Review – Losing My Virginity

Losing My Virginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way

by Richard Branson, published 2011

Spoiler alert– this book is choppy and inconsistent in the pacing and entertainment factor of its narrative. You really need to read between the lines a bit to get the most value out of it. That being said, it’s surprisingly literary for a dyslexic former publisher of a student magazine and I found Branson’s repeated reference to his high-altitude balloon voyage trials to be an outstanding metaphor for his life as a businessman and entrepreneur.

You see, in Branson’s ballon journeys, the key factors of any consistency were that: a.) Branson was knowingly and openly taking what he perceived to be a potentially life-threatening risk b.) Branson was almost always underprepared for it, or decided to go ahead with his attempt despite early warnings that something was amiss and c.) nonetheless, he somehow managed to survive one disaster after another, only to try something bigger and bolder the next time around.

And this is quite similar to the way he comported himself as an entrepreneur on so many occasions. Again and again, he’d make a daring foray into a business, market or industry he didn’t quite understand, the company would stumble after an early success leaving them all on the brink of failure and yet, each time they’d double down and somehow win.

In that sense, Branson is a perfect example of survivorship bias. On the other hand, having so many narrow misses that turn into massive accelerators of a person’s fortune start to make you wonder if isn’t mostly luck but rather mostly skill.

As an entrepreneurial profile, “Losing My Virginity” is full of all kinds of great successes and astounding failures. With regards to the failures, something I found of particular interest was the fact that Branson’s company were victims of some of the most common pitfalls of other businesses throughout its early history: taken for a ride by indomitable Japanese owners/partnerships in the 80s, repeated victim of the LBO-boom and the private/public buyout-cycle in the 80s and 90s. When you read these stories in the financial press it always seems to happen to the rubes of the business world, but Branson’s foibles help one to realize even rather sophisticated types can get taken in now and then.

The volatility in Branson’s fortunes do leave one with a major question though, namely, why did Branson’s company ultimately survive?

This isn’t a Harvard Business School case study so I don’t mean to pass this off as a qualified, intelligent answer to that question, but I will attempt a few observations and, in typical HBS fashion, some or all of them may be contradictory of one another and none will be provided with the precise proportional contribution they made to the end result:

  • the group had a cultural commitment to change and dynamism; they were not so much their businesses, but a culture and group of people who did business a particular way, a true brand-over-merchandise, which allowed them to reinvent themselves numerous times
  • the group strategically focused on being the low-cost provider in their industry, usually while simultaneously attempting to pursue the seemingly mutually exclusive goal as being seen as the highest quality offering as well
  • the group focused on serving customers but equally saw treating its employees with concern as an important value
  • the group consciously created a brand that could be applied to diverse businesses (see point #1)
  • the group pursued businesses that seemed “interesting” or sensually appealing to it, which ensured that everyone involved was motivated to do well because they liked the work they had chosen

Another thing I noticed about Branson and the development of his company was the attention he paid to the composition of management and owners and his dedication to weeding out those who were not good fits in a charitable way. Channeling the “best owner” principle, Branson made a conscious effort to buy out early partners whose vision and tastes did not match the current or future vision of the group. In this way, the company maintained top-level focus and concentration on a shared strategic vision at all times, sparing itself the expense and distraction of infighting and wrangling over where to go next and why.

Another aspect of the company’s resilience had to do with its operational structure. Branson built a decentralized company whose debts and obligations were kept separate. In an environment where new ventures were constantly subject to total failure, this arrangement ensured that no one business failure would bring the entire group down.

The final lessons of the Branson bio were most instructive and had to do with the nature and value of forecasting.

The first lesson in forecasting has to do with the forecasts others make of us, or the world around us. For example, Richard Branson had no formal business training, he grew up with learning disabilities (dyslexia) and he was told very early on in his life by teachers and other adult and authority figures in his life that he’d amount to nothing and his juvenile delinquency would land him in prison. Somehow this worthless person contributed a great deal to society, through business and charity, and by most reasonable measures could be considered a success, making this forecast a failure. If one had taken a snapshot of the great Warren Buffett at a particular time in his adolescence, when the young boy was known to often take a “five-finger discount” from local department stores, it might have been easy to come up with a similar forecast about him.

I’m not sure how to succinctly sum up the concept there other than to say, “Things change.” Most forecasts that involve extrapolating the current trend unendingly out into the future will probably fail for this reason.

The second lesson in forecasting has to do with how we might attempt to forecast and plan our own lives. When we have 50, 60, 70 or more years of a person’s life to reflect on, it is easy to employ the hindsight bias and see how all the facts of a person’s life were connected and led them inexorably to the success (or infamy) they ultimately achieved. And certainly there are some people, again using Buffett as an example, who from an early age were driven to become a certain something or someone and so their ability to “predict their future selves” seemed quite strong.

But the reality is that for the great many of us, the well-known and the common alike, we really don’t have much of a clue of who we are and what we’ll ultimately become. The future is uncertain and, after all, that’s the great puzzle of life that we all spend our lives trying to unravel. Richard Branson was no different. He was not born a billionaire, in a financial, intellectual, personal or other sense. He had to learn how to be a businessman and how to create a billion dollar organization from scratch. Most of the time, he didn’t even know he was doing it. In other words, HE DID NOT KNOW AHEAD OF TIME that he would become fabulously wealthy, and while he was hard-working and driven, it doesn’t even appear he purposefully intended to become so.

Maybe we should all take a page from Branson’s book and spend less time trying to figure out what’s going to happen and more time just… happening. We could sit around all day trying to figure life out, or we could follow the Branson philosophy where he says, “As for me, I just pick up the phone and get on with it.”

Four Views On Gold And Gold Miners

1.) Atyant Capital, “What is gold saying?”:

Gold stocks lead gold and gold leads currencies and currency moves correlate with stocks and bonds. Gold stocks have been declining for two or so years now. This is in part due to unavailability of capital and credit for gold mining projects, but in our assessment, not the whole story. We believe gold stocks are also correctly forecasting lower gold prices.

Long term readers know my gold pricing model puts fair value at $1100 per ounce (Alpha Magazine Aug 24, 2011). So at $1700-$1800, gold was about 60% overvalued, floating on a sea of credit. Gold declining now tells me the sea of credit is receding here and now. This should translate to a higher US Dollar and pressure on asset prices globally.

2.) Value Restoration Project, “Gold miners – Back in the Abyss – An Update“:

Gold mining stocks remain cheap by almost any objective measure.

One way to look at mining stocks is to compare them to the price of gold itself.

Comparing miners to the price of gold itself, show miners are cheaper today than they have been in decades.

[…]

Today, gold appears undervalued relative to the growth in the monetary base that has occurred up to now, and in light of the monetary expansion the Fed and other central banks are currently undertaking, gold appears more undervalued. The Fed’s current quantitative easing program probably won’t be curtailed until households stop deleveraging and the government can handle the rising interest expense on its expanding debt.

Yet, in the face of all this, many gold mining stocks are now selling at valuations that suggest the market has priced in a decline in the price of gold back to 2007 levels, before the Fed began expanding its balance sheet during the financial crisis. Many gold mining stocks are now selling near or below their book value, which is the market’s way of saying that these businesses won’t be able to add shareholder value in the coming years by mining gold and silver. If the price of gold were to decline below $700 or so, it would certainly be the case that most mining companies wouldn’t be able to profitably sell gold. Yet such a decline in gold is the main implied assumption being priced in by the market today, and this has sent valuations of gold mining stocks to their lowest levels since the current bull market began.

3.) Robert Blumen, “What is the key for the price formation of gold?“:

The gold price is set by investor preferences, which cannot be measured directly. But I think that we understand the main factors in the world that influence investor preferences in relation to gold. These factors are the growth rate of money supply, the volume and quality of debt, political uncertainty, confiscation risk, and the attractiveness (or lack thereof) of other possible assets. As individuals filter these events through their own thoughts they form their preferences. But that’s not something that’s measurable.

I suspect that the reason for the emphasis on quantities is that they that can be measured. Measurement is the basis of all science. And if we want our analysis to be rigorous and objective, so the thinking goes, we had better start with numbers and do a very fine job at measuring those numbers accurately. If you are an analyst you have to write a report for your clients, after all they have paid for it, so they have to come up with things that can be measured and the quantity is the only thing that can be measured so they write about quantities.

And in the end this is the problem for gold price analysts, you’re talking about a market in which it’s difficult to really quantify what’s going on. I think that looking at some broad statistical relationships over a period of history, like gold price to money supply, to debt, things like that, might give some idea about where the price is going. Or maybe not, maybe you run into the problem I mentioned about synchronous correlations that are not predictive.

Part of the problem is that statistics work better the more data you have. But we really don’t have a lot of data about how the gold price behaves in relation to other things. The unbacked global floating exchange rate system has never been tried before our time. How many complete bull and bear cycles has the gold/fiat market gone through? My guess is that when we look back we will see that we are now still within the first cycle. Our sample size is one.

[…]

I do think we will have a bubble in gold, although it may take the form of a collapse of the monetary and a return to some form of gold as money in which case, the bubble will not end, it would simply transition over to the new system in which gold would go from being a non-money asset to money.

I have been following this market since the late 90s. I remember reading that gold was in a bubble at every price above 320 dollars. I very much like the writings of William Fleckenstein, an American investment writer. He has pointed out how often you read in the financial media that gold is already in a bubble, a point he quite rightly disputes. Fleckenstein has pointed out that the people who say this did not identify the equity bubble, did not believe that we had a housing bubble, nor have they identified the current genuine bubble, which in the bond market. But now these same people are so good at spotting bubbles that they can tell you that gold is in one.

Most of them did not identify gold as something which was worth buying at the bottom, have never owned a single ounce of gold, have missed the entire move up over the last dozen years, and now that they’re completely out of the market, they smugly tell us for our own good that gold is in a bubble and we should sell.

So, I don’t know that we need to listen to those people and take them very seriously.

4.) Me:

I don’t know what the intrinsic value of gold is. I don’t think gold mines are good businesses (on the whole) because they combine rapidly depleting assets with high capital intensitivity and they are constantly acquiring other businesses (mines) sold by liars and dreamers and schemers. And I don’t think this will end well, whatever the case may be. So, I am happy to own a little gold and wait and see what happens.

I wonder what the short interest is on gold miners?

Notes – Buffett Partnership Letters, 1957-1970

Recently I sank into my overstuffed armchair (in this situation, “sank” is used derisively to connote frustration and discomfort with regards to ideal reading conditions) with a copy of Buffett’s partnership letters from the 1957-1970 period in my hands. I found them on CSInvesting.org and had never taken the time to read them before, but figured it was about time as I was curious to consult a primary source on this period of Buffett’s investment career, having already read a 3rd-party recounting in The Snowball.

My interest was to read critically. Buffett’s letters have been read and analyzed and mulled over by thousands of investors and business people and have been discussed ad nauseum. But everyone seems to come away with the same lessons and the same pithy quotes that they throw up on their blogs when appropriate. I wanted to see if I could find anything original. From my own set of knowledge and understanding of Buffett and “how he did it”, I achieved my goal, but I can not guarantee creativity to anyone else who may be reading this. Somehow, somewhere in some overlooked nook of this vast interweb, I may have missed the discussion where someone went over these exact points.

Market timing, or the “value climate”

Amongst value investors, the sin of attempting to time the market is considered to be one of the greatest (for example, see the special note at the end of my recent review of The Intelligent Investor). Luminaries like Graham warn us that attempting to jump in and out of the markets according to their perceived price level being high or low is a speculative activity that will be rewarded as such, which is to say, it’ll eventually end in disaster.

However, while value gurus like Graham warned against market timing as a primary tool of analysis in an investment program, it’s also true that both Graham and Buffett were nonetheless intimately aware of market valuations and sentiment and both of them discussed the way their perception of market valuation influenced their portfolio orientation at any given time. For Graham and his intelligent investors, the response was to weight the portfolio toward bonds and away from stocks when the market was high and the opposite when the market was low. Similarly, Buffett advised in his 1957 letter:

If the general market were to return to an undervalued status our capital might be employed exclusively in general issues… if the market should go considerably higher our policy will be to reduce our general issues as profits present themselves and increase the work-out portfolio

This quote alone, along with many others just like it throughout the partnership letters, makes it clear the Buffett did not ignore broad market valuations. And not only did he not ignore them, he actively manipulated his portfolio in response to them. However, there are a few key things to note in terms of the heavily nuanced differences between what Buffett did and what the average market timer does:

  • Market timers are forecasters, they act on a perceived market level because of their anticipation about future market levels; Buffett refused to speculate about what the future of the market level might be and instead accepted it for what it was, changing what he owned and in what proportions, not whether he was invested or uninvested
  • Market timers are binary, choosing between “risk on” or “risk off”; Buffett responded to higher market levels by seeking to gain greater exposure to market neutral opportunities (special situations revolving around corporate action) while still continuing to make investments in individual undervalued businesses as he found them
  • Market timers always maintain the illusion of “full control” knowing they can always sell out or buy in any time they like in response to market valuations; Buffett acknowledged that many times he might desire to have greater market neutral exposure but that such opportunities might dry up in the late stages of a bull market, dashing his plans

The importance of relative performance

Another concept of Buffett’s money management style that stood out was his obsession with relative performance. I found this interesting again because the orthodox value investment wisdom is that it is not relative, but absolute, performance which matters– if you permanently lose a portion of your capital in a period, but your loss is smaller than your benchmark, you’ve still lost your capital and this is a bad thing.

Again, from the 1957 letter, Buffett turned this idea on its head:

I will be quite satisfied with a performance that is 10% per year better than the [Dow Jones Industrial] Averages

Because Buffett calculated that over the long-term the DJIA would return 5-7% to shareholders including dividends, Buffett was aiming for a 15-17% per annum performance target, or about 3x the performance of the Dow. But, as always, there was an important twist to this quest for relative out performance. In his 1962 letter, Buffett stated in no uncertain terms:

I feel the most objective test as to just how conservative our manner of investing is arises through evaluation of performance in down markets. Preferably these should involve a substantial decline in the Dow. Our performance in the rather mild declines of 1957 and 1960 would confirm my hypothesis that we invest in an extremely conservative manner

He went on to say:

Our job is to pile up yearly advantages over the performance of the Dow without worrying too much about whether the absolute results in a given year are a plus or a minus. I would consider a year in which we were down 15% and the Dow declined 25% to be much superior to a year when both the partnership and the Dow advanced 20%

And he concluded by noting:

Our best years relative to the Dow are likely to be in declining or static markets. Therefore, the advantage we seek will probably come in sharply varying amounts. There are bound to be years when we are surpassed by the Dow, but if over a long period we can average ten percentage points per year better than it, I will feel the results have been satisfactory.

Specifically, if the market should be down 35% or 40% in a year (and I feel this has a high probability of occurring in one year in the next ten– no one knows which one), we should be down only 15% or 20%. If it is more or less unchanged during the year, we would hope to be up about ten percentage points. If it is up 20% or more, we would struggle to be up as much

In his 1962 letter, he added further detailing, sharing:

Our target is an approximately 1/2% decline for each 1% decline in the Dow and if achieved, means we have a considerably more conservative vehicle for investment in stocks than practically any alternative

Why did Buffett focus so much on relative out performance in down years? Because, as a value investor, he was obsessed with permanent loss of capital. In a broad sense, making money in the market is somewhat easy as over long periods of time as the market has historically tended to rise higher and higher. Every now and then, however, it corrects sharply to the downside and it is in these moments when the average investor panics and sells out at a loss, thereby permanently impairing his capital.

Buffett believed that by buying at a discount and taking a more conservative approach to the investment problem from the outset, he would limit any losses he might sustain in the inevitable downturns in the market. This by itself would put him ahead of other market participants because he’d have more of his capital intact. The real power behind this strategy is what comes afterward, as then the just-as-inevitable recovery would continue the compounding process again– with more of his original capital than the other guy, Buffett would enjoy greater pure gain over time as he would have a relatively shallower hole to climb out of each time.

True Margin of Safety: two pillars of value

Fellow value investor Nate Tobik over at OddballStocks.com has talked repeatedly about one of Ben Graham’s concepts which he refers to as the “two pillars of value”, namely, that a company which represents a bargain both on the basis of a discount to net assets and a discount earnings is the most solid Margin of Safety one can possess because you’re not only protected two ways but you also have two ways to “win.”

Reading the Buffett partnership letters, it’s clear that the reason Buffett was knocking it out of the park in his early years was because he relied upon the same methodology. Buffett later was critical of his own early practices and many others have derided the investment style as akin to picking up soggy cigar butts and taking the last puff before discarding them, but there is no denying in studying several of the investments Buffett disclosed that Buffett was buying things which were “smack you over the head” cheap.

For example, in the 1958 letter, Buffett disclosed the partnerships’ investment in Commonwealth Trust Company of New Jersey, a small bank. Buffett claimed the company had a computed per share intrinsic value of $125, which was earning $10/share and trading for $50. This meant that Buffett bought the company for 40% of book value, or at a 60% margin of safety to indicated value. And, in two pillar tradition, he was also buying at a 5x multiple of net earnings– by any standards, an incredibly cheap value. If one were to look at the company as a bond and study it’s earnings yield, this company was offering a 20% coupon!

Making good buys, not good sales

In the example of Commonwealth Trust Co. discussed earlier, though Buffett calculated an intrinsic value of $125/share, he ultimately sold for only $80/share. He did not sell out near intrinsic value but rather far below it. Still, because he had originally bought at $50/share, he nonetheless earned a 60% return despite the company trading at a still-substantial discount to intrinsic value.

As Buffett chirped in his 1964 letter:

Our business is making excellent purchases– not making extraordinary sales

Why does Buffett harp on this idea so frequently? There are a few reasons.

One, an excellent purchase price implies a substantial discount to intrinsic value and earnings power, therefore there is a built-in margin of safety and the downside is covered, a principle of central importance to sound investing.

Two, an individual has 100% control over when they buy a security but relatively little control over when and in what conditions they sell, particularly if they use margin. You may not always get the price you want when you are ready to sell but you will always get the price you want when you buy because that decision is made entirely by you and doesn’t require the cooperation of anyone else. Buying at a discount ensures you “lock in” a profit up front.

Three, buying at a discount gives one optionality. If a better deal comes along, it is more likely you can get back out of your original investment at cost or better when you buy it cheap. When your original purchase price represents a substantial discount you have a better chance of finding a buyer for your shares because even at higher prices such a sale would probably still represent a bargain to another buyer meaning both parties can feel good about the exchange.

This last point was critical in Buffett’s Commonwealth situation. He was happy to sell at only $80/share despite a $125/share intrinsic value because he had found another opportunity that was even more compelling and because his original purchase price was so low, he still generated a 60% return. Meanwhile, the other party who took this large block off his hands was happy to provide the liquidity because they still had a 56% upside to look forward to at that $80/share price.

Early activism, the value of control

Another lesson from Buffett’s partnership letters is the importance and value of activism and control. From an activism standpoint, the examples of Sanborn Maps and Dempster Mills are well-known and don’t require further elaboration in this post (follow the links for extensive case study analysis at CSInvesting.org, or even read Buffett’s partnership letters yourself to see his explanation of how these operations worked).

But activism is something that is best accomplished with control, and often is its by-product. On the topic of control, Buffett said in his 1958 letter with regards to Commonwealth:

we became the second largest stockholder with sufficient voting power to warrant consultation on any merger proposal

By gaining a large ownership share in an undervalued company, an investor can play a more active role in ensuring that potential catalysts which might emerge serve to adequately reward shareholders. Similarly, time is money and when one has control,

this has substantial advantages many times in determining the length of time required to correct the undervaluation

An investment situation offering, say, a 30% return, offers a 30% annualized return if captured within a year, a 15% annualized return if gained after two years and only a 10% annualized return if it takes 3 years to realize value. Having control can often be the difference between a 30% and a 10% annualized return by allowing an investor to accelerate the pace at which they turn over their capital.

It is a myth, therefore, that Buffett only became a wholesale/control buyer as he employed greater amounts of capital in his later years. While many of his investments were passive, minority positions in the partnership years, Buffett never shied away from control and activism, even saying in his 1961 letter:

Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low enough for a long period, this might very well happen

In this sense, “value is its own catalyst” and something which is cheap and remains cheap for an extended period of time can actually be a unique opportunity to accumulate enough shares to acquire control, at which point the value can be unlocked through asset conversion, a sale or merger of the company or through a commandeering of the company’s earnings power.

Portfolio buckets: generals, work-outs and control

In his 1961 letter, as well as later letters, Buffett outlined the three primary types of investments that could be found in the partners’ portfolios, the approximate proportion of the portfolio to be involved with each and the basis upon which such investments should be chosen.

The “bread and butter” according to Buffett was his “generals”, businesses trading at substantial discounts to their intrinsic value which were purchased with the intent of eventually being resold at a price closer to the intrinsic value:

our largest category of investment… more money has been made here than in either of the other categories… We usually have fairly large positions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen… Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they take years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price… individual margin of safety coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential… [we] are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner

While admitting that the particular and eventual catalyst was often not known with the average investment in a general security, Buffett also admitted in his 1963 “Ground Rules” letter section:

Many times generals represent a form of “coattail riding” where we feel the dominating stockholder group has plans for the conversion of unprofitable or under-utilized assets to a better use

The next category was workouts:

our second largest category… ten or fifteen of these [at various stages of development]… I believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior

The beauty of work-outs is that they relied on corporate action, not market action, to realize value. In this sense, they could provide a meaningful buffer to share price declines in generals during bear markets as their performance was largely “market neutral.” For example, in his 1963 (1962 being a bear market) letter Buffett said:

This performance is mainly the result of having a large portion of our money in controlled assets and workout situations rather than general market situations at a time when the Dow declined substantially

The final category was control, which started out as something of an after-thought or an accidental consequence of investing in certain generals which remained cheap, but later turned into an active category Buffett would search for opportunities in.

Buffett also mentioned the idea of the “two-way stretch” in control situations– if bought at a significant discount, there were generally two ways to profit from a control investment. Either the stock price remained low for a long period of time and control was acquired, in which case “the value of our investment is determined by the value of the enterprise,” or else the stock would move up in the process of consolidating a position in which case it could be sold at a higher level in the way one would normally “complete a successful general operation.”

Time horizons for performance

This particular point is more well-known but it bears repeating here. Buffett was obsessed with long-term performance and constantly advised his partners about appropriate timelines for judging investment performance, especially based-upon the particular type of investment being considered. For example, in his 1960 letter he said:

My own thinking is more geared to five year performance, preferably with tests of relative results in both strong and weak markets

In the 1961 letter, Buffett discussed “establishing yardsticks prior to the act” and again emphasized:

It is my feeling that three years is a very minimal test of performance, and the best test consists of a period at least that long where the terminal level of the Dow is reasonably close to the initial level

In other words, what did your performance look like after a three year period where the broad market index made no progress, or even reversed?

With control situations specifically, Buffett advised:

Such operations should definitely be measured on the basis of several years. In a given year, they may produce nothing as it is usually to our advantage to have the stock be stagnant market-wise for a long period while we are acquiring it

Diversification

It’s clear that Buffett had 15-21 “generals” or about 50-60% of his portfolio, with another 10-15 positions in workouts or another 15-30%, with the remainder in control situations. However, control situations could scale up to as much as 40% of the portfolio in an individual investment if the situation called for it in Buffett’s mind.

And while Buffett mentioned in an earlier letter of having approximately 40 positions in the portfolio in total, he later (around the time he started being influenced by Charlie Munger and other “quality over quantity” investment practitioners) became more critical of the idea of diversification. In the 1966 letter, Buffett lamented:

if anything, I should have concentrated slightly more than I have in the past

He also castigated “extreme diversification”:

The addition of the one hundredth stock simply can’t reduce the potential variance in portfolio performance sufficiently to compensate for the negative effect its inclusion has in the overall portfolio expectation

Buffett was learning the merits of “concentration” in areas outside the portfolio, as well. In discussing slight additions to the office space at Kiewit Plaza and the hiring of additional support personnel, Buffett added:

I think our present setup unquestionably lets me devote a higher percentage of my time to thinking about the investment process than virtually anyone else in the money management business

Of course, the results of this focus were obvious to all in time.

Sizing things up

Buffett dwelled on “the question of size” at length in his letters to partners. He made it clear that portfolio size and investment opportunity looked something like a continuum with small size on the left of the spectrum and large size on the right, with “generals” hanging near the left pole (size is a disadvantage), workouts inhabiting some kind of middle ground where they were neither benefitted nor impaired by size and control situations distinctly on the right where size was an enormous advantage.

Generals and control situations are, in this sense, almost opposites because Buffett warned that some generals were too small to buy meaningful stakes in for a large portfolio, whereas a small portfolio might never be able to acquire enough shares to gain control of certain investments.

Inflation-adjusting Buffett’s portfolio positions and capital at various points in time also gives important clues to the role size played in his operations. For example, Sanborn Maps was apparently around a $4.5M market cap when he mentioned the company in his letters. This would be about $35M or so in today’s dollars (this is not an endorsement of BLS/CPI measurement techniques, just a convenient rule-of-thumb), so clearly Buffett was hunting in a small/micro-cap space at least at this time.

In a similar vein, Buffett started with $105,000 in capital in 1956, which is about $893,000 in 2012. In his 1966 letter, he complained that the amount of capital being managed at the time, $43,645,000, was beginning to be burdensome in terms of size versus opportunities. This would be about $312,000,000 in 2012, to put it into perspective.

Apparently, the value investment framework Buffett created could work quite well even at a scale that we might consider to be decently large.

Serendipity: the reason for Buffett’s rise, and retirement

Few ever think to mention the incredible role serendipity played in Buffett’s early fortunes, but Buffett himself was well-aware. Not only did he begin his career at the outset of an astounding decade-long-plus bull market, but in 1952,

and for some years subsequently, there were substantial numbers of securities selling at well below the “value to a private owner” criterion we utilized for selection of general market investments

As the bull market started to grow gray hairs in the late 1960s and Buffett began contemplating an exit from the business, he similarly remarked in his 1967 letter:

Such statistical bargains have tended to disappear over the years. This may be due to the constant combing and recombing of investments that has occurred during the past twenty years, without an economic convulsion such as that of the ’30s to create a negative bias toward equities and spawn hundreds of new bargain securities

The comment on the aftermath of the 1930s bears repeating. The primary reason for the prevalence of bargain issues in the market around the time Buffett started investing was due to a massive psychological paradigm shift in attitudes about the stock market following the crash of 1929 and subsequent depression of the 1930s. By the late 1960s, a new inflationary thrust had managed to erase this psychology and great gains were actually made in sending it in the reverse direction. Buffett was convinced of

the virtual disappearance of the bargain issues determined quantitatively

the kind whose figures “should hit you over the head with a baseball bat”, which were being replaced by

speculation on an increasing scale

So how did Buffett respond to these new market conditions where his toolkit didn’t seem to work as well? Did he compromise his standards, or try to shape-shift his style into the “New Era” of investors and keep going? Well, anyone who has studied Buffett already knows the answer. Buffett knew his circle of competence and he knew what worked. When what he knew worked stopped working (because the opportunities weren’t available), he quit.

Despite writing in his 1968 letter that the answer to a potential phase out of the partnerships was “Definitely, no.” Buffett nonetheless in his 1969 letter suggested that “the quality and quantity of ideas is presently at an all time low” and that “opportunities for investment that are open to the analyst who stresses quantitative factors have virtually disappeared” and for this reason, he decided to close up shop.

There’s a lesson for all of us here. As Joel Greenblatt has argued, value investing doesn’t work all the time, which is why it works. We should respect this, just as Buffett did– when the deals dry up, we should go fishing (or at the very least, look for bargains in other markets that are in a different stage of psychology/sentiment/valuation). Trying to make great long-term returns when valuations won’t support it is a fools game and more likely to end in failure.

A few miscellaneous notes

In the 1968 letter, Buffett referred to 10-12% as “worthwhile overall returns on capital employed”.

With regards to dividends, although Buffett always described the return of the Dow for each annual period inclusive of dividends earned, and although when describing his investment in Commonwealth he specifically mentioned that the company was not paying dividends, and although we know from an anecdote in The Snowball that Buffett was receiving substantial dividend checks from his partnership portfolios because his wife Susie accidentally through a few away one time, I noticed that Buffett makes no specific mention in any of the letters of the importance of dividends nor that dividends impacted his investment decisions or philosophy.

Video – Hugh Hendry Visits The Milken Institute

Hugh Hendry interviewed in a panel discussion at the 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference

Major take-aways from the interview:

  • Global economy is “grossly distorted” by two fixed exchange regimes: the Euro (similar to the gold standard of the 1920s) and the Dollar-Renminbi
  • China is attempting to play the role of the “bridge”, just as Germany did in the 1920s, to help the global economy spend its way into recovery
  • Two types of leverage: operational and financial; Germany is a country w/ operational leverage; Golden Rule of Operational Leverage, “Never, never countenance having financial leverage”, this explains Germany’s financial prudence and why they’ll reject a transfer union
  • Transfer of economic rent in Europe; redistribution of rents within Europe, the trade is short the financial sector, long the export sector
  • Heading toward Euro parity w/ the dollar, if not lower; results in profound economic advantage especially for businesses with operational leverage
  • “The thing I fear” is confiscation: of client’s assets, my assets; we are 1 year away from true nationalization of French banks
  • Theme of US being supplanted as global leader, especially by Chinese, is overwrought
  • Why US will not be easily overtaken: when US had its “China moment”, it was on a gold standard…
    • implication, as an entrepreneur, you had one chance– get it right or you’re finished
    • today is a world of mercantilism, money-printing, the  entrepreneur has been devalued because you get a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chance
    • when the US had its emergence on a hard money system, it built foundations which are “rock solid”
    • today, this robust society has restructured debt, restructured the cost of labor, has cleared property at market levels
    • additionally, “God has intervened”, w/ progress in shale oil extraction technology; US paying $2, Europe $10, Asians $14-18
  • Dollar is only going to go one way, higher; this is like early 1980/82
  • “I haven’t finished Atlas Shrugged, I can’t finish it”: it’s too depressing; it reads like non-fiction, she’s describing the world of today
  • The short sale ban was an attack on free thought; people have died in wars for the privilege to stand up and say “The Emperor has no clothes”; banned short selling because truth is unpalatable to political class; the scale and magnitude of the problem is greater than their ability to respond
  • We are single digit years away from a most profound market-clearing moment, on the order of 1932 or 1982, where you don’t need smarts, you just need to be long
  • Hard-landing scenario in Asia combined w/ recession in Europe would result in “bottoming” process, at which point all you need is courage to go long

Notes – Distilled BuffettFAQ.com Investment Wisdom Of Warren Buffett

All quotes were originally collected and compiled at the outstanding BuffettFAQ.com

On Learning Businesses

Now I did a lot of work in the earlier years just getting familiar with businesses and the way I would do that is use what Phil Fisher would call, the “Scuttlebutt Approach.” I would go out and talk to customers, suppliers, and maybe ex-employees in some cases. Everybody. Everytime I was interested in an industry, say it was coal, I would go around and see every coal company. I would ask every CEO, “If you could only buy stock in one coal company that was not your own, which one would it be and why? You piece those things together, you learn about the business after awhile.

Funny, you get very similar answers as long as you ask about competitors. If you had a silver bullet and you could put it through the head of one competitor, which competitor and why? You will find who the best guy is in the industry.

On The Research Process

It’s important to read a lot, learn about the industries, get background information, etc. on the companies in those piles. Read a lot of 10Ks and Qs, etc. Read about the competitors. I don’t want to know the price of the stock prior to my analysis. I want to do the work and estimate a value for the stock and then compare that to the current offering price. If I know the price in advance it may influence my analysis.

Pick out five to ten companies in which you understand their products, get annual reports, get every news piece on it. Ask what do I not know that I need to know. Talk to competitors and employees. Essentially be a reporter, ask questions like: If you had a silver bullet and could put it into a competitor who would it be and why. In the end you want to write the story, XYZ is worth this much because…

Narrowing the Investment Universe

They ought to think about what he or she understands. Let’s just say they were going to put their whole family’s net worth in a single business. Would that be a business they would consider? Or would they say, “Gee, I don’t know enough about that business to go into it?” If so, they should go on to something else. It’s buying a piece of a business. If they were going to buy into a local service station or convenience store, what would they think about? They would think about the competition, the competitive position both of the industry and the specific location, the person they have running it and all that. There are all kinds of businesses that Charlie and I don’t understand, but that doesn’t cause us to stay up at night. It just means we go on to the next one, and that’s what the individual investor should do.

Q: So if they’re walking through the mall and they see a store they like, or if they happen to like Nike shoes for example, these would be great places to start? Instead of doing a computer screen and narrowing it down?

A computer screen doesn’t tell you anything. It might tell you about P/Es or something like that, but in the end you have to understand the business. If there are certain businesses in that mall they think they understand and they’re public companies, and they can learn more and more about them…. We used to talk to competitors. To understand Coca-Cola, I have to understand Pepsi, RC, Dr. Pepper.

The place to look when you’re young is the inefficient markets.

Investment Process

  • Read lots of K’s and Q’s – there are no good substitutes for these – Read every page
  • Ask business managers the following question: “If you could buy the stock of one of your competitors, which one would you buy? If you could short, which one would you short?”
  • Always read source (primary) data rather than secondary data
  • If you are interested in one company, get reports for competitors. “You must act like you are actually going into that business, and if you were, you’d want to know what your competitors were doing.”

Four Investment Filters

Filter #1 – Can we understand the business? What will it look like in 10-20 years? Take Intel vs. chewing gum or toilet paper. We invest within our circle of competence. Jacob’s Pharmacy created Coke in 1886. Coke has increased per capita consumption every year it has been in existence. It’s because there is no taste memory with soda. You don’t get sick of it. It’s just as good the 5th time of the day as it was the 1st time of the day.

Filter #2 – Does the business have a durable competitive advantage? This is why I won’t buy into a hula-hoop, pet rock, or a Rubik’s cube company. I will buy soft drinks and chewing gum. This is why I bought Gillette and Coke.

Filter #3 – Does it have management I can trust?

Filter #4 – Does the price make sense?

Finding Bargains

The world isn’t going to tell you about great deals. You have to find them yourself. And that takes a fair amount of time. So if you are not going to do that, if you are just going to be a passive investor, then I just advise an index fund more consistently over a long period of time. The one thing I will tell you is the worst investment you can have is cash. Everybody is talking about cash being king and all that sort of thing. Most of you don’t look like you are overburdened with cash anyway. Cash is going to become worth less over time. But good businesses are going to become worth more over time. And you don’t want to pay too much for them so you have to have some discipline about what you pay. But the thing to do is find a good business and stick with it.

Don’t pass up something that’s attractive today because you think you will find something way more attractive tomorrow.

Defining Risk

We think first in terms of business risk. The key to Graham’s approach to investing is not thinking of stocks as stocks or part of the stock market. Stocks are part of a business. People in this room own a piece of a business. If the business does well, they’re going to do all right as long as long as they don’t pay way too much to join in to that business. So we’re thinking about business risk. Business risk can arise in various ways. It can arise from the capital structure. When somebody sticks a ton of debt into a business, if there’s a hiccup in the business, then the lenders foreclose. It can come about by their nature–there are just certain businesses that are very risky. Back when there were more commercial aircraft manufacturers, Charlie and I would think of making a commercial  airplane as a sort of bet-your-company risk because you would shell out hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars before you really had customers, and then if you had a problem with the plane, the company could go. There are certain businesses that inherently, because of long lead time, because of heavy capital investment, basically have a lot of risk. Commodity businesses have a lot of risk unless you’re a low-cost producer, because the low-cost producer can put you out of business. Our textile business was not the low-cost producer. We had fine management, everybody worked hard, we had cooperative unions, all kinds of things. But we weren’t the low-cost producers so it was a risky business. The guy who could sell it cheaper than we could made it risky for us. We tend to go into businesses that are inherently low risk and are capitalized in a way that that low risk of the business is transformed into a low risk for the enterprise. The risk beyond that is that even though you identify such businesses, you pay too much for them. That risk is usually a risk of time rather than principal, unless you get into a really extravagant situation. Then the risk becomes the risk of you yourself–whether you can retain your belief in the real fundamentals of the business and not get too concerned about the stock market. The stock market is there to serve you and not to instruct you. That’s a key to owning a good business and getting rid of the risk that would otherwise exist in the market.

Valuation Metrics

The appropriate multiple for a business compared to the S&P 500 depends on its return on equity and return on incremental invested capital. I wouldn’t look at a single valuation metric like relative P/E ratio. I don’t think price-to-earnings, price-to-book or price-to-sales ratios tell you very much. People want a formula, but it’s not that easy. To value something, you simply have to take its free cash flows from now until kingdom come and then discount them back to the present using an appropriate discount rate. All cash is equal. You just need to evaluate a business’s economic characteristics.

[Highly qualitative, descriptive and verbal, has little to do with the numbers in justifying an investment]

The Ideal Business

WB: The ideal business is one that generates very high returns on capital and can invest that capital back into the business at equally high rates. Imagine a $100 million business that earns 20% in one year, reinvests the $20 million profit and in the next year earns 20% of $120 million and so forth. But there are very very few businesses like this. Coke has high returns on capital, but incremental capital doesn’t earn anything like its current returns. We love businesses that can earn high rates on even more capital than it earns. Most of our businesses generate lots of money, but can’t generate high returns on incremental capital — for example, See’s and Buffalo News. We look for them [areas to wisely reinvest capital], but they don’t exist.

So, what we do is take money and move it around into other businesses. The newspaper business earned great returns but not on incremental capital. But the people in the industry only knew how to reinvest it [so they squandered a lot of capital]. But our structure allows us to take excess capital and invest it elsewhere, wherever it makes the most sense. It’s an enormous advantage.

See’s has produced $1 billion pre-tax for us over time. If we’d deployed that in the candy business, the returns would have been terrible, but instead we took the money out of the business and redeployed it elsewhere. Look at the results!

CM: There are two kinds of businesses: The first earns 12%, and you can take it out at the end of the year. The second earns 12%, but all the excess cash must be reinvested — there’s never any cash. It reminds me of the guy who looks at all of his equipment and says, “There’s all of my profit.” We hate that kind of business.

Making Mistakes In Investments

We bought it because it was an attractive security. But it was not in an attractive industry. I did the same thing in Salomon. I bought an attractive security in a business I wouldn’t have bought the equity in. So you could say that is one form of mistake. Buying something because you like the terms, but you don’t like the business that well.

The Market and Its Price

The NYSE is one big supermarket of companies. And you are going to be buying stocks, what you want to have happen? You want to have those stocks go down, way down; you will make better buys then. Later on twenty or thirty years from now when you are in a period when you are dis-saving, or when your heirs dis-save for you, then you may care about higher prices. There is Chapter 8 in Graham’s Intelligent Investor about the attitude toward stock market fluctuations, that and Chapter 20 on the Margin of Safety are the two most important essays ever written on investing as far as I am concerned. Because when I read Chapter 8 when I was 19, I figured out what I just said but it is obvious, but I didn’t figure it out myself. It was explained to me. I probably would have gone another 100 years and still thought it was good when my stocks were going up. We want things to go down, but I have no idea what the stock market is going to do. I never do and I never will. It is not something I think about at all.

Forecasting

People have always had this craving to have someone tell them the future. Long ago, kings would hire people to read sheep guts. There’s always been a market for people who pretend to know the future. Listening to today’s forecasters is just as crazy as when the king hired the guy to look at the sheep guts. It happens over and over and over.

What’s going to happen tomorrow, huh? Let me give you an illustration. I bought my first stock in 1942. I was 11. I had been dillydallying up until then. I got serious. What do you think the best year for the market has been since 1942? Best calendar year from 1942 to the present time. Well, there’s no reason for you to know the answer. The answer is 1954. In 1954, the Dow … dividends was up 50%. Now if you look at 1954, we were in a recession a good bit of that time. The recession started in July of ’53. Unemployment peaked in September of ’54. So until November of ’54 you hadn’t seen an uptick in the employment figure. And the unemployment figure more than doubled during that period. It was the best year there was for the market. So it’s a terrible mistake to look at what’s going on in the economy today and then decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on it. You should decide whether to buy or sell stocks based on how much you’re getting for your money, long-term value you’re getting for your money at any given time. And next week doesn’t make any difference because next week, next week is going to be a week further away. And the important thing is to have the right long-term outlook, evaluate the businesses you are buying. And then a terrible market or a terrible economy is your friend. I don’t care, in making a purchase of the Burlington Northern, I don’t care whether next week, or next month or even next year there is a big revival in car loadings or any of that sort of thing. A period like this gives me a chance to do things. It’s silly to wait. I wrote an article. If you wait until you see the robin, spring will be over.

Managers Should Be Investors

Charlie makes a good point. Managers should learn about investing. I have friends who are CEOs and they outsource their investing to a financial advisor because they don’t feel comfortable analyzing Coke and Gillette and picking one stock vs. the other. Yet when an investment banker shows up with fancy slides and a slick presentation, an hour later the CEO is willing to do a $3 billion acquisition. It’s extraordinary the willingness of corporate CEOs to make decisions about buying companies for billions of dollars when they aren’t willing to make an investment for $10,000 in their personal account. It’s basically the same thing.

The Value of Accounting

I had a great experience at Nebraska. Probably the best teacher I had was Ray Dein in accounting. I think everybody in business school should really know accounting; it is the language of business. If you are not comfortable with the lan- guage, you can’ t be comfortable in the country. You just have to get it into your spinal cord. It is so valuable in business.

Staying Rational

One thing that could help would be to write down the reason you are buying a stock before your purchase. Write down “I am buying Microsoft @ $300B because…” Force yourself to write this down. It clarifies your mind and discipline. This exercise makes you more rational.