The best lessons by Warren Buffett: from 1977 to 1989

In the same way I was exposed an anthology of lessons from Mark Leonard, this time I will talk about The Famous Oracle of Omaha: Warren Buffett. I have selected the best lessons from his letters to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, published between 1977 and 1989. Each letter has its respective link.

With an explosive mixture of humour and knowledge, I am sure you are going to learn from each lesson, and even they are going to make you smile. With this compilation of 58 quotes, probably you are in front of one of the most completed open articles about the brilliant manager of Berkshire Hathaway. Read and enjoy!

1/ Most companies define “record” earnings as a new high in earnings per share. Since businesses customarily add from year to year to their equity base, we find nothing particularly noteworthy in a management performance combining, say, a 10% increase in equity capital and a 5% increase in earnings per share. After all, even a totally dormant savings account will produce steadily rising interest earnings each year because of compounding.

2/ We select our marketable equity securities in much the same way we would evaluate a business for acquisition in its entirety. We want the business to be (1) one that we can understand, (2) with favorable long-term prospects, (3) operated by honest and competent people, and (4) available at a very attractive price.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1977 Letter

3/ It is a real pleasure to work with managers who enjoy coming to work each morning and, once there, instinctively and unerringly think like owners. We are associated with some of the very best.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1978 Letter

4/ The primary test of managerial economic performance is the achievement of a high earnings rate on equity capital employed (without undue leverage, accounting gimmickry, etc.) and not the achievement of consistent gains in earnings per share.

5/ We are investigating the possible sale of between 80% and 100% of the stock of the bank. We will be most choosy about any purchaser, and our selection will not be based solely on price. The bank and its management have treated us exceptionally well and, if we have to sell, we want to be sure that they are treated equally as well.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1979 Letter

6/ Our acquisition preferences run toward businesses that generate cash, not those that consume it. As inflation intensifies, more and more companies find that they must spend all funds they generate internally just to maintain their existing physical volume of business. There is a certain mirage- like quality to such operations. However attractive the earnings numbers, we remain leery of businesses that never seem able to convert such pretty numbers into no-strings-attached cash.

7/ You learn a great deal about a person when you purchase a business from him and he then stays on to run it as an employee rather than as an owner. Before the purchase the seller knows the business intimately, whereas you start from scratch. The seller has dozens of opportunities to mislead the buyer – through omissions, ambiguities, and misdirection. After the check has changed hands, subtle (and not so subtle) changes of attitude can occur and implicit understandings can evaporate. As in the courtship-marriage sequence, disappointments are not infrequent.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1980 Letter

8/ In aggregate, our non-controlled business interests have more favorable underlying economic characteristics than our controlled businesses. That’s understandable; the area of choice has been far wider. Small portions of exceptionally good businesses are usually available in the securities markets at reasonable prices. But such businesses are available for purchase in their entirety only rarely, and then almost always at high prices.

9/ Investors can always buy toads at the going price for toads. If investors instead bankroll princesses who wish to pay double for the right to kiss the toad, those kisses had better pack some real dynamite. We’ve observed many kisses but very few miracles. Nevertheless, many managerial princesses remain serenely confident about the future potency of their kisses – even after their corporate backyards are knee-deep in unresponsive toads.

10/ Despite the overriding importance of inflation in the investment equation, we will not punish you further with another full recital of our views; inflation itself will be punishment enough. (Copies of previous discussions are available for masochists.)

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1981 Letter

11/ It’s simply to say that managers and investors alike must understand that accounting numbers are the beginning, not the end, of business valuation.

12/ Pascal’s observation seems apt: “It has struck me that all men’s misfortunes spring from the single cause that they are unable to stay quietly in one room.”

13/ Our partial-ownership approach can be continued soundly only as long as portions of attractive businesses can be acquired at attractive prices. We need a moderately-priced stock market to assist us in this endeavor. The market, like the Lord, helps those who help themselves. But, unlike the Lord, the market does not forgive those who know not what they do. For the investor, a too-high purchase price for the stock of an excellent company can undo the effects of a subsequent decade of favorable business developments.

14/ Managers and directors might sharpen their thinking by asking themselves if they would sell 100% of their business on the same basis they are being asked to sell part of it. And if it isn’t smart to sell all on such a basis, they should ask themselves why it is smart to sell a portion. A cumulation of small managerial stupidities will produce a major stupidity – not a major triumph.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1982 Letter

15/ Good investment ideas are rare, valuable and subject to competitive appropriation just as good product or business acquisition ideas are. Therefore, we normally will not talk about our investment ideas. This ban extends even to securities we have sold (because we may purchase them again) and to stocks we are incorrectly rumored to be buying.

16/ Book value is an accounting concept, recording the accumulated financial input from both contributed capital and retained earnings. Intrinsic business value is an economic concept, estimating future cash output discounted to present value. Book value tells you what has been put in; intrinsic business value estimates what can be taken out. An analogy will suggest the difference. Assume you spend identical amounts putting each of two children through college. The book value (measured by financial input) of each child’s education would be the same. But the present value of the future payoff (the intrinsic business value) might vary enormously – from zero to many times the cost of the education. So, also, do businesses having equal financial input end up with wide variations in value.

17/ If the holders of a company’s stock and/or the prospective buyers attracted to it are prone to make irrational or emotion-based decisions, some pretty silly stock prices are going to appear periodically. Manic-depressive personalities produce manic-depressive valuations. Such aberrations may help us in buying and selling the stocks of other companies.

18/ Days when the market trades 100 million shares (and that kind of volume, when over-the-counter trading is included, is today abnormally low) are a curse for owners, not a blessing – for they mean that owners are paying twice as much to change chairs as they are on a 50-million-share day.

19/ Our first lesson: businesses logically are worth far more than net tangible assets when they can be expected to produce earnings on such assets considerably in excess of market rates of return.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1983 Letter

20/ To earn even 15% annually over the next decade (assuming we continue to follow our present dividend policy, about which more will be said later in this letter) we would need profits aggregating about $3.9 billion. Accomplishing this will require a few big ideas – small ones just won’t do. Charlie Munger, my partner in general management, and I do not have any such ideas at present, but our experience has been that they pop up occasionally. (How’s that for a strategic plan?)

21/ The companies in which we have our largest investments have all engaged in significant stock repurhases at times when wide discrepancies existed between price and value. As shareholders, we find this encouraging and rewarding for two important reasons – one that is obvious, and one that is subtle and not always understood.

22/ It’s been over ten years since it has been as difficult as now to find equity investments that meet both our qualitative standards and our quantitative standards of value versus price. We try to avoid compromise of these standards, although we find doing nothing the most difficult task of all.

23/ Our evaluation of the integrity of Mrs. B and her family was demonstrated when we purchased 90% of the business: NFM had never had an audit and we did not request one; we did not take an inventory nor verify the receivables; we did not check property titles. We gave Mrs. B a check for $55 million and she gave us her word. That made for an even exchange.

24/ In GEICO’s case, as in all of our investments, we look to business performance, not market performance. If we are correct in expectations regarding the business, the market eventually will follow along.

25/ I heard a story recently that is applicable to our insurance accounting problems: a man was traveling abroad when he received a call from his sister informing him that their father had died unexpectedly. It was physically impossible for the brother to get back home for the funeral, but he told his sister to take care of the funeral arrangements and to send the bill to him. After returning home he received a bill for several thousand dollars, which he promptly paid. The following month another bill came along for $15, and he paid that too. Another month followed, with a similar bill. When, in the next month, a third bill for $15 was presented, he called his sister to ask what was going on. “Oh”, she said. “I forgot to tell you. We buried Dad in a rented suit.”

26/ Even though our long-term results may turn out fine, in any given year we run a risk that we will look extraordinarily foolish. (That’s why all of these sentences say “Charlie and I”, or “we”.)

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1984 Letter

27/ Our Vice Chairman, Charlie Munger, has always emphasized the study of mistakes rather than successes, both in business and other aspects of life. He does so in the spirit of the man who said: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.”

28/ The situation is suggestive of Samuel Johnson’s horse: “A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse – not a remarkable mathematician.” Likewise, a textile company that allocates capital brilliantly within its industry is a remarkable textile company – but not a remarkable business.

29/ In any business, insurance or otherwise, “except for” should be excised from the lexicon. If you are going to play the game, you must count the runs scored against you in all nine innings. Any manager who consistently says “except for” and then reports on the lessons he has learned from his mistakes may be missing the only important lesson – namely, that the real mistake is not the act, but the actor.

30/ Inevitably, of course, business errors will occur and the wise manager will try to find the proper lessons in them. But the trick is to learn most lessons from the experiences of others. Managers who have learned much from personal experience in the past usually are destined to learn much from personal experience in the future.

31/ I think it is the best of any publicly-owned company in the country. And Tom Murphy and Dan Burke are not only great managers, they are precisely the sort of fellows that you would want your daughter to marry.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1985 Letter

32/ We subscribe to the philosophy of Ogilvy & Mather’s founding genius, David Ogilvy: “If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But, if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”

33/ Working with people who cause your stomach to churn seems much like marrying for money – probably a bad idea under any circumstances, but absolute madness if you are already rich.

34/ If our success were to depend upon insights we developed through plant inspections, Berkshire would be in big trouble. Rather, in considering an acquisition, we attempt to evaluate the economic characteristics of the business – its competitive strengths and weaknesses – and the quality of the people we will be joining.

35/ What we do know, however, is that occasional outbreaks of those two super-contagious diseases, fear and greed, will forever occur in the investment community. The timing of these epidemics will be unpredictable. And the market aberrations produced by them will be equally unpredictable, both as to duration and degree. Therefore, we never try to anticipate the arrival or departure of either disease. Our goal is more modest: we simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.

36/ Bull markets can obscure mathematical laws, but they cannot repeal them.

37/ We agree with Keynes’s observation: “I would rather be vaguely right than precisely wrong.”

38/ Managers and owners need to remember, however, that accounting is but an aid to business thinking, never a substitute for it.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1986 Letter

39/ There’s not a lot new to report about these businesses – and that’s good, not bad. Severe change and exceptional returns usually don’t mix. Most investors, of course, behave as if just the opposite were true.

40/ Our managers have produced extraordinary results by doing rather ordinary things – but doing them exceptionally well.

41/ We neither understand the adding of unneeded people or activities because profits are booming, nor the cutting of essential people or activities because profitability is shrinking. That kind of yo-yo approach is neither business-like nor humane.

42/ We are willing to hold a stock indefinitely so long as we expect the business to increase in intrinsic value at a satisfactory rate. When investing, we view ourselves as business analysts – not as market analysts, not as macroeconomic analysts, and not even as security analysts.

43/ Like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”

44/ Investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace.

45/ Charlie and I have long followed David Oglivy’s advice: “Develop your eccentricities while you are young. That way, when you get old, people won’t think you’re going ga-ga.”

46/ Our goal is to find an outstanding business at a sensible price, not a mediocre business at a bargain price. Charlie and I have found that making silk purses out of silk is the best that we can do; with sow’s ears, we fail.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1987 Letter

47/ Over the years, Charlie and I have observed many accounting-based frauds of staggering size. Few of the perpetrators have been punished; many have not even been censured. It has been far safer to steal large sums with a pen than small sums with a gun.

48/ We do not remove superstars from our lineup merely because they have attained a specified age – whether the traditional 65, or the 95 reached by Mrs. B on the eve of Hanukkah in 1988. Superb managers are too scarce a resource to be discarded simply because a cake gets crowded with candles.

49/ In 1988 we made major purchases of Federal Home Loan Mortgage Pfd. (“Freddie Mac”) and Coca Cola. We expect to hold these securities for a long time. In fact, when we own portions of outstanding businesses with outstanding managements, our favorite holding period is forever. We are just the opposite of those who hurry to sell and book profits when companies perform well but who tenaciously hang on to businesses that disappoint.

50/ Most practitioners buy into a great many deals perhaps 50 or more per year. With that many irons in the fire, they must spend most of their time monitoring both the progress of deals and the market movements of the related stocks. This is not how Charlie nor I wish to spend our lives.

51/ We have no idea how long the excesses will last, nor do we know what will change the attitudes of government, lender and buyer that fuel them. But we do know that the less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we should conduct our own affairs.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1988 Letter

52/ I believe I had my first Coca-Cola in either 1935 or 1936. Of a certainty, it was in 1936 that I started buying Cokes at the rate of six for 25 cents from Buffett & Son, the family grocery store, to sell around the neighborhood for 5 cents each. In this excursion into high-margin retailing, I duly observed the extraordinary consumer attractiveness and commercial possibilities of the product.

53/ we have no ability to forecast the economics of the investment banking business (in which we have a position through our 1987 purchase of Salomon convertible preferred), the airline industry, or the paper industry. This does not mean that we predict a negative future for these industries: we’re agnostics, not atheists.

54/ Even a high school dropout knows that to finance a car he must have income that covers not only interest and operating expenses, but also realistically-calculated depreciation. He would be laughed out of the bank if he started talking about EBDIT.

55/ In the end, alchemy, whether it is metallurgical or financial, fails. A base business can not be transformed into a golden business by tricks of accounting or capital structure. The man claiming to be a financial alchemist may become rich. But gullible investors rather than business achievements will usually be the source of his wealth.

56/ A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit. Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish.

57/ If you buy a business for $8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return. But the investment will disappoint if the business is sold for $10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost. Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.

58/ It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholders 1989 Letter

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DISCLAIMER. Toda la información ofrecida en el presente documento tiene un carácter meramente formativo y no representa una recomendación de compra (artículo 63 de la Ley 24/1988, de 28 de julio, del Mercado de Valores, y en el artículo 5.1 del Real Decreto 217/2008, de 15 de febrero). Microvalue no se responsabiliza del uso que se haga de esta información. Antes de invertir en una cuenta real, es necesario tener toda la formación adecuada o delegar la tarea en un profesional debidamente autorizado para ello.