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Lessons from Warren Buffett - XX - Views on News from Equitymaster
 
 
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  • Nov 29, 2007

    Lessons from Warren Buffett - XX

    Last week we got to know the master's take on the difference between a 'business' and a 'franchise'. Continuing with the letter from the same year, let us see what other wisdom he has to offer.

    With the kind of fortune that the master has amassed over the years, one could be forgiven for thinking him as rather infallible and the one fully capable of identifying the next big industry or the next big multi-bagger. However, this myth is easily demolished in the master's following comments from the 1991 letter.

    "Typically, our most egregious mistakes fall in the omission, rather than the commission, category. That may spare Charlie and me some embarrassment, since you don't see these errors; but their invisibility does not reduce their cost. In this mea culpa, I am not talking about missing out on some company that depends upon an esoteric invention (such as Xerox), high-technology (Apple), or even brilliant merchandising (Wal-Mart). We will never develop the competence to spot such businesses early. Instead I refer to business situations that Charlie and I can understand and that seem clearly attractive - but in which we nevertheless end up sucking our thumbs rather than buying."

    There are two things that clearly stand out from Warren Buffett's above quote. One is his ability to flawlessly identify his circle of competence and the second, his objectivity, from which comes his rare trait of accepting one's own mistake and working to eliminate it.

    For those investors who believe that big fortune usually comes from identifying the next big thing or the next wave, they must have been surely forced to think again after coming face to face with the master's candid admission that he will never develop the competence to identify say the next 'Microsoft' or 'Pfizer' or how about the next 'Infosys' or the next 'Ranbaxy'. Indeed, outside one's industry of knowledge, it becomes very difficult to identify the next multi-bagger as it is just not high growth potential but a lot of other factors that go into making a highly successful company. In fact, even within one's industry of knowledge, it may prove to be a tough nut to crack.

    So, if not the next multi-baggers, then how else can one become a successful long-term investor? The answer could lie in the master's quote from the same letter and given below.

    "We continually search for large businesses with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements. This focus doesn't guarantee results: We both have to buy at a sensible price and get business performance from our companies that validate our assessment. But this investment approach - searching for the superstars - offers us our only chance for real success. Charlie and I are simply not smart enough, considering the large sums we work with, to get great results by adroitly buying and selling portions of far-from-great businesses. Nor do we think many others can achieve long-term investment success by flitting from flower to flower."

    Thus, in investing as in other walks of life, easy does it. Hence, look around for stable businesses run by competent people and available at attractive prices. Trust us, it is much better than trying to look out for companies possessing the next revolutionary product or a service.

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