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Lessons from Warren Buffett - XVII...

Nov 8, 2007

In our previous discussion on the master's 1990 letter to shareholders, we touched upon his fondness for doing business in pessimistic times, mainly for the prices they provide. Let us look what the master has to impart in terms of investment wisdom in his 1991 letter to shareholders.

"Coca-Cola and Gillette are two of the best companies in the world and we expect their earnings to grow at hefty rates in the years ahead. Over time, also, the value of our holdings in these stocks should grow in rough proportion. Last year, however, the valuations of these two companies rose far faster than their earnings. In effect, we got a double-dip benefit, delivered partly by the excellent earnings growth and even more so by the market's reappraisal of these stocks. We believe this reappraisal was warranted. But it can't recur annually: We'll have to settle for a single dip in the future."

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The master's above-mentioned quote has been put up not to extol the virtues of the two companies but instead to drive home the enormous advantage of the 'double-dip' benefit that he has mentioned at the end of the paragraph. In the stock markets, it is very important to pay a reasonable multiple to the earnings of a company because if you overpay and if the multiples contract despite the high growth rates enjoyed by the company, then the overall returns stand diluted a bit. In fact, it can even lead to negative returns if the multiples contract to a great extent. On the other hand, investing in even a moderately growing company can lead to attractive returns if the multiples are low.

Imagine a company 'A' having a P/E of 25 and a company 'B' having a P/E of 10. Company 'A' is a high growth company, growing its profits by 20% per year and company 'B' is a relatively low growth company growing its profits annually by 12%. Now, two years down the line, because of 'A's growth rate, if its P/E were to come down to 20 and 'B's were to rise up to 12, then we would have in the case of 'B' what is known as a double dip effect. 'B' has benefited not only from the growth but also from the multiple expansion, resulting into returns in the range of 23% CAGR. 'A' on the other hand, despite its high earnings growth has helped earn its investors a return of just 7.3% CAGR. The main culprit here was the contraction in multiples of 'A', which fell to 20 from a high of 25.

This analysis could easily lead to one of the most important investment lessons and that is to pay a reasonable multiple despite high growth rates. For if there is a contraction, all the benefits from high growth rates go down the drain. Little wonder, the master has always insisted upon an adequate margin of safety, which if put differently, is nothing but buying a stock at multiples, which leave ample room for expansion and where chances of contraction are low.

If one were to apply the above lesson to the events playing out in the Indian stock markets currently, then it becomes clear that while the robust economic growth would continue to drive the growth in earnings of companies, most of the good quality companies are trading at multiples, which do not leave much room for expansion. In fact, if anything, the probability of the multiples coming down for quite a few companies is on the higher side, thus diluting the impact of high growth to a significant extent. Thus, we would advice investors to pay heed to the master and wait patiently for the multiples to come down to levels, where the benefits of the 'double dip' effect become apparent.

In the forthcoming articles, we will discuss the remainder of the master's 1991 letter.

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