Whether one is follower of Whitney Tilson or not, it is hard to argue that he is an excellent writer, has great perspectives on behavioral finance, and put together some great resources on value investing. Check out something titled ‘Wise Words on Investing’ which includes insights from Warren Buffett, Phil Fisher, Ben Graham, And Peter Lynch from Whitney Tilson.
In my opinion, the single greatest speech on investing is Warren Buffett’s The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville.
It is extraordinary to me that the idea of buying dollar bills for 40 cents takes immediately to people or it doesn’t take at all. It’s like an inoculation. If it doesn’t grab a person right away, I find that you can talk to him for years and show him records, and it doesn’t make any difference. They just don’t seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is. A fellow like Rick Guerin, who had no formal education in business, understands immediately the value approach to investing and he’s applying it five minutes later. I’ve never seen anyone who became a gradual convert over a ten-year period to this approach. It doesn’t seem to be a matter of IQ or academic training. It’s instant recognition, or it is nothing.
To invest successfully, you need not understand beta, efficient markets, modern portfolio theory, option pricing or emerging markets. You may, in fact, be better off knowing nothing of these. That, of course, is not the prevailing view at most business schools, whose finance curriculum tends to be dominated by such subjects. In our view, though, investment students need only two well-taught courses – How to Value a Business, and How to Think About Market Prices.
Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily-understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, ten and twenty years from now. Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet these standards – so when you see one that qualifies, you should buy a meaningful amount of stock. You must also resist the temptation to stray from your guidelines: If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio’s market value.
Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety.
The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage. The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.
Warren Buffett, 1999 Fortune magazine
Keep It Simple!
Our investments continue to be few in number and simple in concept:
The truly big investment idea can usually be explained in a short paragraph. We like a business with enduring competitive advantages that is run by able and owner-oriented people. When these attributes exist, and when we can make purchases at sensible prices, it is hard to go wrong (a challenge we periodically manage to overcome).
Investors should remember that their scorecard is not computed using Olympic-diving methods: Degree-of-difficulty doesn’t count. If you are right about a business whole value is largely dependent on a single key factor that is both easy to understand and enduring, the payoff is the same as if you had correctly analyzed an investment alternative characterized by many constantly shifting and complex variables.
Arguments for Buying Great Businesses
We continually search for large businesses with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements. This focus doesn’t guarantee results: We both have to buy at a sensible price and get business performance from our companies that validates our assessment. But this investment approach — searching for the superstars — offers us our only chance for real success. Charlie and I are simply not smart enough to get great results by adroitly buying and selling portions of far-from-great businesses.
An alert investor who has held a good stock for some time usually gets to know its less desirable as well as its more desirable characteristics. Therefore, before selling a rather satisfactory holding in order to get a still better one, there is need of the greatest care in trying to appraise accurately all elements of the situation.
The investor cannot pinpoint just how much per share a particular company will earn two years from now. As a matter of fact, the company’s top management cannot. Under these circumstances, how can anyone say with even moderate precision just what is overpriced for an outstanding company with an unusually rapid growth rate? If the growth rate is so good that in another ten years the company might well have quadrupled, is it really of such great concern whether at the moment the stock might or might not be 35% overpriced? That which really matters is not to disturb a position that is going to be worth a great deal more later.
Even the most thoughtful and steadfast investor is susceptible to the influence of skeptics who yell ‘Sell’ before it’s time to sell…We’ve all been taught the same adages: ‘Take profits when you can,’ and ‘A sure gain is always better than a possible loss.’ But when you’ve found the right stock and bought it, all the evidence tells you it’s going higher, and everything is working in your direction, then it’s a shame if you sell. A fivefold gain turns $10,000 into $50,000, but the next five folds turn $10,000 into $250,000. Investing in a 25-bagger is not a regular occurrence even among fund managers, and for the individual, it may only happen once or twice in a lifetime. When you’ve got one, you might as well enjoy the full benefit.
Ignore Macroeconomic Factors
We try to price, rather than time, purchases. In our view, it is folly to forego buying shares in an outstanding business whose long-term future is predictable, because of short-term worries about an economy or a stock market that we know to be unpredictable. Why scrap an informed decision because of an uninformed guess?
We purchased National Indemnity in 1967, See’s in 1972, Buffalo News in 1977, Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983, and Scott Fetzer in 1986 because those are the years they became available and because we thought the prices they carried were acceptable. In each case, we pondered what the business was likely to do, not what the Dow, the Fed, or the economy might do. If we see this approach as making sense in the purchase of businesses in their entirety, why should we change tack when we are purchasing small pieces of wonderful businesses in the stock market?
We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen. Thirty years ago, no one could have foreseen the huge expansion of the Vietnam War, wage and price controls, two oil shocks, the resignation of a president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a one-day drop in the Dow of 508 points, or treasury bill yields fluctuating between 2.8% and 17.4%.
But, surprise – none of these blockbuster events made the slightest dent in Ben Graham’s investment principles. Nor did they render unsound the negotiated purchases of fine businesses at sensible prices. Imagine thecost to us, then, if we had let a fear of unknowns cause us to defer or alter the deployment of capital. Indeed, we have usually made our best purchases when apprehensions about some macro event were at a peak.Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.
A different set of major shocks is sure to occur in the next 30 years.
We will neither try to predict these nor to profit from them. If we can identify businesses similar to those we have purchased in the past, external surprises will have little effect on our long-term results.
Welcome Market Declines
[Many] investors who expect to be ongoing buyers of investments throughout their lifetimes…illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and unhappy when they fall. They show no such confusion in their reaction to food prices: Knowing they are forever going to be buyers of food, they welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. (It’s the seller of food who doesn’t like declining prices.) Similarly, at the Buffalo News we would cheer lower prices for newsprint – even though it would mean marking down the value of the large inventory of newsprint we always keep on hand – because we know we are going to be perpetually buying the product.
Identical reasoning guides our thinking about Berkshire’s investments.
We will be buying businesses – or small parts of businesses, called stocks – year in, year out as long as I live (and longer, if Berkshire’s directors attend the seances I have scheduled). Given these intentions, declining prices for businesses benefit us, and rising prices hurt us.
The most common cause of low prices is pessimism – some times pervasive, some times specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It’s optimism that is the enemy of the rational buyer.
None of this means, however, that a business or stock is an intelligent purchase simply because it is unpopular; a contrarian approach is just as foolish as a follow-the-crowd strategy. What’s required is thinking rather than polling. Unfortunately, Bertrand Russell’s observation about life in general applies with unusual force in the financial world: ‘Most men would rather die than think. Many do.’
Price fluctuations have only one significant meaning for the true investor. They provide him with an opportunity to buy wisely when prices fall sharply and to sell wisely when they advance a great deal. At other times he will do better if he forgets about the stock market and pays attention to…the operating results of his companies.
Own a Concentrated Portfolio of Companies You Understand Deeply
The percentage of investors who own 25 or more different stocks is appalling. It is not this number of 25 or more which itself is appalling. Rather it is that in the great majority of instances only a small percentage of such holdings is in attractive stocks about which the investor has a high degree of knowledge. Investors have been so oversold on diversification that fear of having too many eggs in one basket has caused them to put far too little into companies they thoroughly know and far too much in others about which they know nothing at all. It never seems to occur to them that buying a company without having sufficient knowledge of it may be even more dangerous than having inadequate diversification.