What I learned from billionaire investor Warren Buffet

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 03: Warren Buffett speaks during the Forbes' 2015 Philanthropy Summit Awards Dinner on June 3, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)
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Roger Lowenstein begins his new biography of Warren Buffett with a disclaimer. He reveals that he is a longtime investor in Berkshire Hathaway, the company that under Buffett’s guidance has seen its share price rise in 33 years from $7.60 to approximately $30,000.

In reviewing Lowenstein’s book, it is very wise to begin with a disclaimer, too, in order not to be neutral or dispassionate about Warren Buffett, because he’s an endearing friend to all. According a Harvard Business School professor who recently vacationed with Buffet in China with their wives, the American billionaire’s jokes are all funny.

Buffet’s dietary practices—lots of burgers and Cokes—he thought, are excellent. “In short, I’m a fan,” the professor noted.

It’s easy to be a fan of Warren’s, and doubtless many readers of Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist will join the growing ranks. Lowenstein’s book is a straightforward account of Buffett’s remarkable life. It doesn’t fully convey what a fun, humble, charming guy Warren is, but his uniqueness comes across. No one is likely to come away from it saying, “Oh, I’m like that guy.”

The broad outlines of Warren’s career are well known, and the book offers enjoyable detail. Lowenstein traces Warren’s life from his birth in Omaha, Nebraska in 1930 to his first stock purchase at age 11, and from his study of the securities profession under Columbia University’s legendary Benjamin Graham to his founding of the Buffett Partnership at age 25. The author describes Buffett’s secretiveness about the stocks he picked for the partnership, and his contrasting openness about his guiding principle, which is to buy stocks at bargain-basement prices and hold them patiently. As Warren once explained in a letter to his partners, “This is the cornerstone of our investment philosophy: Never count on making a good sale. Have the purchase price be so attractive that even a mediocre sale gives good results.”

Lowenstein describes how Warren took control of Berkshire Hathaway and cash-cowed its dying textile business in order to purchase stock in other companies. The book traces how Berkshire evolved into a holding company and how its investment philosophy evolved as Warren learned to look beyond financial data and recognize the economic potential of unique franchises like dominant newspapers. Today Berkshire owns companies such as See’s Candy Shops, the Buffalo News, and World Book International, as well as major positions in companies such as American Express, Capital Cities/ABC (now Disney), Coca-Cola, Gannett, Gillette, and the Washington Post Company. It also is a major insurer that includes GEICO Corporation in its holdings.

Readers are likely to come away from the book’s description of Buffett’s life and investment objectives feeling better educated about investing and business, but whether those lessons will translate into great investment results is less than certain. Warren’s gift is being able to think ahead of the crowd, and it requires more than taking Warren’s aphorisms to heart to accomplish that—although Warren is full of aphorisms well worth taking to heart.

For example, Warren likes to say that there are no called strikes in investing. Strikes occur only when you swing and miss. When you’re at bat, you shouldn’t concern yourself with every pitch, nor should you regret good pitches that you don’t swing at. In other words, you don’t have to have an opinion about every stock or other investment opportunity, nor should you feel bad if a stock you didn’t pick goes up dramatically. Warren says that in your lifetime you should swing at only a couple dozen pitches, and he advises doing careful homework so that the few swings you do take are hits.

For example, Warren likes to say that there are no called strikes in investing. Strikes occur only when you swing and miss.

Warren follows his own advice: When he invests in a company, he likes to read all of its annual reports going back as far as he can. He looks at how the company has progressed and what its strategy is. He investigates thoroughly and acts deliberately—and infrequently. Once he has purchased a company or shares in a company, he is loath to sell.

His penchant for long-term investments is reflected in another of his aphorisms: “You should invest in a business that even a fool can run, because someday a fool will.”

He doesn’t believe in businesses that rely for their success on every employee being excellent. Nor does he believe that great people help all that much when the fundamentals of a business are bad. He says that when good management is brought into a fundamentally bad business, it’s the reputation of the business that remains intact.

Warren likes to say that a good business is like a castle and you’ve got to think every day, Is the management growing the size of the moat? Or is the moat shrinking? Great businesses are not all that common, and finding them is hard. Unusual factors combine to create the moats that shelter certain companies from some of the rigors of competition. Warren is superb at recognizing these franchises.

Warren installs strong managers in the companies Berkshire owns and tends to leave them pretty much alone. His basic proposition to managers is that to the degree that a company spins off cash, which good businesses do, the managers can trust Warren to invest it wisely. He doesn’t encourage managers to diversify. Managers are expected to concentrate on the businesses they know well so that Warren is free to concentrate on what he does well: investing.

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