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Lessons from Warren Buffett - XI

Sep 6, 2007

Last week, we saw Warren Buffett expand upon his concept of owner earnings and the onlytwo basic jobs that he and his partner Charlie Munger engage in through his 1986 letter to his shareholders. This week, let us see what investment wisdom he brings to the table in his 1987 letter.

We are living in a fast changing world and every few years there comes a technology or a product that just brings about a revolution and spreads across the globe like a mania. Few examples that come to mind are the automobiles and aeroplanes in the US in the early 20th century or the recent Internet and dot-com mania. However, the fact that the companies in such revolutionary industries rake up equally impressive returns on the stock market is far from truth. While loss making abilities of the US auto companies and airliners are legendary, not less infamous either is the amount of wealth that has been destroyed in the Internet bubble at the cusp of the 21st century. No wonder this is what the master has to stay on which companies end up winners in the stock market.

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"Experience indicates that the best business returns are usually achieved by companies that are doing something quite similar today to what they were doing five or ten years ago. That is no argument for managerial complacency. Businesses always have opportunities to improve service, product lines, manufacturing techniques, and the like, and obviously these opportunities should be seized. But a business that constantly encounters major change also encounters many chances for major error. Furthermore, economic terrain that is forever shifting violently is ground on which it is difficult to build a fortress-like business franchise. Such a franchise is usually the key to sustained high returns."

"Berkshire's experience has been similar. Our managers have produced extraordinary results by doing rather ordinary things - but doing them exceptionally well. Our managers protect their franchises, they control costs, they search for new products and markets that build on their existing strengths and they don't get diverted. They work exceptionally hard at the details of their businesses, and it shows."

Indeed, with technology changing so fast in industries such as auto and Internet, it becomes really difficult to zero in on a company that will continue to exist ten years from now and in the process still give attractive returns. This is definitely not the case with a single product company existing in an industry, where more the things change more they remain the same.

In an era when investing in equities had been reduced to nothing more than moving in and out of companies based on their quotations, the master was a breed different from the rest. He did not let fluctuations in stock prices influence his investment decisions but rather viewed investments from the point of view of a business analyst, judging companies on the basis of their operating results and viewing stock market not as a guide but as a servant. Laid out below is what perhaps is one of the most lucid yet one of the most effective explanations of how one should view the stock market.

The master says, "Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his.

Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market's quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him.

Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic - he doesn't mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you.

But, 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."

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