Compounding Short Stories – A King, Columbus And Indians by Investment Master Class

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Compounding really is the magic of investing.  To be a successful investor you only have to do two things .. don't lose money and compound capital at a reasonable rate of return.

The Investment Masters understand that losing money inhibits the power of compounding and that is why they focus on avoiding the permanent loss of capital as opposed to beating an index.

Below are some of my favourite excerpts on the power of compounding.  The story of the 'Peasant and the King' comes from the book 'Classics - An Investors Anthology' while the story of Columbus, the Mona Lisa and the Manhattan Indians come from Warren Buffett's early partnership letters.  The final short extract comes from a 2011 letter from Jeremy Grantham.

[drizzle]Compounding Short Stories - A King, Columbus And Indians

The Peasant and the King ['Classics - An Investors Anthology']

And then there was the king who held a chess tournament among the peasants- I may have this story a little wrong, but the point holds- and asked the winner what he wanted as his prize. The peasant, in apparent humility, asked only that a single kernel of wheat be placed for him on the first square of his chessboard, two kernels on the second, four on the third-and so forth. The king fell for it and had to import grain from Argentina for the next 700 years. Eighteen and a half million trillion kernels [18,500,000,000,000,000,000] or enough, if each kernel is a quarter inch long, to stretch to the sun and back 391,320 times That was nothing more than one kernel's compounding at 100 percent per square for 64 squares.

[This story really does highlight the absurdity of achieving 100% returns a year.  Assume a 20 year old lives to 84 years [equivalent to 64 chess board squares of investing years] and starts with $1.  Doubling his stake every year the old man would end up with $18,500,000,000,000,000,000]

Columbus's Journey - The Joys of Compounding [Buffett Partnership Letter 1962]

I have it from unreliable sources that the cost of the voyage Isabella originally underwrote for Columbus was approximately $30,000. This has been considered at least a moderately successful utilization of venture capital.  Without attempting to evaluate the psychic income derived from finding a new hemisphere, it must be pointed out that even had squatter's rights prevailed, the whole deal was not exactly another IBM. Figured very roughly, the $30,000 invested at 4% compounded annually would have amounted to something like $2,000,000,000,000 (that's $2 trillion for those of you who are not government statisticians) by 1962. Historical apologists for the Indians of Manhattan may find refuge in similar calculations. Such fanciful geometric progressions illustrate the value of either living a long time, or compounding your money at a decent rate. I have nothing particularly helpful to say on the former point.

The following table indicates the compounded value of $100,000 at 5%, 10% and 15% for 10, 20 and 30 years. It is always startling to see how relatively small differences in rates add up to very significant sums over a period of years. That is why, even though we are shooting for more, we feel that a few percentage points advantage over the Dow is a very worthwhile achievement. It can mean a lot of dollars over a decade or two.


Mona Lisa - Joys of Compounding - Part II [Buffett Partnership Letter 1963]

Now to the pulse-quickening portion of our essay. Last year, in order to drive home the point on compounding, I took a pot shot at Queen Isabella and her financial advisors. You will remember they were euchred into such an obviously low-compound situation as the discovery of a new hemisphere.

Since the whole subject of compounding has such a crass ring to it, I will attempt to introduce a little class into this discussion by turning to the art world. Francis I of France paid 4,000 ecus in 1540 for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. On the off chance that a few of you have not kept track of the fluctuations of the ecu 4,000 converted out to about $20,000.

If Francis had kept his feet on the ground and he (and his trustees) had been able to find a 6% after-tax investment, the estate now would be worth something over $1,000,000,000,000,000.00. That's $1 quadrillion or over 3,000 times the present national debt, all from 6%. I trust this will end all discussion in our household about any purchase or paintings qualifying as an investment.

However, as I pointed out last year, there are other morals to be drawn here. One is the wisdom of living a long time. The other impressive factor is the swing produced by relatively small changes in the rate of compound. Below are shown the gains from $100,000 compounded at various rates:


It is obvious that a variation of merely a few percentage points has an enormous effect on the success of a compounding (investment) program. It is also obvious that this effect mushrooms as the period lengthens. If, over a meaningful period of time, Buffett Partnership can achieve an edge of even a modest number of percentage points over the major investment media, its function will be fulfilled.

Some of you may be downcast because I have not included in the above table the rate of 22.3% mentioned on page 3. This rate, of course, is before income taxes which are paid directly by you --not the Partnership. Even excluding this factor, such a calculation would only prove the absurdity of the idea of compounding at very high rates -- even with initially modest sums. My opinion is that the Dow is quite unlikely to compound for any important length of time at the rate it has during the past seven years and, as mentioned earlier, I believe our margin over the Dow cannot be maintained at its level to date. The product of these assumptions would be a materially lower average rate of compound for BPL in the future than the rate achieved to date. Injecting a minus 30% year (which is going to happen from time to time) into our tabulation of actual results to date, with, say, a corresponding minus 40% for the Dow brings both the figures on the Dow and BPL more in line with longer range possibilities. As the compounding table above suggests, such a lowered rate can still provide highly satisfactory long term investment results.

Manhattan Indians - The Joys of Compounding Part III [Buffet Partnership 1964]

Readers of our early annual letters registered discontent at a mere recital of contemporary investment experience, but instead hungered for the intellectual stimulation that only could be provided by a depth study of investment strategy spanning the centuries. Hence, this section.

Our last two excursions into the mythology of financial expertise have revealed that purportedly shrewd investments by Isabella (backing the voyage of Columbus) and Francis I (original purchase of Mona Lisa) bordered on fiscal lunacy. Apologists for these parties have presented an array of sentimental

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