Category: Investment Philosophy

Recap from Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I was fortunate enough to attend the Berkshire Hathoway annual meeting and wanted to provide a recap to readers. I’ll try to skip much of the fluff questions that were asked.

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But to kick it off, I think its important to recap how Buffett started the meeting. He noted that he expects to receive many “macro” questions, such as what the fed will do with interest rates, risks from an unpredictable president, and the tariffs and to put these topics into context, he brought an actual, physical NY times newspaper from March 1942. The Phillipines had just been lost to Japan. The US had been bombed by Japan in the previous December. The outcome of World War II was far from certain.

Despite all this, 11 year old Warren Buffet decided to invest. And although he did not have this much money at the time, he noted if you bought $10,000 in the S&P500, it would be $51 million today. If you had bought productive US assets, they would have compounded at a fantastic rate of return.  At the same time, if you bought gold in fear and left it, it would be worth $400,000, higher than you invested but significantly less than the amount generated by stocks. Also, the yield on bonds at the time was 2.9% and there was encouragement by the government to “support the cause” and buy war bonds. Buffett & Munger did not partake much in this by simple math -> 2.9% minus taxes less 2% inflation leads to a minuscule return.

  • Succession planning:
    • Many questions related to succession planning, which makes sense given Mr. Munger and Mr. Buffett’s age (87 and 94 respectively). However, based on their responses, their ability  to work all day from ~7:30am to ~5:00pm all while eating peanut brittle and coca-cola, made me confident that Buffett and Charlie are in solid mental health at least.
    • “I’ve been semi-retired for decades”, Buffett’s response to succession planning. Ted Weschler and Todd Combs have assumed some investment responsibilities and Ajit Jain and Greg Abel now oversee Berkshire’s operating businesses.
    • However, Ted and Todd manage ~$25BN compared to Berkshire’s $100BN in cash as well as his current investment decisions. Bottom line: Buffett is still in charge
    • That being said, it should give some confidence that Buffett is relinquishing the reins responsibly.
  • Dark clouds on the horizon
    • Buffett was asked about Amex, given there are “dark clouds on the horizon” in payments. By this, he meant changes are happening in the industry and many technologies are trying to disrupt the industry.
    • However, he reiterated that the business is terrific, global payments are increasing, and Amex is a great brand. Over time, through share buybacks, Buffett will increase his stake.
    • In response to dark clouds, Buffett said something along the lines of, we used to buy outright declines (e.g. the textile business Berkshire is named after) so they are improving.
  • Dividends & Share buybacks
    • When asked to clarify why Buffett does not pay a special dividend or conduct buybacks, yet Buffett is favorable on Apple’s massive share buyback plan.
    • For starters, Buffett thinks Apple’s stock is cheap, and recently added 75MM shares to his portfolio. It then would make sense for Apple to buyback its stock if it also thinks it is cheap.
    • Second, it is unlike that Apple can find acquisitions in size “that they can make at remotely sensible price that really become additive to them.”
    • “The reason companies are buying their stocks is that they are smart enough to know it’s better for them than anything else,” Mr. Munger said.
    • Therefore it makes sense for them to acquire shares. Buffett on the other hand, has said he is open to share repurchases if he can’t find a way to deploy it (but he think he can).
  • Cryptocurrencies
    • Much has been said about what Buffett and Charlie said on crypto, but it bears repeating.
    • First, like gold, cryptocurrencies are non-productive assets and therefore depend on a “greater fool” to buy at a higher price than you bought it.
    • Charlie called this idiotic and immoral (given the greater fool piece). However, the BEST PIECE, was when he compared it to turds.
    • “To me, it’s just dementia. It’s like somebody else is trading turds and you decide you can’t be left out.”

Are you speculating or investing?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

I think when most people begin to invest in stocks, they buy companies that make a product that they really like or that they think will be beneficiaries of major trends. This seems completely reasonable, but is simple speculation until cash flow enters the equation. Before I get into how I approach investing in companies, I’ll first break down the significant differences between the two, as I think it’s an important distinction and provides a valuable backdrop before we put money to work.

Back in the 1990’s, the commercial internet had just dawned. What was clear was that it would change the way we live forever; what was not clear was how. One new service was going to offer grocery delivery ordered online. It would deliver groceries to customers during a 30-minute period of their choosing. This presumably would change the way we shop for groceries forever (sound familiar?). Their plan was simple; they would raise cash from an IPO to fund investments in warehouses and expand to new cities. Clearly, THIS was the future. The company raised $375MM in an IPO to fund expansion and the company at peak was valued at $1.2BN. Moreover, they had an uber experienced and already successful founder, Louis Borders (of Borders bookstore fame), in addition to top-of-the-line VC money and guidance.

The company was growing too. It achieved 750,000 users, had 3,500 employees, and for the 3 months ended Dec-31-2000, the company did $84MM of revenue compared to $9MM in the 3 month period in the prior year (+833%!). However, the company’s losses expanded to $173MM from $49MM (and cash flow was a similar story) as it tried to expand quickly and needed to invest back in the business. In the end, the company was running out of cash, capital dried up (the tech bubble burst, closing the public equity markets), and it declared bankruptcy in 2001. The name of this company was Webvan if you want to study it further.

Ok, so how is that different than investing? Both investing and speculation involve taking risk. As Ben Graham said, investing inevitably has “substantial possibilities of both profit and loss.” However, in speculation the risk vs. reward is often miscalculated. You believe, since the price of something has gone up in the past, you can anticipate these movements and gain profitably from them. And maybe this strategy works for a little while, but see how similar that sounds to a roulette wheel? “It hit black 3 times in a row… it must be red next time.”

Think about today’s market. Infrastructure spending, tax reform, the next tech event… nothing has actually even been laid out yet, which has allowed investors to write their own narrative. This has led to speculation and driving stocks higher.  

When investing, we must take a calculated, fundamental approach to what we are buying, while also being realistic. We are buying an asset that we want to produce cash flows in the future to grow our capital or pay us back. However, we can’t pay any price for it if we want our capital to appreciate at a fast rate – which should be our goal! That philosophy alone also eliminates some “investments” out there, such as art, popular crypto currencies, etc. – to wit, anything that is not a producer of cash.

We must understand the industry, the company’s position, management, and cash flow. Unfortunately, this is harder than speculating, but also can create more significant wealth with much less risk. There is no free lunch, so it does require challenging work, but it can be well worth it and will be the subject of future posts here.

Think about it; is something in your portfolio right now that you’d equate to Webvan? Good concept, excellent product, or immense potential, all they need to do is… make a great leap? Or you’ve seen this stock rise so much in the past, you don’t want to miss the opportunity. This is all speculation and yes, sometimes there is a place for it in our broader portfolios and yes, it can be hard to draw the line between investing and speculating.

In future posts, I will delve further into my investing approach. But for now, I want to leave you with the following; if you have a large speculative position in a company, consider taking some risk off the table in favor of a real investment.

– Diligent Dollar