It’s become fashionable in the age of social media to derisively sneer at our fellow investors who are too optimistic and refer to them as “permabulls.” This sort of thing earns us intellectual style points – points which can be accumulated and redeemed to be spent precisely nowhere.
In the meanwhile, we sometimes forget that the greatest investors in history were permabulls. One hundred years ago, J.P. Morgan said that “the man who is a bear on the future of the United States will always go broke.” See my post Optimism as a Default Setting for the whole story behind that.
This week, Warren Buffett said much the same thing, part of an endless recitation he’s been carrying on publicly for more than 50 years now. The below comes from Buffett’s 2016 annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders:
America’s economic achievements have led to staggering profits for stockholders. During the 20th century the Dow-Jones Industrials advanced from 66 to 11,497, a 17,320% capital gain that was materially boosted by steadily increasing dividends. The trend continues: By yearend 2016, the index had advanced a further 72%, to 19,763.
American business – and consequently a basket of stocks – is virtually certain to be worth far more in the years ahead. Innovation, productivity gains, entrepreneurial spirit and an abundance of capital will see to that. Ever-present naysayers may prosper by marketing their gloomy forecasts. But heaven help them if they act on the nonsense they peddle.
Many companies, of course, will fall behind, and some will fail. Winnowing of that sort is a product of market dynamism. Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks. No one can tell you when these traumas will occur – not me, not Charlie, not economists, not the media. Meg McConnell of the New York Fed aptly described the reality of panics: “We spend a lot of time looking for systemic risk; in truth, however, it tends to find us.”
During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.
As for Berkshire, our size precludes a brilliant result: Prospective returns fall as assets increase. Nonetheless, Berkshire’s collection of good businesses, along with the company’s impregnable financial strength and owner-oriented culture, should deliver decent results. We won’t be satisfied with less.
Buffett’s the Permabull-in-Chief. This is not the same as saying that he always believes it’s a great time to buy every stock or that he believes he has some edge on where stock prices will be this year or next. Because neither is true.
One of the hallmarks of Berkshire’s success has been its willingness to raise or lower its formidable cash hoard in response to the presence (or lack thereof) of viable investing opportunities. One of the other hallmarks of Buffett’s approach has been to tune out forecasts and de-emphasize the importance of them in general.
The one thing Buffett has never given up on is the idea that American productivity, innovation and economic dynamism will always lead to substantially greater prosperity in the future. And he’s been right for decades, through all sorts of setbacks, crises and challenges for the nation.
So if the choice is to be in the Buffett camp vs the David Stockman camp or the Peter Schiff camp, well, I regard that as no real choice at all.
Lastly, permabulls need not be blind to the possibility of market declines, economic catastrophes (real or imagined) and other momentary trials and tribulations. Buffett’s got these possibilities built right into his manifesto:
Charlie and I have no magic plan to add earnings except to dream big and to be prepared mentally and financially to act fast when opportunities present themselves. Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.
Please make sure to find the time to read the whole letter this weekend.