Warren Buffett: These were my biggest early mistakes

Happy Memorial Day Weekend! Today I thought we’d spend some time with one of investing’s greatest minds at a critical point in history. 

The below is excerpted from Warren Buffett’s 1989 letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. Buffett was commemorating twenty five years at the helm of Berkshire, a period during which he’d grown the company’s book value from $19.46 per share to $4,296.01 – a compounded annual rate of 23.8%!

Rather than take a (much-deserved) victory lap on this occasion, the 59-year-old Buffett dedicated his letter on this auspicious anniversary to all of the things he and Charlie Munger had done wrong. In retrospect, he was right to be humble at the time – his Salomon Brothers disaster was already well underway but he’d had no idea what was going on in New York at the time. What Buffett would eventually call “The most important day of my life,” wouldn’t unfold for another couple of years. 

In the meanwhile, it is the late eighties, the bull market is raging and Buffett has, along with Fidelity’s Peter Lynch and the fictional Gordon Gekko, become the human embodiment of America’s newfound love affair with the stock market.

This is an amazing piece of business writing. If you haven’t read it, you’re not a complete investor. Take the time out to do so today, you’ll thank me. – JB

From the 1989 Berkshire Hathaway 1989 letter to shareholders:

Mistakes of the First Twenty-five Years (A Condensed Version)

To quote Robert Benchley, “Having a dog teaches a boy
fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before
lying down.” Such are the shortcomings of experience.
Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to review past mistakes before
committing new ones. So let’s take a quick look at the last 25
years.

o My first mistake, of course, was in buying control of
Berkshire. Though I knew its business – textile manufacturing –
to be unpromising, I was enticed to buy because the price looked
cheap. Stock purchases of that kind had proved reasonably
rewarding in my early years, though by the time Berkshire came
along in 1965 I was becoming aware that the strategy was not
ideal.

If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will
usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives
you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-
term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the
“cigar butt” approach to investing. 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. First, the original “bargain” price
probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a
difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another
surfaces – never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen.
Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded
by the low return that the business earns. For example, 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.

You might think this principle is obvious, but I had to
learn it the hard way – in fact, I had to learn it several times
over. Shortly after purchasing Berkshire, I acquired a Baltimore
department store, Hochschild Kohn, buying through a company
called Diversified Retailing that later merged with Berkshire. I
bought at a substantial discount from book value, the people were
first-class, and the deal included some extras – unrecorded real
estate values and a significant LIFO inventory cushion. How could
I miss? So-o-o – three years later I was lucky to sell the
business for about what I had paid. After ending our corporate
marriage to Hochschild Kohn, I had memories like those of the
husband in the country song, “My Wife Ran Away With My Best
Friend and I Still Miss Him a Lot.”

I could give you other personal examples of “bargain-
purchase” folly but I’m sure you get the picture: It’s far
better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair
company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I
was a slow learner. But now, when buying companies or common
stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-
class managements.

o That leads right into a related lesson: Good jockeys will
do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both
Berkshire’s textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and
honest people running them. The same managers employed in a
business with good economic characteristics would have achieved
fine records. But they were never going to make any progress
while running in quicksand.

I’ve said many times that when a management with a
reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation
for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that
remains intact. I just wish I hadn’t been so energetic in
creating examples. My behavior has matched that admitted by Mae
West: “I was Snow White, but I drifted.”

o A further related lesson: Easy does it. After 25 years of
buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and
I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What
we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been
successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot
hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired
any ability to clear seven-footers.

The finding may seem unfair, but in both business and
investments it is usually far more profitable to simply stick
with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult. On
occasion, tough problems must be tackled as was the case when we
started our Sunday paper in Buffalo. In other instances, a great
investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business
encounters a one-time huge, but solvable, problem as was the case
many years back at both American Express and GEICO. Overall,
however, we’ve done better by avoiding dragons than by slaying
them.

o My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in
business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional
imperative.” In business school, I was given no hint of the
imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it
when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent,
intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make
rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t
so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional
imperative comes into play.

For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of
Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current
direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time,
corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up
available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however
foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and
strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of
peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting
executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.

Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set
businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After
making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the
imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways
that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have
attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear
alert to the problem.

o After some other mistakes, I learned to go into business
only with people whom I like, trust, and admire. As I noted
before, this policy of itself will not ensure success: A second-
class textile or department-store company won’t prosper simply
because its managers are men that you would be pleased to see
your daughter marry. However, an owner – or investor – can
accomplish wonders if he manages to associate himself with such
people in businesses that possess decent economic
characteristics. Conversely, we do not wish to join with managers
who lack admirable qualities, no matter how attractive the
prospects of their business. We’ve never succeeded in making a
good deal with a bad person.

o Some of my worst mistakes were not publicly visible. These
were stock and business purchases whose virtues I understood and
yet didn’t make. It’s no sin to miss a great opportunity outside
one’s area of competence. But I have passed on a couple of really
big purchases that were served up to me on a platter and that I
was fully capable of understanding. For Berkshire’s shareholders,
myself included, the cost of this thumb-sucking has been huge.

o Our consistently-conservative financial policies may appear
to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect,
it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional,
leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably
better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually
averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be
a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but
good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that
some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a
conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere
between temporary anguish and default.

We wouldn’t have liked those 99:1 odds – and never will. A
small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be
offset by a large chance of extra returns. If your actions are
sensible, you are certain to get good results; in most such
cases, leverage just moves things along faster. Charlie and I
have never been in a big hurry: We enjoy the process far more
than the proceeds – though we have learned to live with those
also.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

We hope in another 25 years to report on the mistakes of the
first 50. If we are around in 2015 to do that, you can count on
this section occupying many more pages than it does here.

___

I told you that was awesome. Hope you got some helpful stuff out of it.  By the way, this coming spring of 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of Buffett’s tenure at the firm. Hopefully – and as promised – he’s already preparing his next list of mistakes from the second 25 years of his chairmanship. 

Full Disclosure: Nothing on this site should ever be considered to be advice, research or an invitation to buy or sell any securities, please see my Terms & Conditions page for a full disclaimer.

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  1. David commented on Nov 16

    .

    ñïñ!

  2. shane commented on Nov 28

    .

    hello.

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