Buffett And Munger: Great Quotes On Using Complex Math

Buffett And Munger: Great Quotes On Using Complex Math
By Mark Hirschey (Work of Mark Hirschey) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Buffett And Munger… Shock Value! by Aswath Damodaran, Musings On Markets

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Berkshire Hathaway is having its annual meeting and the financial press is falling all over itself reporting what the sage from Omaha has to say about investing. Let me say at the outset that I have expressed my admiration for what Warren Buffet does well - the fact that he has a core philosophy that he does not deviate from and his instinct for going against the grain. Over time, he and Charlie Munger, who has operated at his right hand for decades, also say things for shock value to indicate how separated they are from both academics and other portfolio managers. Here is a listing of quotes and my responses to them.

Mr. Buffett: “There is so much that’s false and nutty in modern investing practice and modern investment banking, that if you just reduced the nonsense, that’s a goal you should reasonably hope for.”

I agree entirely. There is much that is done in portfolio management and corporate finance that does not pass the common sense test. Layering complexity on stupid ideas - that leverage always increases value, that securitization can make you a more valuable company - do not make them any less stupid.

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Mr. Buffett said he was once asked by a student from the University of Chicago, a hub of modern portfolio theory, “What are we learning that’s most wrong?” To which Charlie Munger quipped, “How do you handle that in one session?”

My question to Mr. Buffett would be a simple one: What exactly is your understanding of Modern Portfolio Theory? I would wager that he would come back with Markowtiz portfolios and the CAPM. If you define modern as circa 1964, he would be right. If not, he has a lot of catching up to do.

Mr. Buffett on the efficient market hypothesis, the idea that all information is instantly priced into the market: “There’s this holy writ, the efficient market theory. How do you teach your students everything is priced properly? What do you do for the rest of the hour?”

Mr. Buffett probably does not realize this but the efficient market hypothesis is really a warning to those portfolio managers who try to trade on information - earnings announcements and acquisitions, for instance - and day traders. To be honest, 99% of investors would be saved a lot of money, if they followed the suggestions of efficient market theorists. Let's face reality. If you define an efficient market as one where investors cannot easily take advantage of market imperfections, markets are efficient to most investors on most assets most of the time... One reason that Mr. Buffett continues to generate excess returns is that he is able to strike inside deals with managers... Do you think you or I would have been able to get the deal he got from Goldman?

Mr. Buffett on complex calculations used to value purchases: “If you need to use a computer or a calculator to make the calculation, you shouldn’t buy it.”

Spoken like a Luddite... How about an abacus, Mr. Buffett? Maybe a slide rule?

Mr. Buffett on the use of higher-order math in finance: “The more symbols they could work into their writing the more they were revered.”

Actually, I do share Mr. Buffett's concern that common sense is sometimes overwhelmed by mathematics. However, the people who are most revered in finance - Harry Markowtiz, Merton Miller and Gene Fama- are surprisingly down to earth in explaining their ideas.

Mr. Munger on the same theme: “Some of the worst business decisions I’ve ever seen are those with future projections and discounts back. It seems like the higher mathematics with more false precision should help you but it doesn’t. They teach that in business schools because, well, they’ve got to do something. ”

What would Mr. Munger do instead? Look backwards and discount forward? What part of forecasting does he think is pointless? And does he not agree with the proposition that a dollar today is worth than a dollar in year? If not, he should be sentenced to spend a year in a high inflation economy (say Zimbabwe)...

Mr. Buffett adds: “If you stand up in front of a business class and say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, you won’t get tenure…. Higher mathematics my be dangerous and lead you down pathways that are better left untrod.”

Depends upon your chances of getting the birds in the bush, right? If you feel that you have a 60% chance of getting the birds in the bush, is it not worth the trade off? No wait. Talking about probabilities probably is higher mathematics and I should not do it... My bad...

Mr. Buffett on the persistence of bad ideas in finance: “The famous physicist Max Planck was talking about the resistance of the human mind, even the bright human mind, to new ideas…. And he said science advances one funeral at a time, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that and it’s certainly been true in finance.”

It is true. In any discipline, for every three ideas you come up with, only one will move forward. But the solution to this is not to stop having new ideas but to churn out more..

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Please note that I do not read comments posted here, nor respond to messages here. I don't have the time. If you want my attention, you must seek it directly at my blog. Aswath Damodaran is the Kerschner Family Chair Professor of Finance at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He teaches the corporate finance and equity valuation courses in the MBA program. He received his MBA and Ph.D from the University of California at Los Angeles. His research interests lie in valuation, portfolio management and applied corporate finance. He has written three books on equity valuation (Damodaran on Valuation, Investment Valuation, The Dark Side of Valuation) and two on corporate finance (Corporate Finance: Theory and Practice, Applied Corporate Finance: A User’s Manual). He has co-edited a book on investment management with Peter Bernstein (Investment Management) and has a book on investment philosophies (Investment Philosophies). His newest book on portfolio management is titled Investment Fables and was released in 2004. His latest book is on the relationship between risk and value, and takes a big picture view of how businesses should deal with risk, and was published in 2007. He was a visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1984 to 1986, where he received the Earl Cheit Outstanding Teaching Award in 1985. He has been at NYU since 1986, received the Stern School of Business Excellence in Teaching Award (awarded by the graduating class) in 1988, 1991, 1992, 1999, 2001, 2007, 2008 and 2009, and was the youngest winner of the University-wide Distinguished Teaching Award (in 1990). He was profiled in Business Week as one of the top twelve business school professors in the United States in 1994.
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  1. Benjamin Graham was a scholar and professional investor who mentored investing legends such as Warren Buffett, William J. Ruane, Irving Kahn and Walter J. Schloss.

    Warren Buffett wrote the preface to Graham’s book – The Intelligent Investor – in which he calls it “by far the best book about investing ever written.”

    Graham’s first recommended strategy – for novice investors – was to invest in Index stocks.
    For more serious investors, Graham recommended three different categories of stocks – Defensive, Enterprising and NCAV – and 17 qualitative and quantitative rules for identifying them.
    For professional investors, Graham described various special situations or “workouts”.

    The first requires almost no analysis, and is easily accomplished today with a good S&P500 Index fund.
    The last requires more than the average level of ability and experience. Such stocks are also not amenable to impartial algorithmic analysis, and require a case-specific approach.

    But Defensive, Enterprising and NCAV stocks can be reliably detected by today’s data-mining software, and offer a great avenue for accurate automated analysis and profitable investment.

    Most of Buffett’s investments are what Graham defined as Special Situations.

    Warren Buffett once gave a speech at Columbia Business School describing how Graham’s record of creating exceptional investors (such as Buffett himself) is unquestionable, and how Graham’s principles are everlasting. The speech is now known as “The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville”.