Review – Corporate Strategy

Corporate Strategy: Tools for Analysis and Decision-Making

by Phanish Puranam, Bart Vanneste, published 2016

What is corporate strategy and how is it any different from business strategy? That was actually a distinction I hadn’t made in my own mind when I picked this title up. I was generally interested in exploring “strategy” in an economic or business competition sense and this book was one of many I selected for further research. It was a happy accident then to realize there is a difference and this book is all about explaining what it is and why it’s different.

Business strategy aims at creating competitive advantage in a firm-against-firm struggle within a given industry. It flows outward from customer behavior through organizational structure and management practice to policies and processes surrounding marketing, sales, production, distribution and customer service.

Corporate strategy aims at realizing synergies from the joint ownership of different businesses. Synergies can be realized between businesses competing in the same industry but with common ownership (and perhaps diverse geographic territories), the case of a “corporate HQ” utilizing economies of scale in back-end or administrative functions to lower their cost or raise their quality across the individual customer-facing businesses. Synergies can also be realized between businesses operating in distinct industries but where coordination between actors in these industries allows for new products or services to be bundled, consider a bank and an insurance company owned by one corporate parent which can then offer a full range of financial services to customers.

One interesting takeaway from the book is that all public equity investors who do not have 100% of their investments in a single company (ie, they own a portfolio of stocks) are engaged in corporate strategy. However, as the book advises, passive investors are not able to realize synergies which those in control of these businesses can through exerting influence over their management. So, a passive equity investor could have an insight about the unique value of owning a complimentary basket of businesses representing corporate advantage, but they do not have the means to act upon it unless they are able to successfully agitate for M&A activity or have enough resources to get voting control over the companies in which they can sway management to extract the synergies they’ve spotted.

Another concept that was interesting to me was the irony that by bringing businesses under common ownership, a corporation destroys its own best benchmark for valuation (ie, the individual market prices of each business) and thus it is trapped in a perpetual game of trying to evaluate whether it’s coordination of economic activity within the corporation is synergistic and creating value, or wasteful and destroying it.

Warren Buffett as a conglomerator par excellence is an interesting case because, at least nominally, he does not provide managerial oversight to operations of the businesses he owns and has never claimed he has purchased a business for synergistic reasons for corporate strategy. Rather, he purchases businesses ONLY because he considers them to be available on a bargain basis, that is, he thinks they are available for less than their intrinsic value.

The entire point of corporate strategy, according to the book, is to be able to pay market or “fair” prices for assets and businesses, but still realize a profit from owning them, because of the ability to manage or exploit them differently under a joint ownership structure. So, Buffett is NOT a corporate strategist, although he is a really great investor.

And if you can realize synergies AND buy at bargain prices (AND apply leverage safely…) then you are really cooking with gas!

One of the great ironies of the (public) business world is that many managers (they are hardly ever significant shareholders themselves) think they can spot synergies all over the place, which either they or their investment bankers use to rationalize their acquisition activity. But the data demonstrate that few synergies ever appear to be realized– acquiring companies usually overpay, their stock falls on the announcement of an acquisition and the target company’s stock rises. Further, these acquisitions are often followed years later by goodwill writeoffs or divestitures of the previously acquired business or assets.

On average, a corporate parent that divests a business increases shareholder value.

In fact, one of the strategic suggestions of the authors is the always be on the look out for someone who is a better owner of a business or asset than you (ie, willing to pay you more than it’s worth to you to continue owning it) and selling things seems to be one of the most reliable ways for corporate strategists to create corporate advantage. It’s a pity, then, that most corporate strategists are buyers, not sellers!

If some other corporate parent has even stronger synergies with a business than you do, you should consider divesting.

Divesting when you can, and not when you have to is usually preferable.

Imagine that, starting today, the two businesses would be moved into separate ownership and would be operated completely independently, with no communication or exchange of any kind between the two. How would the value of the businesses be effected?

If one thinks one is smart enough to beat the odds, the authors suggest four places to look for synergies from joint ownership and operations for corporate strategists:

  1. Consolidation, creating value by rationalization across similar resources from similar value chain activities by eliminating redundancies, affects mostly costs and invested capital
  2. Combination, creating value by pooling similar resources from similar value chain activities, such as combining purchasing to obtain volume discounts or acquiring a competitor then raising prices for customers, impacts either costs or revenues
  3. Customization, creating value by co-specializing dissimilar resources in order to create greater joint value, results in improved value in production or consumption and involves modification of resources, the transfer of best practices can create unique value
  4. Connection, generates value by simply pooling the output of dissimilar value chain activities, for example customers may value being able to buy a bundle of different products and services together, the product development of one business is being connected to the distribution channel of another

Here are some other major strategy risks that are common:

One common negative synergy is brand dilution, ie, does the brand apply? Another is complexity. Another is market rivalry, this is a significant concern in the advertising industry, where when two firms who serve rivals merge, the chances of keeping both their clients is low.

Governance costs act as taxes that eat into the potential benefits from synergies when they are attempted to be extracted. [ie, the price you pay to operate an acquired business effectively.]

When an autonomous business becomes a division within another, the incentives of the owner and managers are necessarily diluted.

Synergies likely to generate significant transaction costs are less likely to be successfully realized in arms length relationships between independent firms than under common ownership.

I particularly appreciated the discussion about the corporate advantage that can be achieved through thoughtful design of the organization and its management.

One should be able to read the corporate strategy of a company in its organization chart: what kinds of activities does the top management feel are essential to integrate?

While all organizational structures represent a unique combination, there are three “pure form” ways to structure the corporation and its management structure: by activity, by output, by user/customer.

The authors recommend that corporate strategists “Think about the multi-business corporation as a collection of value chain activities” and look for synergies accordingly. But, being economic entities, there are necessary tradeoffs to beware of with each choice:

Grouping similar activities together emphasizes economies of scale at the expense of economies of scope, whereas grouping different activities together does exactly the opposite.

Every grouping arrangement emphasizes certain interactions but excludes others, which show up as opportunity costs and bottlenecks.

Further, if the innovation literature and hundreds of years of business history haven’t beat it into your head yet, things change. That means that the “right” structure (the synergistic one) is likely to change over time. “No structure is permanent.” Corporate strategists should always be considering the possibility that the ideal economic structure for managing the company has changed in reflection of new competitive dynamics, customer tastes and habits or advancements in technology, culture and society. A good rule of thumb might be that the appropriateness of the corporate structure needs to be reconsidered every time a major acquisition or divestiture occurs.

There were two other nuggets of corporate strategy wisdom that stood out to me. One was that most multi-business firms have capital allocation decision-making on auto-pilot. Either every request gets granted, or every request gets denied, or every business gets to keep whatever it generates. The corporate strategist can grab some low-hanging fruit by being thoughtful about capital allocation decisions within the portfolio and providing a critical voice about whether capital should be redistributed amongst divisions or even outside the company (ie, dividend or acquisition activity).

The other was in the author’s description of the typical M&A process (which includes not just execution of the acquisition transaction but also successful completion of the post-merger integration process). The most overlooked, and final, step in the process is Evaluation, which “refers to a post-transaction review of what went right and wrong” and analyzes the economic impact of the transaction on the entire firm. Were synergies realized? In the amounts predicted? Did costs materialize that were surprising? Did any other kind of disruption or distraction that was not anticipated earlier occur during the course of the merger? From my personal experience, it is difficult for management teams to take the time to look into the rear-view mirror like this, and even harder for them to be honest about what they see!!

Review – Common Stocks And Uncommon Profits

Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits: And other writings by Philip A. Fisher

by Philip A. Fisher, published 1996, 2003

Stock market investors who have studied Warren Buffett in detail know that he has cited two “philosophers” of investment theory more than anyone else in being influential in the formation of his own investment approach: Benjamin Graham and Phil Fisher. Graham represents the cautious, conservative, balance sheet-driven Buffett, while Fisher represents the future-oriented, growth-focused, income statement-driven Buffett. If you ask Buffett, while Graham got him started and taught him key lessons in risk management (Margin of Safety and the Mr. Market metaphor), Fisher was the thinker who proved to have the biggest impact in both time and total dollars accumulated. Buffett today, whether by choice or by default due to his massive scale, is primarily a Phil Fisher-style investor.

And yet, in my own investment study and practice, I have dwelled deeply on Graham and did little if anything with Fisher. I tried to read Fisher’s book years ago when I was first starting out and threw my hands up in disgust. It seemed too qualitative, too abstract and frankly for a person of my disposition, too hopeful about the future and the endless parade of growth we’ve witnessed in the markets for several decades since the early 1980s. Surely there would be a time where the Fisher folks would hang their heads in shame and the Grahamites would rise again in the fires of oblivion! After all, “Many shall be restored that are now fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.”

As my professional career wore on, however, I found there was less and less I could do with Graham and more and more of what Fisher had said that made sense. And if you’re in business, you can’t help but be growth oriented– buying cheap balance sheets isn’t really the way the world works for the private investor. So, I decided it was time to take another look at Fisher’s book and see what I could derive from it as an “older and wiser” fellow. What follows is a review of Part I of the book; I plan to read and review Part II, which is a collection of essays entitled “The Conservative Investor Sleeps Well At Night”, separately.

Keep Your Eye On The Future

One thing I noticed right away is the consistent theme of future-orientation throughout Fisher’s book. Whereas balance sheets and the Graham approach look at what has happened and what is, Fisher is always emphasizing a technique that involves conceptualizing the state of the future. For example, in the Preface he states that one of the most significant influences on his own investment results and those of other successful investors he was aware of was,

the need for patience if big profits are to be made from investment.

“Patience” is a reference to time preference, and time preference implies an ability to envision future states and how they differ from the present and therein see the arbitrage available between the two states. The other key he mentions is being a contrarian in the market place, which sounds a lot to me like the lesson of Mr. Market.

Fisher also says that market timing is not a necessary ingredient for long-term investment success,

These opportunities did not require purchasing on a particular day at the bottom of a great panic. The shares of these companies were available year after year at prices that were to make this kind of profit possible.

While he cites the structural inflationary dynamic of the modern US economy and seems to suggest the federal government’s commitment to responding to business cycle depressions with fiscal stimulus puts some kind of ultimate floor under US public company earnings (unlike in Ben Graham’s time where large companies actually faced the threat of extinction if they were caught overextended in the wrong part of the cycle, Fisher suggests the federal government stands ready to create conditions through which they can extend their debt liabilities and soldier on), he says that the name of the game over the long-term is to find companies with remarkable upside potential which are, regardless of size, managed by a determined group of people who have a unique ability to envision this potential and create and execute a plan for realizing it. In other words, the problem of investing is recognizing strong, determined management teams for what they are, that is, choosing superior business organizations in industries with long runways.

Getting the Goods: The Scuttlebutt Approach

People who know about Fisher typically identify him with the “scuttlebutt approach”. Fisher says scuttlebutt can be generated from:

  • competitors
  • vendors
  • customers
  • research scientists in universities, governments and competitive companies
  • trade association executives
  • former employees (with caveats)

Before one can do the scuttlebutt, however, one has to know where to look. Fisher says that “doing these things [scuttlebutt] takes a great deal of time, as well as skill and alertness […] I strongly doubt that [some easy, quick way] exists.” So, you don’t want to waste your time by going to all the trouble for the wrong idea. He says that 4/5 of his best ideas and 5/6 of the total gains generated over time that he could identify originated as ideas he gleaned from other talented investors first, which he subsequently investigated himself and found they fit the bill. Now, this is not the same thing as saying 4/5 ideas he got from others were worth investing in– the proportion of “good” ideas of the “total” he heard about is probably quite low, but the point again is not quantitative, but qualitative. He’s talking about where to fish for ideas, not how successful this source was.

When I thought about this section, I realized the modern day equivalent was investment bloggers. There are many out there, and while some are utter shit (why does this guy keep kidding himself?) some are quite amazing as thinkers, business analysts and generators of potential ideas. I have too many personal examples of my own here to make mention of them all. But I really liked this idea, cultivating a list of outstanding investment bloggers and using that as your primary jumping off point for finding great companies. The only problem for me in this regard is most of my blogroll are “value guys” that are digging in the trash bins (as my old boss sarcastically put it), whereas to find a Fisher-style company I would need to find a different kind of blogger interested in different kind of companies. But that’s a great to-do item for me to work on in this regard and should prove to be highly educational to boot!

So, assuming you’ve got a top notch idea, what’s next? Fisher is pretty clear here: do not conduct an exhaustive study of the company in question just yet. (In other words, don’t do this just yet, though I loved SoH’s follow-up where he explained what kind of things would get him to do that.) What he does do is worth quoting at length:

glance over the balance sheet to determine the general nature of the capitalization and financial position […] I will read with care those parts covering breakdown of total sales by product lines, competition, degree of officer or other major ownership of common stock […] all earning statement figures throwing light on depreciation, profit margins, extent of research activity, and abnormal or non-recurring costs in prior years’ operations

Then, if you like what you see, conduct your scuttlebutt, because,

only by having what “scuttlebutt” can give you before you approach management, can you know what you should attempt to learn when you visit a company […] never visit the management of a company [you are] considering for investment until [you have] first gathered together at least 50 per cent of all knowledge [you] would need to make the investment

This is the part that really gives a lot of investors pause about Phil Fisher’s approach, including me. Can you really do scuttlebutt, as he envisions it, in the modern era? Can the average investor get the ear of management? Does any of this stuff still apply?

First, some skepticism. Buffett’s biographer Alice Schroeder has said in interviews that much of what made Buffett successful early on in his career is now illegal and would amount to insider trading. The famous conversation with the GEICO chief is one of many that come to mind. This was classic scuttlebutt, and it worked amazingly well for Buffett. And even if it wasn’t illegal, most individual investors are so insignificant to a company’s capital base that they can’t expect nor will they ever receive the ear of management (unless they specialize in microcap companies, but even then management may be disinterested in them, even with significant stakes in their company!) And, assuming they DO somehow get management’s ear, they aren’t liable to learn much of value or interest specifically because most managements today are not only intellectually and politically sophisticated, but legally sophisticated and they are well aware that if they say anything more general than “We feel positive about our company” they’re liable to exposure under Reg FD. This seems like a dead end.

But let me try to tease the idea out a little more optimistically. Managements do provide guidance and color commentary on quarterly earnings calls, and if you are already dealing with a trustworthy, capable management (according to the 15 points outlined below), then there is opportunity to read between the lines here, even while acknowledging that there are many other people doing the same with this info. And people who do get managements’ ear are professional analysts employed by major banks. Again, lots of people read these reports, but there is some info here and it adds color and sometimes offers some “between the lines” information some might miss. And while the information you can get from any one company may be limited, by performing this analysis on several related companies you might be able to fill in some gaps here and there to the point that you can get a pretty fair picture of how the target company stacks up in various ways.

I hesitate a little, but I think the approach can be simulated to a fair degree even today. It’s still hard work. It can’t be done completely, or perhaps as Fisher imagined it. But I think it can be done. And it still comes down to the fact that, even with all this info that is out there, few will actually get this up close and personal with it. So, call it an elbow-grease edge.

After all,

Is it either logical or reasonable that anyone could do this with an effort no harder than reading a few simply worded brokers’ free circulars in the comfort of an armchair one evening a week? […] great effort combined with ability and enriched by both judgment and vision [are the keys to unlocking these great investing opportunities] they cannot be found without hard work and they cannot be found every day.

The Fisher 15

Fisher also is known for his famous 15 item investment checklist, a checklist which at heart searches for the competitive advantage of the business in question as rooted in the capability of its management team to recognize markets, develop products and plans for exploiting them, execute a sales assault and finally keep everything bundled together along the way while being honest business partners to the minority investors in the company. Here was Fisher’s 15 point checklist for identifying companies that were highly likely to experience massive growth over decades:

  1. Does the company have sufficient market scale to grow sales for years?
  2. Is management determined to expand the market by developing new products and services to continue increasing sales?
  3. How effective is the firm’s R&D spending relative to its size?
  4. Is the sales organization above-average?
  5. Does the company have a strong profit margin?
  6. What is being done to maintain or improve margins? (special emphasis on probable future margins)
  7. What is the company’s relationship with employees?
  8. What is the company’s relationship with its executives?
  9. Is the management team experienced and talented?
  10. How strong is the company’s cost and accounting controls? (assume they’re okay unless you find evidence they are not)
  11. Are there industry specific indications that point to a competitive advantage?
  12. Is the company focused on short or long-term profits?
  13. Can the company grow with its own capital or will it have to continually increase leverage or dilute shareholders to do it?
  14. Does the management share info even when business is going poorly?
  15. Is the integrity of the management beyond reproach? (never seriously consider an investment where this is in question)

What I found interesting about these questions is they’re not just good as an investment checklist, but as an operational checklist for a corporate manager. If you can run down this list and find things to work on, you probably have defined your best business opportunities right there.

In the chapter “What to Buy: Applying This to Your Own Needs”, Fisher attempts to philosophically explore the value of the growth company approach. First, he tries to dispel the myth that this approach is only going to serve

an introverted, bookish individual with an accounting-type mind. This scholastic-like investment expert would sit all day in undisturbed isolation poring over vast quantities of balance sheets, corporate earning statements and trade statistics.

Now, this is ironic because this is actually exactly how Buffett is described, and describes himself. But Fisher insists it is not true because the person who is good at spotting growth stocks is not quantitatively-minded but qualitatively-minded; the quantitative person often walks into value traps which look good statistically but have a glaring flaw in the model, whereas it is the qualitative person who has enough creative thinking power to see the brilliant future for the company in question that will exist but does not quite yet, a future which they are able to see by assembling the known qualitative facts into a decisive narrative of unimpeded growth.

Once a person can spot growth opportunities, they quantitatively have to believe in the strategy because

the reason why growth stocks do so much better is that they seem to show gains in value in the hundreds of percent each decade. In contrast, it is an unusual bargain that is as much as 50 per cent undervalued. The cumulative effect of this simple arithmetic should be obvious.

And indeed, it is. While great growth stocks might be a rarer find, they return a lot more and over a longer period of time. To show equivalent returns, one would have to turnover many multiples of incredibly cheap bargain stocks. So this is the philosophical dilemma– fewer quality companies, fewer decisions, and less room for error in your decisions with greater return potential over time, or many bargains, many decisions, many opportunities to make mistakes but also less chance that any one is critical, with the concomitant result that your upside is limited so you must keep churning your portfolio to generate great long-term results.

Rather than being bookish and mathematically inclined (today we have spreadsheets for that stuff anyway), Fisher says that

the successful investor is usually an individual who is inherently interested in business problems. This results in his discussing such matters in a way that will arouse the interest of those from whom he is seeking data.

And this still jives with Buffett– it’s hard to imagine him boring his conversation partner.

Timing Is Everything?

So you’ve got a scoop on a hot stock, you run it through your checklist and you conduct thorough scuttlebutt-driven due diligence on it. When do you buy it, and why?

to produce close to the maximum profit […] some consideration must be given to timing

Oh no! “Timing”. So Fisher turns out to be a macro-driven market timer then, huh? “Blood in the streets”-panic kind of thing, right?

Wrong.

the economics which deal with forecasting business trends may be considered to be about as far along as was the science of chemistry during the days of alchemy in the Middle Ages.

So what kind of timing are we talking about then? To Fisher, the kind of timing that counts is individualistic, idiosyncratic and tied to what is being qualitatively derived from one’s scuttlebutt. Timing one’s purchases is not about market crashes in general, but in corporate missteps in particular. Fisher says:

the company into which the investor should be buying is the company which is doing things under the guidance of exceptionally able management. A few of these things are bound to fail. Others will from time to time produce unexpected troubles before they succeed. The investor should be thoroughly sure in his own mind that these troubles are temporary rather than permanent. Then if these troubles have produced a significant decline in the price of the affected stock and give promise of being solved in a matter of months rather than years, he will probably be on pretty safe ground in considering that this is a time when the stock may be bought.

He continues,

[the common denominator in several outstanding purchasing opportunities was that ] a worthwhile improvement in earnings is coming in the right sort of company, but that this particular increase in earnings has not yet produced an upward move in the price of that company’s shares

I think this example with Bank of America (which I could never replicate because I can’t see myself buying black boxes like this financial monstrosity) at Base Hit Investing is a really good practical example of the kind of individual company pessimism Phil Fisher would say you should try to bank on. (Duh duh chhhhh.)

He talks about macro-driven risk and says it should largely be ignored, with the caveat of the investor already having a substantial part of his total investment invested in years prior to some kind of obvious mania. He emphasizes,

He is making his bet upon something which he knows to be the case [a coming increase in earnings power for a specific company] rather than upon something about which he is largely guessing [the trend of the general economy]

and adds that if he makes a bad bet in terms of macro-dynamics, if he is right about the earnings picture it should give support to the stock price even in that environment.

He concludes,

the business cycle is but one of at least five powerful forces [along with] the trend of interest rates, the over-all government attitude toward investment and private enterprise [quoting this in January, 2017, one must wonder about the impact of Trump in terms of domestic regulation and taxation, and external trade affairs], the long-range trend to more and more inflation and — possibly most powerful of all — new inventions and techniques as they affect old industries.

Set all the crystal ball stuff aside– take meaningful action when you have meaningful information about specific companies.

Managing Risk

Fisher also gives some ideas about how to structure a portfolio of growth stocks to permit adequate diversification in light of the risk of making a mistake in one’s choices (“making at least an occasional investment mistake is inevitable even for the most skilled investor”). His example recommendation is:

  • 5 A-type, established, large, conservative growth companies (20% each) -or-
  • 10 B-type, medium, younger and more aggressive growth companies (10% each) -or-
  • 20 C-type, small, young and extremely aggressive/unproven growth companies (5% each)

But it is not enough to simply have a certain number of different kinds of stocks, which would be a purely quantitative approach along the lines of Ben Graham’s famous dictums about diversification. Instead, Fisher’s approach is again highly qualitative, that is, context dependent– choices you make about balancing your portfolio with one type of stock require complimentary additions of other kinds of stocks that he deems to offset the inherent risks of each. We can see how Buffett was inspired in the construction of his early Buffett Partnership portfolio weightings here.

For example, he suggests that one A-type at 20% might be balanced off with 2 B-type at 10% each, or 6 C-type at 5% each balanced off against 1 A-type and 1 B-type. He extends the qualitative diversification to industry types and product line overlaps– you haven’t achieved diversification with 5 A-types that are all in the chemical industry, nor would you achieve diversification by having some A, B and C-types who happen to have competing product lines in some market or industry. For the purposes of constructing a portfolio, part of your exposure should be considered unitary in that regard. Other important factors include things like the breadth and depth of a company’s management, exposure to cyclical industries, etc. One might also find that one significant A-type holding has such broadly diversified product lines on its own that it represents substantially greater diversification than the 20% portfolio weighting it might represent on paper. (With regards to indexation as a strategy, this is why many critics say buying the S&P 500 is enough without buying “international stock indexes” as well, because a large portion of S&P 500 earnings is derived from international operations.)

While he promotes a modicum of diversification, “concentration” is clearly the watchword Fisher leans toward:

the disadvantage of having eggs in so many baskets [is] that a lot of the eggs do not end up in really attractive baskets, and it is impossible to keep watching all the baskets after the eggs get put into them […] own not the most, but the best […] a little bit of a great many can never be more than a poor substitute for a few of the outstanding.

Tortured egg basket metaphors aside (why on earth do people care what their egg baskets look like?!), Fisher is saying that the first mistake one can make is to spread your bets so thin that they don’t matter and you can’t efficiently manage them even if they did.

Aside from portfolio construction, another source of risk is the commission of errors of judgment.

when a mistake has been made in the original purchase and it becomes increasingly clear that the factual background of the particular company is, by a significant margin, less favorable than originally believed

one should sell their holdings, lick their wounds and move on. This needs to be done as soon as the error is recognized, no matter what the price may be:

More money has probably been lost by investors holding a stock they really did not want until they could “at least come out even” than from any other single reason. If to these actual losses are added the profits that might have been made through the proper reinvestment of these funds if such reinvestment had been made when the mistake was first realized, the cost of self-indulgence becomes truly tremendous.

Further,

Sales should always be made of the stock of a company which, because of changes resulting from the passage of time, no longer qualifies in regard to the fifteen points… to about the same degree it qualified at the time of purchase […] keep at all times in close contact with the affairs of companies whose shares are held.

One vogue amongst certain investors is to be continually churning the portfolio from old positions to the latest and greatest idea, with the assumption being that time has largely run its course on the earlier idea and the upside-basis of the new idea is so much larger that liquidity should be generated to get into the new one. Fisher advises only using new capital to pursue new ideas rather than giving in to this vanity because,

once a stock has been properly selected and has borne the test of time, it is only occasionally that there is any reason for selling it at all

The concept of “investment” implies committing one’s resources for long periods of time. You can’t emulate this kind of trading activity in the private market, which is a very strong indication that you should try to avoid this behavior in public markets. A particularly costly form of this error is introducing macro-market timing into one’s portfolio management, ie, this stock has had a big run up along with the rest of the market, things are getting heady, I will sell and get back in at a lower cost. I’ve done this myself, most recently with Nintendo ($NTDOY) and even earlier with Dreamworks ($DWA). Fisher says it’s a mistake:

postponing an attractive purchase because of fear of what the general market might do will, over the years, prove very costly […] 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 per cent overpriced? That which really matters is not to disturb a position that is going to be worth a great deal more later.

It plays to a logical fallacy that a company that has run up has “expended” its price momentum, while a company that has not had a run-up has something “due” to it. On the contrary, Fisher points out that many times the material facts about a company’s future earnings prospects change significantly over time from the original purchase, often to the good, such that even with a big run-up, even more is in the offing because the future is even brighter than before– remember, always keep an eye on the future, not the present or the past!

And similarly, if one has an extremely cheap cost basis in a company, one has an enormous margin of safety that should give further heed to trying to jump in and out of the stock when it is deemed to be overvalued.

He adds that, like wines, well-selected portfolio holdings get better with age because,

an alert investor who has held a good stock for some time usually gets to know its less desirable as well as more desirable characteristics

and through this process comes to develop even more confidence in his holdings.

If you’ve read some of my thinking about the philosophy of building multi-generational wealth through a family business, you’ll see once again the direct parallel to private market investing in Fisher’s conclusion:

If the job has been correctly done when a common stock is purchased, the time to sell it is– almost never.

Conclusion

Distilling Part I down to its essence, I concluded that the most important skill for generating long-term gains from one’s investing is still about having a disciplined and consistent investment program followed without interruption and in the face of constantly nagging self-doubt (“In the stock market a good nervous system is even more important than a good head.”) The particular program that Fisher recommends be followed is to:

  1. Create a network of intelligent investors (bloggers) from which to source ideas
  2. Develop a strong scuttlebutt skill/network to develop superior investment background
  3. Check with management to confirm remaining questions generated from the 15 step list
  4. With the conviction to buy, persevere in holding over a long period of time

If you can’t do this, you probably shouldn’t bother with the Fisher approach. Whether it can be done at all is an entirely separate matter.

Review – Family Fortunes

Family Fortunes: How to Build Family Wealth and Hold on to It for 100 Years

by Bill Bonner, Will Bonner, published 2012

What kind of habits and modes of thought separate Old Money families from everyone else? How do you build a family fortune? How do you get a family to work together toward a single purpose as the “core” is continually invaded by new spouses and children? How do you invest your prodigious wealth at high rates of return? How do you hold on to your family fortune for 100 years? Why does 100 years seem like a long time when it’s really only 3-4 generations of people?

Frustratingly (maddeningly?), the answer most often given in this book to questions like these is, “We don’t know, but here’s our guess.”

What I didn’t get from this book, then, were many specific, useful ideas for implementing with my own family enterprise– or family-as-enterprise. What I did get, and what will be the focus of this review, are a lot of questions, principles to ponder, and general strategic problems in need of robust solutions. This is not a how-to manual for putting together the essential structure of long-lived family institutions such as tax and estate planning, family organization and branding, household management.

Most people will not have a family fortune to contend with. It is not something that can be acquired through a known formula, but rather it is the outcome of an entrepreneurial process that is, epistemologically speaking, random. Just as one can not predictably create a family fortune, one can not predictably control the size or scope of the family fortune, within certain bounds. In other words, your family may have the good fortune to stumble upon a business opportunity with a significant market capitalization. That’s the first hurdle, and there’s no formula for getting there. Then, that fortune might turn out to be worth $50M, $100M, or $5B. That’s another hurdle, and there’s no formula. Failing to seize every opportunity you are presented with might limit your total fortune, and being eager and observant for those opportunities might extend the limit. But there is no recipe for turning something that is worth $50M into $5B unless it was the kind of opportunity that can scale that big in the first place.

Some market opportunities are worth a lot to one person who owns them (“he made a fortune!”), but they’re still not worth a lot to the market or economy as a whole (limited scale). This is an important point because of the gilded cage nature of family fortunes– once you have one, you’re kind of stuck with it, but it’s really tempting to think you have a lot more control over it than you do, or that it’s a lot more durable than it might be.

Imagine you’re the guy with the $50M fortune. You’re pretty happy with your luck, assuming everything else is right in your life, but you’re aware of people with $5B fortunes. If you can generate a $50M fortune, why can’t you generate a $5B fortune? Are those people smarter? Better connected? More productive? What’s the difference?

Luck, and leverage, but using leverage without blowing up is really just a residue of luck.

So you’ve got this $50M fortune. What can you do with it? If you have it invested in the business that created it, you enjoy a nice income stream from it each year (maybe that’s worth $2.5M, maybe it’s worth $5M if you’re really lucky) and you reinvest where and when you can. If your business doesn’t scale easily though, you can’t put it back in and make more. You’re stuck at $50M. What if you take the $50M out by selling the business? Now you have $50M in cash with no annual return and an investment problem. Where are you going to put $50M to work such that you can, say, spend $5M per year and still have $50M left over to do it again next year? Know any hot stocks? You didn’t make your fortune in investing the first time around, what makes you think you’re going to make it there the second time around just because you have $50M now? (Note: you are statistically and logically unlikely to achieve this outcome if you so desire it.) Know any good businesses for sale? Oh, that’s right, you just sold one!

That’s the gilded cage. You’re stuck with a $50M fortune. It’s a nice problem to have, but it’s still a problem. And nothing changes at scale besides the difficulty of the problem. It isn’t easier but actually harder to achieve yield at higher increments of invested capital due to the economic phenomenon of diminishing marginal returns (if this were not the case, you could infinitely scale things by always adding more resources to every project; DMR ensures that the more you add over time, the less incremental gain you get to the point that you get no return or a negative return, ie, waste). If you had $5B, you’d have even fewer places to put it and you’d have given up an even rarer business opportunity in selling.

Unless your business value is about to become permanently impaired and you can see the writing on the wall when no one else can — technological change, regulatory change, some kind of disastrous political or economic event — your business will never be as valuable to you on the market as it is under your ownership, assuming you’re a competent operator. I’m not going to explore what you do if you’re incompetent because that’s a special case, although it follows the same general logic and leads to the same general investment problems.

I think what this means is that the primary challenge for a family with a fortune in terms of managing their business is to be sensitive to the innovation required over time to maintain the economic value of the assets, to manage the capital structure of their business intelligently (ie, not too much debt) so they don’t lose control because of the volatility of the business cycle, and to build cash up and keep their eyes peeled for a truly unique investment opportunity, the kind that made the first family fortune possible. That means it’s more important to avoid doing the wrong things than it is to try to be finding the right things to do. It also means it requires great patience. If we’re talking about building multi-generational wealth, patience is implied in the premise, but it’s still worth repeating. Bonner emphasizes this frequently– find ways to let time work for you, not against you. He believes luck, advantages and businesses all tend to grow over time so the idea is to set things up so those advantages will accumulate in your favor.

Smart investing is not the way to build a fortune. Some people will build a fortune building an investment business (ie, a wealth manager), but it will not be the investing itself that makes them rich but the operational leverage they gain through their fee structure. Because Bonner is a skeptic of “investing” as a tool for wealth building, he would land squarely on my side of the skeptic’s divide about the value public capital markets play in economic growth. Why should a person find it necessary or valuable to contribute capital to a company building things in other people’s towns instead of investing in opportunities in their own town, right “down the street”? Profit signals and differing equity returns will attract capital from disparate areas and thereby indicate relative value across an economy, but I am skeptical that this process and the capital markets in general would be as big a part of the economy overall as they are presently if we were in anything more closely approximating free market conditions without crony capitalist interventions.

So, you may get lucky and find yourself with a fortune, small or large, from a family business. If you do, hold on to it, appreciate it, care for it, tend to it responsibly and hope you or one of your descendants has an opportunity to take another swing at an uncertain point in the future. But don’t try to force it, and don’t think there’s anything you can do to greatly enhance your opportunity beyond what it is. And understand that it will never be as valuable to you as a pile of cash as it is invested in your business.

The other big topic in the book is building the institutional framework of a long-lived family that can participate in this family business over the generations and can also be “true” to the family culture and values. Family planning is an idea that attracts me, and I have spent considerable time on my own with the concept of creating a family brand (what the ancients’ termed a coat of arms) to identify the family and its enterprises.

The trouble I have with family planning is the same trouble I have with all planning, particularly that of the central variety– what if the individual members of your family don’t really find value in your plan? Obviously, raising them with certain values and viewpoints creates a better chance for a kind of coalescing around this identity and direction. But is that how I want to raise my children, by telling them what is important? I think they can figure that kind of stuff out on their own, just as I did. Hopefully I can lead by example, and provide a demonstration of the virtue of the family virtue. But I think a potentially frustrating consequence of putting this emphasis on building multi-generational institutions together is you might find out your family just doesn’t see the use in them. That’s kind of worse case, though, and doesn’t necessarily argue against the project in general.

Yet, what if you’re successful at this? Building a business and building wealth is a coordination problem resolved by growing trust. Who can you trust more than members of your own family? Creating a family organization based on shared values and common identity and linking that organization to a business entity could allow for a uniquely successful competitive strategy and management continuity over a significantly longer timeline than the average public or private competitor– in other words, huge competitive advantages over time. Simultaneously, this arrangement could solve one of the common problems of families and their constituent members, that being how each as an individual and the family as a whole can achieve security, success and satisfaction with one’s productive efforts and life. As I’ve argued in the past, I believe the family is the best institution for accomplishing this task and it is certainly far superior to the currently dominant model of public corporations (for-profit and nation-states/institutional gangsterism).

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part V, Chap. 43-52

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder (buy on Amazon.com). This post covers Part V: The King of Wall Street, Chap. 43-52

The modern Buffett

In Part V of the Snowball, we see Buffett’s transformation from the early, cigar butt-picking, Grahamian value-minded Buffett, through the filter of his Fisherite partner, Charlie Munger, into the mega cap conglomerator and franchise-buyer Buffett who is popularly known to investors and the public the world round.

It is in this part that we also see Buffett make one of his biggest missteps, a stumble which almost turns into a fall and which either way appears to shock and humble the maturing Buffett. It is in this era of his investing life that we see Buffett make some of his biggest rationalizations, become entangled in numerous scandals he never would’ve tolerated in his past and dive ever deeper into the world of “elephant bumping” and gross philanthropy, partly under the tutelage of his new best friend and Microsoft-founder, Bill Gates.

The lesson

Buffett made a series of poor investments but ultimately survived them all because of MoS. There will be challenges, struggles, and stress. But after the storm, comes the calm.

The keys to the fortress

From the late seventies until the late nineties, despite numerous economic and financial cycles Buffett’s fortune grew relentlessly under a seemingly unstoppable torrent of new capital:

Much of the money used for Buffett’s late seventies spending spree came from a bonanza of float from insurance and trading stamps

This “float” (negative working capital which was paid to Buffett’s companies in advance of services rendered, which he was able to invest at a profit in the meantime) was market agnostic, meaning that its volume was not much affected by the financial market booming or crashing. For example, if you owe premiums on your homeowner’s insurance, you don’t get to suspend payment on your coverage just because the Dow Jones has sold off or the economy is officially in a recession.

The growth in Buffett’s fortune, the wilting of his family

Between 1978 and the end of 1983, the Buffetts’ net worth had increased by a stunning amount, from $89 million to $680 million

Meanwhile Buffett proves he’s ever the worthless parent:

he handed the kids their Berkshire stock without stressing how important it might be to them someday, explaining compounding, or mentioning that they could borrow against the stock without selling it

Buffett had once written to a friend when his children were toddlers that he wanted to see “what the tree has produced” before deciding what to do about giving them money

(he didn’t actively parent though)

Buffett’s private equity shop

Another tool in Buffett’s investment arsenal was to purchase small private companies with dominant franchises and little need for capital reinvestment whose excess earnings could be siphoned off and used to make other investments in the public financial markets.

Continuing on with his success in acquiring the See’s Candy company, Buffett’s next private equity-style buyout involved the Nebraska Furniture Mart, run by a devoted Russian immigrant named Rose Blumkin and her family. And, much like the department store chain he once bought for a song from an emotionally-motivated seller, Buffett beat out a German group offering Rose Blumkin over $90M for her company, instead settling with Buffett on $55M for 90% of the company, quite a discount for a “fair valuation” of practically an entire business in the private market, especially considering the competing bid.

An audit of the company after purchase showed that the store was worth $85M. According to Rose Blumkin, the store earned $15M a year, meaning Buffett got it for 4x earnings. But Rose had buyers remorse and she eventually opened up a competing shop across the street from the one she had sold, waging war on the NFM until Buffett offered to buy her out for $5M, including the use of her name and her lease.

One secret to Buffett’s success in the private equity field? Personality:

“She really liked and trusted me. She would make up her mind about people and that was that.”

Buffett’s special privileges

On hiding Rose Blumkin’s financial privacy: Buffet had no worries about getting a waiver from the SEC

Buffett got special dispensation from the SEC to not disclose his trades until the end of the year “to avoid moving markets”

The gorilla escapes its cage

Another theme of Buffett’s investing in the late 1980s and 1990s was his continual role as a “gorilla” investor who could protect potential LBO-targets from hostile takeover bids. The first of these was his $517M investment for 15% of Tom Murphy-controlled Cap Cities/ABC, a media conglomerate. Buffett left the board of the Washington Post to join the board of his latest investment.

Another white knight scenario involved Buffett’s investment in Ohio conglomerate Scott Fetzer, which Berkshire purchased for $410M.

Then Buffett got into Salomon Brothers, a Wall Street arbitrage shop that was being hunted by private equity boss Ron Perelman. Buffett bought $700M of preferred stock w/ a 9% coupon that was convertible into common stock at $38/share, for a total return potential of about 15%. It even came with a put option to return it to Salomon and get his money back.

But Buffett had stepped outside of his circle of competence:

He seemed to understand little of the details of how the business was run, and adjusting to a business that wasn’t literally made of bricks-and-mortar or run like an assembly line was not easy for him… he had made the investment in Salomon purely because of Gutfreund

Buffett’s disgusting ignorance and hypocrisy

Buffett:

I would force you to give back a huge chunk to society, so that hospitals get built and kids get educated too

Buffett decides to sell the assets of Berkshire’s textile mills– on the books for $50M, he gets $163,122 at the auction. He refused to face his workers and then had the gall to say

“The market isn’t perfect. You can’t rely on the market to give every single person a decent living.”

Buffett on John Gutfreund:

an outstanding, honorable man of integrity

Assorted quotes

Peter Kiewit, a wealthy businessman from Omaha, on reputation:

A reputation is like fine china: expensive to acquire, and easily broken… If you’re not sure if something is right or wrong, consider whether you’d want it reported in the morning paper

Buffett on Wall St:

Wall Street is the only place people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from people who take the subway

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part IV, Chap. 34-42

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part IV: Susie Sings, Chap. 34-42

Buffett unwinds, but does not relax

In 1970, Buffett decided to unwind his partnerships, partly because he seemed to have plenty of his own capital to manage at this point and no longer needed the headaches that came with fiduciary leverage, partly because the labyrinthine holdings of the partnership were becoming a regulatory compliance headache and partly, no doubt, because of Buffett’s ill mood toward future return potential offered by the market at that point in time.

In his 1969 letter Buffett made another of his unusual market forecasts which, as infrequently as they’ve appeared over the course of his career, nonetheless seem to mark intermediate tops and frothy market conditions. In it, Buffett said,

I now believe there is little choice for the average investor between professionally managed money in stocks and passive investment in bonds

As his partners were left with the choice of holding onto their stock or selling, Buffett, the most sophisticated of the partners, left them with one clue as to what he recommended, announcing that he intended to continue buying the stock of Berkshire Hathaway and others which had become his investment holding vehicles.

The “implacable acquirer”

Buffett’s four main holdings at this time were Berkshire Hathaway, Blue Chip Stamps, National Indemnity (an insurance company) and Diversified Retail Holdings. But it was through these companies that Buffett would eventually come to own and control many others, using the earnings of each to buy even more of the next. The key in each situation was that the holdings were either capable of generating investable float, or else they were generating excellent free cash flows that could be redirected away from the core business into ownership of others.

Buffett learned this “Russian doll” strategy in part from a little-known investor named Gurdon W. Wattles, whose control company, American Manufacturing, was used to take controlling stakes in numerous other companies such as Mergenthaler Linotype, Crane Co., and Electric Auto-Lite, many of which Buffett gladly road the coattails on. Buffett claimed he followed the man for ten or fifteen years and that he saw himself as simply standing on the shoulders of a giant in emulating his acquisition approach.

The beauty of this investment technique is that the cash flows are largely market-agnostic– aside from the impact of a general business recession, they would keep generating new cash to be invested to matter what the larger market was doing, which was excellent because when the market was swooning under the weight of panicky investors, Buffett had ample resources to take deep dives on any number of absurdly cheap, high quality companies he might want.

Combined with the power of compounding, his reinvestable cash flows and float would continually increase over time.

Buffett and Mungers’ sweet teeth

One of Buffett and Mungers’ most famous coups of this era was their purchase of See’s Candies. Demanding $30M for assets worth $5M, the true value of See’s was captured in its goodwill with customers, built on its uncompromising quality standards. Buffett believed this goodwill meant the company had “uncapped pricing power”– with current earnings to acquisition price generating a 9% “yield” on investment, the deal was good, but on top of that earnings were growing 12% per year organically and Buffett was convinced that prices could be steadily raised each year to increase the rate of earnings growth beyond the rate of growth in unit volumes.

If the price increases could be met and earnings growth would continue, Buffett and Munger were looking at something that would earn not $4M on a $25M acquisition price, but $6-7M plus additional growth over time. Because the business required very little ongoing maintenance or growth capex, almost all of the earnings were investable free cash flow that Buffett and Munger could use to make additional investments and acquisitions.

Extra! Extra! Buffett buys the Washington Post and becomes board member for Kay Graham

Whether it was because of his early childhood experiences as a newspaper delivery boy or because of his belief in the pseudo-monopolistic economics of newspapers, Buffett found himself drawn to the Washington Post and other media enterprises as an investment. According to the author, newspapers were the perfect investment for Buffett because they allowed him to play all the roles he so enjoyed at once: relentless collector, preacher and cop.

Prior to his engagement, the WaPo was earning $4M per year on $85M in revenues. Run by a talented but psychologically troubled Kay Graham, Buffett was the beneficiary of temporary troubles at the paper which pushed its stock price from a high of $38/share to a low of $16. Buffett bought in big blocks whenever they were available and aimed all along at taking a seat on the board.

In the meantime, he was investing in other newspaper and media companies, breaking his no-IPO rule and buying stock in Affiliated Publications (publisher of the Boston Globe) at a negotiated discount, as well as Booth Newspapers, Scripps Howard and Harte-Hanks Communications.

By 1973 he had accumulated 5% of the shares of WaPo and he wrote a letter to Kay Graham announcing his ownership and advising her that he planned to increase it substantially, telling her that

Writing a check separates conviction from conversation

But Buffett faced challenges from other board members who were protective of Graham, untrustworthy of Buffett and bent on protecting their own turf, such as the great Lazard banker Andre Meyer. Despite controlling the voting stock A shares, even Graham herself became paranoid and defensive at one point and Buffett, to calm her nerves, agreed not to purchase anymore stock without her permission even though he’d already spent almost $10.7M to acquire 12% of the company.

He also made a play for the Buffalo Evening News, one of two newspapers in the Buffalo market. But this investment quickly became complicated as the BEN suffered not only numerous anti-competitive lawsuits from the other local paper, but massive labor disruptions as well. Buffett’s investment quickly turned into a loser whose cash-consumption multiplied rapidly with each passing year, creating a real moment of truth for Buffett and Munger who had, until this time, constructed a nearly flawless investment record.

In Buffett’s mind, the critical element in the equation was customer habit,

You’re gauging the likelihood of people changing their habits… the question is, at what point does it become more of a habit for them to buy the other paper?

Ultimately, their insight on customer habit was correct and their saving grace. Despite losing tens of millions initially on their investment of $35.5M, after surviving the labor disputes and the eventual bankruptcy of the local rival, Buffett’s Buffalo Evening News earned $19M pretax in 1983, more than all the previous losses combined.

Things get sticky with the SEC

In the mid-1970s, Buffett and Munger found themselves in a compromising position with the SEC. Supposedly tipped off by angry competitors and customers of Blue Chip Stamps, the SEC began a cursory investigation of claims about insider dealings between Buffett, Munger and Wesco Financial which eventually turned into a full-blown investigation of every single part of their combined business operations.

The details are complicated and irrelevant at this point, but at the time it was Buffett and Munger’s first real hair-raising legal experience and despite their good intentions and attempts at sweet-talking and playing innocent, they found the SEC investigators to be fairly ruthless in their inquiries and accusations.

The net result was Buffett and Munger’s decision to clean up their ownership structure and simplify it by merge more of their companies into the umbrella holding company of Berkshire Hathaway.

But one can’t help but wonder about the timing– just as Buffett was making his move on the Washington Post and beginning to enter the world of the Washington power elite, had someone decided to give Buffett a scare, to show him just how delicate his “conservative” investment empire really was, and to compel his obedience to the power elite agenda going forward?

More Buffett investments

Here is a running list of Buffett investments over the period of 1970-1983:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • Blue Chip Stamps
  • Diversified Retail Holdings
  • National Indemnity
  • Cornhusker Casualty
  • National Fire & Marine
  • The Washington Post
  • See’s Candies
  • Scripps Howard
  • Harte-Hanks Communications
  • Affiliated Publications
  • Booth Newspapers
  • San Jose Water Works
  • Source Capital
  • Wesco Financial
  • National Presto
  • Vornado Realty Trust
  • Interpublic
  • J. Walter Thompson
  • Oglivy & Mather
  • Studebaker-Worthington
  • Handy & Harman
  • Multimedia, Inc.
  • Coldwell Banker
  • Pinkerton’s, Inc.
  • Detroit International Bridge
  • Buffalo Evening News
  • The Illinois National Bank and Trust Company of Rockford
  • GEICO
  • Munsingwear
  • Data Documents (a private investment)

A collapsing personal life

With regards to Buffett’s personal life, Part IV is so far the saddest of all. It is in this stage of Buffett’s life and investment career that he really begins to lose touch with his children and his spouse, Susie. Though married in name, the couple are de facto separated and living their own independent lives, with Buffett traveling constantly and spending a lot of time “elephant bumping” with Kay Graham in Washington and Susie leaving her now empty nest in Omaha to take up her own apartment in racy San Francisco.

Buffett’s children are distant from him, physically and emotionally and the life choices and dysfunction of each seem to demonstrate quite clearly what an absentee father he was. Sadly, Susie turns to an affair (or two) in her search for companionship and even Buffett eventually caves and shacks up with his caretaker, Astrid Menks, a friend of Susie’s in Omaha.

Buffett expresses deep regret about this part of his life, realizing too late to salvage the situation what damage his indifference had caused.

If there’s a lesson here, it is that life always requires balance for it to be happy and worthwhile. What good is knowing you’re the world’s greatest (and soon to be wealthiest) investor, if it comes at the cost of agonizing sadness when your marriage falls apart and your children no longer seem to know much of you?

Other important investment ideas

In no particular order, below are a few more quotes on important investment ideas, as shared by Buffett and other investors, in Part IV.

Buffett on uncertainty:

The future is never clear, you pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus. Uncertainty actually is the friend of the buyer of long-term values

Buffett on reputation:

Over a lifetime, you’ll get a reputation for either bluffing or not bluffing. And therefore, I want it to be understood that I don’t do it [bluff]

Tom Murphy on the value of stock as a currency:

Warren never gave his stock away; neither did I if I could possibly avoid it. You don’t get rich that way. [Commentary by Alice Schroeder] Giving stock in exchange for TV Guide was saying, in a literal sense, that they thought it would earn more in the future than whatever share of Berkshire Buffett swapped for it. Paying with stock showed a sort of contempt for your own business versus whatever it was that you were buying– that is, unless you were paying with stock that had gotten wildly overpriced

Buffett’s advice to Graham on acquisitions, channeled through Alice Schroeder:

It was always a mistake to pay too much for something you wanted. Impatience was the enemy… [there was] immense value in buying their company’s own stock when it was cheap to reduce the shares outstanding

Bill Ruane on the investment business:

In this business you have the innovators, the imitators, and the swarming incompetents

Buffett on Wattles and coattailing:

There’s nothing wrong with standing on other people’s shoulders

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part III, Chap. 20-33

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part III: The Racetrack, Chap. 20-33

Racing On

The third part of The Snowball opens with Warren Buffett on the verge of starting his infamous partnerships, the precursor to his Berkshire Hathaway holding company conglomerate. On the way, he took a few short detours and learned lessons all over the place, some of them completely unrelated to the art of investing. For example, witnessing the implosion of his father’s political career and campaign, Warren realized:

  • allies are essential
  • commitments are so sacred that by nature they should be rare
  • grandstanding rarely gets anything done

And from his father-in-law, Doc Thompson, the young Buffett learned

always surround yourself with women. They’re more loyal and they work harder

Meanwhile, Buffett’s young wife and mother-to-be, Susie Thompson, was learning just how deep the rabbit hole went when it came to Warren’s insecurities:

Leila [Buffett’s emotionally unbalanced mother] convinced both Warren and Doris that deep down they were worthless… [Buffett] was riddled with self-doubt. He had never felt loved, and she saw that he did not feel lovable

The depth of Buffett’s personal insecurities not only explain a lot about his later behavior and public persona, but they also provide a couple of startling questions to ponder, namely:

  • how did a person with such fundamental self-confidence issues nevertheless summon the self-confidence necessary to trust his own investment thinking?
  • being as insecure as he appeared to be, how much better of an investor might Warren Buffett have been had he not been carrying around such a handicap?

Who is Charlie Munger?

In Part III, we begin to get a more detailed picture of Buffett’s soon-to-be-infamous partner, Charlie Munger, as well as the subtle but fundamental ways in which his own thinking about investing and business analysis came to influence and then dominate Buffett’s own style. A mathematics major at the University of Michigan at age 17, following the incident at Pearl Harbor, the young Munger enlisted in the military and found himself as an Army meteorologist in Nome, Alaska. He took up poker where he learned to bet big when he had the odds and fold fast when he did not. He later attended Harvard Law School where he claims he graduated “without learning anything.”

After law school, he was obsessed with the idea of achieving social prominence, choosing Los Angeles as a place that was growing and full of opportunity but not so big and developed that he’d never be noticed. Munger’s life, like Buffett’s, was not without personal tragedy. His first marriage fell apart right around the time his 8-year-old son came down with a terminal illness. Munger had to watch these two pillars of his life dissolve simultaneously.

He later became obsessed with children and raised eight of them with his second wife. Munger was a compulsive reader and thinker, known to his family as a “book with legs” and was constantly found reading books on science and the achievements of great figures. Munger was interested in making money early on. When he was a young lawyer and earning about $20/hr he realized his most valuable client was himself so, in the style of [amazon text=The Richest Man In Babylon&asin=0451205367], Munger decided to “sell himself an hour each day”, which he used to pursue real estate and construction projects as well as other investment opportunities. Munger had

a considerable passion to get rich, not because I wanted Ferraris– I wanted the independence

Buffett was patient with Munger. Even though Munger was his senior by several years, Munger pleadingly inquired about whether he could do what Buffett was doing in Los Angeles. Not only did Buffett tell him he could and should, he proceeded to build a relationship with him that involved hours of phone conversations everyday as the two came up with different business ideas together. As Munger described Buffett, and his fascination with him,

That is no ordinary human being

In other words, they seemed to be soulmates, a truly odd couple.

The Munger Effect

Charlie Munger entered Buffett’s life and investment world at a critical juncture in Buffett’s development as a capital allocator.

Until 1958, his straightforward route was to buy a stock and wait for the cigar butt to light. Then he usually sold the stock, sometimes with regret, to buy another he wanted more, his ambitions limited by his partnerships’ capital

But as his total AUM approached $1M with his partnerships and personal money, Buffett had a new scale that let him branch out into new styles of investing. His investments began to become concentrated, elaborate and time-consuming, such as the Sanborn Maps episode. Munger himself started his own partnership in 1962 with his poker buddy Jack Wheeler  who was a trader on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange and $300,000 in capital he had accumulated through real estate investments. He eventually gave up his law practice at age 41 and decided to pursue investing full-time. He also used Wheeler’s membership on the exchange to lever up (at a ratio of 95/100) when he felt sure about his investments, something Buffett was not willing to do early on.

Munger’s early investment style involved net-nets, arbitrage and even the acquisition of small businesses. But his real interest lay in buying “great businesses”, which he identified by:

  • strength of management
  • durability of brand
  • cost to compete/replicate the firm
  • did not require continual investment
  • created more cash than it consumed

To find these businesses, Munger asked everyone he met, “What is the greatest business you’ve ever heard of?”

As the market for net-nets dried up in the mid-60s and Buffett’s capital swelled, he found more and more he had to look at the kinds of great businesses that Charlie Munger favored, changing his focus from statistical cheapness (quantitative investing) to competitive advantage (qualitative investing).

With his capital ballooning, Buffett began looking at the acquisition of entire businesses as a more attractive option. In 1966, this twinkle in Buffett’s eye became Diversified Retailing Company, Inc., an 80/10/10-ownership holding company owned by Buffett, Munger and Sandy Gottesman, whose first acquistion was a $12M Baltimore department store called Hochschild-Kohn, financed 50% with bank borrowings, a “second-class department store” at a “third-class price”. However, the store had no competitive advantage, as the partners soon learned, and was continually caught up in a game of “standing tiptoe at a parade” as every innovation by a competitor had to be quickly imitated (at additional capital expense) lest customers shop elsewhere. It was here that Buffett and Munger learned that the essential skill of retailing was merchandising, not finance, and that retailing, like restaurants, is

a wearing marathon in which, every mile, fresh, aggressive competition could leap in and race ahead of you

Having learned their lesson, their next foray into Associated Cotton Shops, “a set of third-class stores for a fourth-class price” 80 in number led by Benjamin Rosner, a “true merchandiser” found them with a retail operation generating $44M in sales and approximately $2M/yr in earnings. Buffett made a deal to buy the stores for $6M, a sale which was ultimately made by Rosner in part to screw over his female business partner who drove him nuts, causing him to purposefully sell the business for less than it was worth just to get back at her. Buffett and Munger also insisted that Rosner stay on the manage the company for them.

In 1967, Buffett increased his control of the Buffett Partnerships while simultaneously weeding out 32,000 shares worth of investors who preferred a 7.5% debenture to Berkshire stock, ensuring that those who remained were in for growth and the risks that came with it.

Miscellany of the markets

As Buffett’s investment strategy changed over the 1950s and 1960s and his level of sophistication rose, he picked up a number of useful techniques for gaining informational edges in the market and making successful investments:

  • coat-tail riding – Buffett became a notorious borrower of good ideas and was not too proud to keep an eye on people who demonstrated deal-making intelligence in the past, such as Ben Graham and Jay Pritzker, assuming they’d continue to make good judgments in the future
  • detective-work/sleuthing – Buffett was the only person digging through the Moody’s Manuals at their company headquarters, or going to the shareholder meetings of small companies, or even meeting with executives of small companies to get an idea of who was running these companies
  • no self-imposed market cap restrictions – Buffett looked at EVERY company he came across, no matter how small, looking for opportunities others weren’t focused on; he was particularly fond of the “Pink Sheets” publications
  • consulting lists of registered shareholders – Buffett would buy blocks of companies he was interested in by hunting down individual shareholders and convincing them to unload the shares to him
  • collecting scarce things – Buffett’s National American Fire Insurance investment taught him “the value of gathering as much as possible of something scarce”, both undervalued stocks and information related to said stocks
  • proxy-investing – Buffett would often have his friends buy stocks he was interested in to hide his identity as the main buyer accumulating a position
  • benefit from sentiment – when the market hit a fever pitch in the 1960s, Buffett went into fundraising overdrive and raised as much capital as he could while people were eager to invest
  • use psychology to your advantage – as Buffett’s success unfolded, he forced would-be partners to ask him to allow them to invest with him, which put him psychologically in control
  • preservation of capital – Buffett would willingly forgo the chance of profit to avoid too much risk, viewing it as a “holy imperative”; his partner Munger believed unless you were already wealthy you could afford to take risk if the odds were right
  • haystack of gold – a concept imparted to him by friend Herb Wolf, the idea was if you’re looking for a gold needle in a haystack of gold it is not better to find the gold needle; obscurity was not virtue
  • expense control – Buffett only took on overhead as needed, and in ways that could be easily turned back off or were free to begin with; he made extensive use of “soft-dollars” in his brokerage commissions to buy research from his favorite sleuth brokers
  • profile visibility – when he was buying small companies early in his career, Buffett valued secrecy and anonymity, but as he began to target bigger companies he saw the value of a public profile and cultivated a relationship with Carol Loomis, a financial markets journalist

Buffett’s partnerships

Buffett had a total of 9 official partnerships that later became the infamous Berkshire Hathaway. However, he also set up an early partnership with his father, Howard, called Buffett & Buffett, which

formalized the way they had occasionally bought stocks together. Howard contributed some capital, and Warren’s contribution was a token amount of money, but mostly ideas and labor

Why was Buffett interested in managing money? Two reasons. One, Buffett had a strong aversion to working for others and he understood that

The overseer of capital was not an employee

Two, Buffett was obsessed with becoming a millionaire. Managing money for others and collecting a fee on profits generated would allow him to grow his own capital faster than if he were earning a return on just the money that was actually his. In other words, agreeing to manage money for others was a way to leverage his own investment returns.

Buffett started with 7 official partnerships, which were essentially all mini-hedge funds under his exclusive control, and which he viewed as “compounding machines”, meaning once the money went in it should not come out, which is why he managed most of his own wealth separately (as he would be living off his trading gains). And Buffett was so obsessed with compounding he decided to rent rather than own his own home, to free more capital for compounding.

The seven initial partnerships and several follow-on partnerships were as follows:

  1. May 1, 1956, Buffett Associates Ltd., starting capital of $105,100, seven partners: Doc Thompson, Doris Buffett, Truman Wood, Chuck Peterson, Elizabeth Peterson, Dan Monen and Warren Buffett; Buffett charged 50% performance fee on returns over 4% (4% returns being guaranteed as a minimum by Buffett); added $8,000 in capital in 1960 from Buffett’s aunt and uncle
  2. September 1, 1956, Buffett Fund, Ltd., starting capital of $120,000, partnered with Homer Dodge, a former Graham-Newman investor
  3. Late 1956, B-C, Ltd., starting capital of $55,000, partnered with John Cleary, Howard Buffett’s secretary in Congress
  4. June 1957, Underwood, starting capital of $85,000, partnered with Elizabeth Peterson; 1960, another $51,000 from connections of Chuck Peterson’s
  5. August 5, 1957, Dacee, starting capital of $100,000, partnered with the Davis Family
  6. May 5, 1958, Mo-Buff, starting capital of $70,000, partnered with Dan Monen (who had withdrawn his capital from partnership #1 to do a special investment with Buffett on National American), later joined by the Sarnats and Estey Graham with another $25,000 in capital
  7. February 1959, Glenoff, starting capital of $50,000, partnered with Casper Offutt, Jr., John Offutt and William Glenn
  8. August 15, 1960, Emdee, starting capital of $110,000, partnered with  11 local doctors
  9. 1960, Ann Investments, starting capital of ??, partnered with a prominent member of a local Omaha family
  10. 1960, Buffett-TD, starting capital of $250,000, partnered with Mattie Topp and two daughters plus son-in-law (MT owned the fanciest dress shop in town)
  11. May 16, 1961, Buffett-Holland, starting capital of ??, partnered with Dick and Mary Holland, friends he had met through his lawyer Dan Monen
  12. May 1, 1962, Buffett dissolves all partnerships into Buffett Partnership, Ltd. (BPL), beginning the year with $7.2M in net assets

His total starting capital across all of his partnerships was $580,000 and he

never deviated from the principles of Ben Graham. Everything he bought was extraordinarily cheap, cigar butts all, soggy stogies containing one free puff

Truly, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Buffett’s investments

The “racetrack” period of Buffett’s life marked Buffett’s gradual transformation from a Grahamian “cigar butt” (Net-Net) investor to the well-known “growing franchise” investor of today. As Buffett’s assets under management (AUM) grew and the general market conditions of the era changed, so, too, did Buffett’s idea of a good investment. Below is a list of some of Buffett’s investments for his partnerships, as well as his personal and peripheral portfolios:

  • Greif Bros. Cooperage; originally purchased for the B&B partnership in the early 1950s
  • Western Insurance; purchased for Buffett’s personal portfolio in the early 1950s, Buffett actually sold his GEICO position to raise money to invest in this company earning $29/share and selling for $3/share, “He bought as much as he could”
  • Philadelphia and Reading Coal & Iron Company; controlled by Graham-Newman, Buffett has discovered it on his own and had invested $35,000 by the end of 1954; it was not worth much as a business but was throwing off a lot of excess cash; Buffett learned about the value of capital allocation with this company
  • Rockwood & Co.; controlled by Jay Pritzker, the company was offering to exchange $36 of chocolate beans for shares trading at $34, a classic arbitrage opportunity; unlike Graham, Buffett didn’t arbitrage but instead bought 222 shares and held them, figuring Pritzker had a reason he was buying the stock, “inverting” the scenario; the stock ended up being worth $85/share, earning Buffett $13,000 vs. the $444 he would’ve received from the arbitrage
  • Union Street Railway; a net-net he discovered through Ben Graham, had about $60/share in net current assets against a selling price of $30-35/share, Buffett ultimately made $20,000 on this investment through sleuthing and speaking to the CEO in person
  • Jeddo-Highland Coal Company (mentioned as an idea Buffett investigated on a road trip)
  • Kalamazoo Stove and Furnace Company (mentioned as an idea Buffett investigated on a road trip)
  • National American Fire Insurance, earning $29/share, selling for around $30/share, Buffett first bought five shares for $35/share, and later realized that paying $100/share would bring out the sellers because it would make them whole (financially and psychologically) after being sold the stock years earlier
  • Blue Eagle Stamps, a failed investment scheme between Buffett and Tom Knapp, they eventually spent $25,000 accumulating these “rare” stamps that weren’t worth more than their face value ultimately
  • Hidden Splendor, Stanrock, Northspan, uranium plays that Buffett described as “shooting fish in a barrel”
  • United States & International Securities and Selected Industries, two “cigar butt” mutual funds recommended to him by Arthur Wisenberger, a well known money manager of the era; in 1950, represented 2/3 of Buffett’s assets
  • Davenport Hosiery, Meadow River Coal & Land, Westpan Hydrocarbon, Maracaibo Oil Exploration, all stocks Buffett found through the Moody’s Manuals
  • Sanborn Maps, in 1958 represented 1/3 of his partnerships’ capital; the stock was trading at $45/share but had an investment portfolio worth $65/share; Buffett acquired control of the board in part through proxy leverage; ultimately he prevailed over management and had part of the investment portfolio exchanged for the 24,000 shares he controlled
  • Dempster Mill Manufacturing, sold for $18/share with growing BV of $72/share, Buffett’s strategy as with many net-nets was to buy the stock as long as it was below BV and sell anytime it rose above it and if it remained cheap, keep buying it until you owned enough to control it and then liquidate at a profit; he and his proxies gained control of 11% of the stock and got Warren on the board, then bought out the controlling Dempster family, creating a position worth 21% of the partnership’s assets; the business was sliding and at one point he was months away from losing $1M on the investment, but was ultimately rescued by Harry Bottle, a new manager brought in on Charlie Munger’s recommendation; the business eventually recovered through strict working capital controls and began producing cash, which Buffett augmented by borrowing about $20/share worth of additional money and used it to purchase an investment portfolio for the company; he later sold the company for a $2M profit
  • Merchants National Property, Vermont Marble, Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, all net-nets he later sold to Walter Schloss to free up capital
  • British Columbia Power, selling for $19/share and being taken over by the Canadian government at $22/share, this merger arb was recommended by Munger and Munger borrowed $3M to lever up his returns on this “sure thing”
  • American Express, one of Buffett’s first “great company at a good price” investments, the firm’s reputation was temporarily tarnished in the aftermath of the soybean oil scandal; Buffett did scuttlebutt research and realized the public still believed in American Express, and as trust was the value of its brand, the company still had value; Buffett eventually invested $3M in the company and it represented the largest investment in the partnership in 1964, 1/3 of the partnership by 1965 and a $13M position in 1966
  • Texas Gulf Producing, a net-net Buffett put $4.6M into in 1964
  • Pure Oil, a net-net Buffett put $3.5M into in 1964
  • Berkshire Hathaway, the company was selling at a discount to the value of its assets ($22M BV or $19.46/share) and Buffett’s original intent was to buy it and liquidate it, which he started accumulating 2000 shares for $7.50/share; the owner, Seabury Stanton had been tendering shares with the company’s cash flow, so Buffett tried to time his transactions, buying when it was cheap and tendering when it was dear; he continued purchasing stock assuming Seabury would buy him out via tender offers, the two eventually agreed to a $11.50 tender but Seabury reneged at the last moment, changing the bid to $11 and 3/8, sending Buffett into a rage and causing him to abandon his original strategy in favor of acquiring the entire company; he eventually bought out Otis Stanton’s two thousand shares and had acquired enough to gain control with 49% of Berkshire
  • Employers Reinsurance, F.W. Woolworth, First Lincoln Financial, undervalued stocks he found in Standard & Poor’s weekly reports
  • Disney, which he bought after meeting Walt Disney and being impressed by his singular focus, love of work and the priceless entertainment catalog
  • A portfolio of shorts to hedge against a potential market collapse in the mid 60s, totally $7M and consisting of Alcoa, Montgomery Ward, Travelers Insurance and Caterpillar Tractor
  • Near the end of 1968, as the market became more and more overvalued, Buffett relented and bought some of the “blandest, most popular stocks that remained reasonably priced” such as AT&T ($18M), BF Goodrich ($9.6M), United Brands ($8.4M) and Jones & Laughlin Steel ($8.7M)
  • Blue Chip Stamps, a “classic monopoly” Buffett and Munger discovered in 1968, the company was involved in a lawsuit that the pair thought would be resolved in the company’s favor, and it also possessed “float” which could be invested in more securities, Munger and his friend Guerin each purchased 20,000 shares while Buffett acquired 70,000 for the partnership, in part through share swaps with other companies that owned Blue Chip stock for their own stock; the lawsuit was eventually resolved and the $2M investment produced a $7M profit
  • Illinois National Bank & Trust, a highly profitable bank that still issued its own bank notes, it was managed by Eugene Abegg, an able steward of the company whose retainer was one condition for Buffett’s investment in the company
  • The Omaha Sun and other local newspapers, which Buffett figured he’d make an 8% yield on, his motivation for buying seemed to be primarily connected to his desire to be a newspaper publisher
  • The Washington Monthly, a startup newsmagazine that Buffett lost at least $50,000 on, again, as a vanity project

Buffett’s AUM

Below is a record of the growth of Buffett’s personal wealth, partnership AUM and performance fees accrued:

  • 1954, Buffett’s total personal capital stood at approximately $100,000
  • 1956, Buffett was 26 years old and had $174,000 of personal capital, growing his money by more than 61% per year for six years since he entered Columbia with $9,800 in capital
  • 1959, partnership returns beat the market by 6%
  • 1960, partnership assets stood at $1.9M and returns beat the market by 29%, and Buffett’s reinvested partnership fees had earned him $243,494 (13% of partnership assets belonged to him)
  • 1962, Buffett was a millionaire and his outside investments totalled over $500,000, which he added with the rest of his money into the BPL partnership; he had acquired more than a million dollars in six years and owned 14% of the partnership
  • 1964, $5M in new capital for the partnerships, and $3M in investment earnings, Buffett’s personal net worth was $1.8M and BPL had $17.5M in capital
  • 1965, ended the year with assets of $37M, including $3.5M in profit on American Express, Buffett had earned more than $2.5M in fees, bringing his total stake to $6.8M
  • 1966, $6.8M in additional capital investments in the partnerships, with total capital amounting to $44M, some of which was set aside as cash for the first time in Buffett’s career
  • 1967, Buffett’s personal net worth was $9M and he had generated $1.5M in fees in 1966
  • 1968, the partnership was worth $105M thanks to additional capital infusions and investment returns
  • 1969, Buffett’s net worth was $26M

The Desert Island Challenge

Buffett and his investor friends came up with the following challenge that is a helpful mental tool for thinking about the investment problem:

If you were stranded on a desert island for ten years, he asked, in what stock would you invest? The trick was to find a company with the strongest franchise, one least subject to the corroding forces of competition and time: Munger’s idea of a great business.

Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part II, Chap. 5-19

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part II: The Inner Scorecard, Chap. 5-19

The beginning of Buffett

In a letter to a family member from one of Warren Buffett’s ancestors, Zebulon, the elder Buffett counsels his grandson to

be content with moderate gains

almost as if some strain of value investing ethic permeated his lineage from before Buffett himself had even heard of The Intelligent Investor. Buffett’s family represents a long line of business minded people. Yet, despite this heritage,

Buffett always credited most of his success to luck

It’s an odd, likely guilt-laden existential belief to carry around with oneself! But it is maybe no surprise. Love doesn’t sound like it was given much attention in Buffett’s childhood home, and self-love is probably included, as we learn that:

Politics, money and philosophy were acceptable topics for dinner-table discussion at the Buffett house, but feelings were not. Nobody in the Buffett household said “I love you,” and nobody tucked the children into bed with a kiss.

Any guess as to where some of Buffett’s later self-hating charitable giving ideas might have come from?

[Buffett’s mother, Leila’s] favorite stories told of her and Howard’s sacrifices… anything for Howard. “She crucified herself”… But Leila’s attitude of duty and sacrifice had another, darker side: blame and shame.

If you guessed his psychotic, clinically depressed mother, you answered correctly!

It is Buffett’s relationship to his mother and his vulnerability to her rage as a child that we actually see Buffett in the most sympathetic light. We see as Warren recounts his relationship with his mother this grown, aged man “weeping helplessly”, and we also learn that despite the savage treatment from his mother, which his idolized father was aware of, Howard “didn’t intervene.”

The most vulnerable people in any society are children– they’re physically, intellectually AND emotionally unequipped to make sense of and thoughtfully respond to the irrationalities and volatilities of unstable and violent adults. It is actually quite touching imagining this young, budding genius, Warren Buffett, suffering at the hands of his psychologically diseased mother and developing a precarious existential belief system that leaves him feeling so guilty for the remainder of his life that after all he has (legitimately) achieved, he is still convinced it was mostly due to luck! What an absolute tragedy of human imagination! It would be nice to imagine the poor, hurting and timid child inside of Warren Buffett eventually being freed to go on his way and let Warren wrestle with these childhood demons no more.

What a different world it would be if Warren was a hero entrepreneur rather than a man so tormented by his past that he carries his fears and anxieties into his public persona and recommendations for society at large!

We also see in this information the source of Warren’s fascination with other people’s mothers (who he often developed crushes on), with motherly women in general and with his tendency to have a cadre of close female friends in both his personal and professional life, all while simultaneously having a troubled and distant relationship with his own wife and children later on. What a sad development for an otherwise triumphant individual.

The search for a system – Buffett the handicapper

One of the central themes of Part II is the young Warren Buffett’s search for a “system”: a predictable, confined process for predicting and handicapping the odds of various events in his life. Starting with his bathtub marble race, extending to the racing track (horses) and eventually culminating in his quest for an investment system (part of his initial attraction to Graham, who was especially formulaic, scientific and systematic in his approach to the investment question in general).

And a system, once found, is only valuable if it has a lot of information to process:

There were opportunities to calculate odds everywhere. The key was to collect information, as much information as you could find.

We also begin to see hints of the later, “original” Buffett, with his love of monopoly as a competitive advantage. The anecdotes of Buffett and his friend Russ collecting license plate information in the hopes of eventually providing it to the police to catch a bank robber are examples of Buffett’s early obsession with  the value of a monopoly. Similarly, while the young Warren was holed up in a hospital with an illness, he took to collecting the fingerprints of the nurses so that if one of them committed a crime,

he, Warren Buffett, would own the clues to the culprit’s identity

This is a pretty astounding conclusion for a young child to reach, even if it is innocently done. It appears Warren had something of an intuitive understanding of the value of a restricted supply granted by a monopoly on a particular resource.

He also was perplexed by the way so much valuable information (valuable to someone with a system in place for interpreting and analyzing it) went uncollected and unused. An early example is Buffett’s collecting of bottle caps nearby soda dispensers:

The numbers told him which soft drinks were most popular

Do you see the future investor in Coca-Cola beginning to formulate his understanding of the value of consumer habits and patterns?

In the 1940s, Buffett started visiting horse racing tracks where he learned

The art of handicapping is based on information. The key was having more information than the other guy

Buffett ended up reading HUNDREDS of books on horse handicapping before he eventually learned the Rules of the Racetrack:

  • Nobody ever goes home after the first race
  • You don’t have to make it back the way you lost it

Buffett later connected these experiences to his investing and understood

The market is a racetrack too. The less sophisticated the track, the better… the trick, of course, is to be in a group where practically no one is analytical and you have a lot of data

In this way, a handicapper or investor can develop informational asymmetries which grant him the all-important edge. Interestingly, Buffett earned a college scholarship in just this way, as he was the only person to show up to a scholarship committee session and thus earned the scholarship by default because he had no competition.

This is where the quote about Buffett sifting through the Moody’s Manuals company by company, page by page (all ten thousand) comes from, and the famous quote,

I actually looked at every business– although I didn’t look very hard at some

In a similar vein, Warren’s classmates at the Columbia Business School completely ignored the opportunity they had, right in front of them, to learn investing from the premier guru of their era, Benjamin Graham. Instead,

They were a remarkably homogeneous group of men, mostly headed to General Motors, IBM or U.S. Steel after they got their degrees

These young men were being trained to become managers. Meanwhile, Buffett was training to become an owner (and he would later own IBM, while the other two American stalwarts died slow, painful deaths). Or, as Buffett later put it,

U.S. Steel was a good business… it was a big business, but they weren’t thinking about what kind of train they were getting on

Buffett also learned the importance of “swinging at the right pitches”:

You’re not supposed to bet every race. I’d committed the worst sin, which is that you get behind and you think you’ve got to break even that day

Simultaneously, Buffett was realizing the importance of thinking for oneself and not being a mindless trend follower. Granted an opportunity to play “the echo” to another trumpeter in the school band, Buffett found himself in a confusing and embarrassing situation in which the lead player played the wrong note and Warren didn’t know what to do as his “echo”. The lesson?

It might seem easier to go through life as the echo– but only until the other guy plays a wrong note

He also became enamored with Dale Carnegie and his social system, one of the most important lessons of which he felt was “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”

In addition, Buffett studied the biographies of great businessmen such as:

  • Jay Cooke
  • Daniel Drew
  • Jim Fisk
  • Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • Jay Gould
  • John D. Rockefeller
  • Andrew Carnegie

looking for the keys to their “system”.

History repeats itself, or at least rhymes

In Part II we also get a glimpse into the way that early themes and experiences in Buffett’s life replayed themselves as important investments in his later life as the world’s best known and must successful investor. For example:

  • as a child, Buffett sold chewing gum door-to-door; he later successfully invested in Wrigley’s chewing gum
  • as a child, Buffett collected soda bottle caps; he later successfully invested in Coca-Cola
  • as a child, Buffett was obsessed with model trains and always dreamed of owning a train set; he later successfully invested in Burlington Northern railroads
  • as a child, Buffett met Sidney Weinberg, an important figure at Goldman Sachs, during a field trip to Wall St with his father; he later successfully invested in Goldman Sachs
  • as a child, Buffett had a paper route in which he distributed, amongst many other papers, the Washington Post; he later successfully invested in the Washington Post and other dailies

Warren catches the wealth-bug

It was on his trip to the Stock Exchange in New York City in 1940 with his father that Warren first understood the money-making potential of stock investing. Witnessing exchange members who had servants roll custom cigars, Warren realized

the Stock Exchange must pour forth streams of money… he worked with a passion for the future he saw ahead of him, right there in sight. He wanted money

Later, Warren came across a book entitled “One Thousand Ways to Make $1,000” or, in Warren’s mind, how to make a million dollars. This was it. He was going to be a millionaire. The book had hopeful, helpful and optimistic advice that we would all well consider and pay attention to in the event that we become similarly motivated:

the opportunities of yesterday are as nothing compared with the opportunities that await the courageous, resourceful man of today! You cannot possibly succeed until you start. The way to begin making money is to begin… Hundreds of thousands of people in this country who would like to make a lot of money are not making it because they are waiting for this, that or the other to happen

Buffett also learned around this time the power of compounding and decided

If a dollar today was going to be worth ten some years from now, then in his mind the two were the same

Early Buffett investments, and why he made them

Before he had even graduated from college, the young Warren Buffett had made a number of stock and private investments:

  • Cities Service Preferred; bought three shares at $114.75 for himself and his sister, the shares fell and then recovered; Buffett sold at $40/share for a $5 profit, only to watch the shares rise to $202, lessons learned:
    • Do not overly fixate on the price paid for a stock
    • Don’t rush unthinkingly to grab a small profit; it can take years to earn back the profit “lost” through opportunity cost
    • Buffett didn’t want to have responsibility for other people’s money unless he was sure he could succeed
  • Around age 15, Warren had invested in “Builders Supply Co.”, a hardware store owned and operated by his father and his father’s business partner, Carl Falk, in Omaha
  • Around age 15, Warren bought a 40-acre farm for $1,200 that he split the profits of with a tenant farmer; he sold it when he was in college (5 years later) for $2,400
  • Buffett invested “sweat equity” in a paper route which earned him $175/mo in an era when a grown man felt well-paid on $3,000/yr
  • Buffett started a used golf-ball retailing business with a friend, selling golf balls for $6/dozen, through a wholesaler in Chicago named Witek
  • Buffett bought a pinball machine for $25, placed it in a barbershop and recouped $4 in the first day; he went on to purchase 7-8 pinball machines for “Mr. Wilson’s pinball machine company”, learning the principle of capital,  money that works for its owner, as if it had a job of its own
  • 1949, Buffett shorts automaker Kaiser-Frazer, which went from producing 1/20 cars to 1/100 in the market; Buffett saw a trend in the statistics
  • Preparing to enter Columbia, Buffett invested in Parkersburg Rig & Reel, purchasing 200 shares after discovering the company “according to Graham’s rules” in The Intelligent Investor
  • At Columbia, Buffett was invested in Tyer Rubber Company, Sargent & Co. and Marshell-Wells (a hardware company) of which he had jointly purchased 25 shares with his father; Marshell-Wells was the largest hardware wholesaler in the US and traded for $200 but earned $62/share, making it similar to a bond with a 31% yield
  • After visiting with Lou Simpson at GEICO, Buffett dumped 3/4ths of his stock portfolio to buy 350 shares of GEICO, which was trading at 8x current earnings at $42/share and was rapidly growing; Buffett felt his margin of safety was a growing, small company in a large field meaning it had a lot of opportunity ahead of it, especially because it was the lowest cost provider
  • Grief Bros. Cooperage, a barrel maker and Ben Graham stock
  • Philadelphia Reading Coal & Iron Company, selling for $19/share with $8/share worth of culm banks
  • Cleveland Worsted Mills, textile manufacturer selling for less than its current assets of $146/share; the company cut the dividend which was part of Buffett’s investment thesis and he sold the stock in disgust
  • A gas service station, which he bought with a friend for $2,000; the property never made money as they couldn’t entice customers from the nearby Texaco station; Buffett lost his investment and learned the value of customer habit

Related to the theme of early Buffett investments is the course of the young Buffett’s savings and the accumulation of his capital stock:

  • Age 14, his savings totaled around $1,000, “he was ahead of the game… getting ahead of the game, he knew, was the way to the goal”
  • Age 15, his savings totaled around $2,000, much of which was from his newspaper route
  • Age 16, his savings totaled around $5,000 ($53,000 in 2007 dollars), much of it from his pinball and golfball businesses
  • Age 20 (1950), his savings totaled $9,803.70 which was partly invested in stocks, as well as a $500 scholarship and $2,000 from his father for not smoking
  • Age 21, his savings totaled $19,738, he had boosted his capital 75% in a single year and he felt “supremely confident in his own investing abilities”, he also was willing to take on debt equal to a quarter of his net worth, or about $5,000, for total capital of around $25,000

Miscellaneous Buffett lessons

On betting and deal-making in general:

Know what the deal is in advance

What Buffett learned from Graham:

  • A stock is the right to own a little piece of a business
  • Use a margin of safety so the effects of good decisions are not wiped out by errors; the way to advance is to not retreat
  • Mr. Market is your servant, not your master
On influence:

it pays to hang around people better than you are, because you will float upward a little bit. And if you hang around with people that behave worse than you, pretty soon you’ll start sliding down the pole

Buffett’s authorship of the article “The Stock I Like Best” on GEICO attracted the attention of a later financial backer, Bill Rosenwald, son of Julius Rosenwald and longtime chairman of Sears, Roebuck & Co.