As one of the greatest investors of all time, it’s inevitable that every time Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) underperforms the market someone will ask if the Oracle of Omaha has ‘lost his touch’. The articles usually make the same few points such as how much harder to be for Buffett to generate outsized returns as Berkshire continues to grow and that after, but this time around there is a new twist: Buffett’s shift from a five to seven year comparison with the S&P 500 (INDEXSP:.INX).
“This move is significant for Buffett, who is vocal about the importance of honestly reporting performance, and critical of companies that ‘discard’ their yardsticks when results deteriorate,” writes Simon Moore at Forbes.
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Ahead of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B)’s last shareholder meeting Whitney Tilson told ValueWalk that he thought the company still had 30% upside, and recent gains that pushed the Class A shares above $200,000 for the first time in the company’s history earlier today show that he’s probably on the right track.
But Moore has a fair point, shifting standards are a red flag (as Buffett would agree) and investors should ask themselves if there is a legitimate reason to change their frame of reference. In this case, looking at the last seven years means judging Berkshire Hathaway Inc.(NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B)’s performance since the financial crisis instead of only judging it against the best parts of the current bull market. But value strategies often underperform during a bull market; as long as they have smaller drops during the inevitable bear market that follows they can outperform over the long run.
Five years is arbitrary, we should judge Buffett across an entire business cycle
You would expect an investor like Buffett, who has famously warned to be cautious when others are bold, to have lower returns in a year like 2013 (which makes up a disproportionate amount of the S&P 500’s five-year returns). If Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE:BRK.A) (NYSE:BRK.B) continues to underperform across an entire business cycle – either peak to peak or trough to trough – then it will be time to wonder if Buffett’s best days are behind him. Until then it seems more likely that we are just seeing the preeminent value investor hang back from high asset prices so that he can snatch up deals in the future.