors to distinguish stock price fluctuations from underlying business reality. If the general tendency is for buying to beget more buying and selling to precipitate more selling, investors must fight the tendency to capitulate to market forces. You cannot ignore the market—ignoring a source of investment opportunities would obviously be a mistake—but you must think for yourself and not allow the market to direct you. Value in relation to price, not price alone, must determine your investment decisions. If you look to Mr. Market as a creator of investment opportunities (where price departs from underlying value), you have the makings of a value investor. If you insist on looking to Mr. Market for investment guidance, however, you are probably best advised to hire someone else to manage your money.

Security prices move up and down for two basic reasons: to reflect business reality (or investor perceptions of that reality) or to reflect short-term variations in supply and demand. Reality can change in a number of ways, some company-specific, others macroeconomic in nature. If Coca-Cola’s business expands or prospects improve and the stock price increases proportionally, the rise may simply reflect an increase in business value. If Aetna’s share price plunges when a hurricane causes billions of dollars in catastrophic losses, a decline in total market value approximately equal to the estimated losses may be appropriate. When the shares of Fund American Companies, Inc. surge as a result of the unexpected announcement of the sale of its major subsidiary, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company, at a very high price, the price increase reflects the sudden and nearly complete realization of underlying value. On a macroeconomic level a broad-based decline in interest rates, a drop in corporate tax rates, or a rise in the expected rate of economic growth could each precipitate a general increase in security prices.

Security prices sometimes fluctuate not based on any apparent changes in reality, but on changes in investor perception. The shares of many biotechnology companies doubled and tripled in the first months of 1991, for example despite a lack of change in company or industry fundamentals that could possibly have explained that magnitude of increase. The only

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