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Lessons from Warren Buffett - XXIX

Feb 7, 2008

Last week, we read about Warren Buffett highlighting, in his 1994 letter to shareholders, the futility in trying to make economic prediction while investing. Let us go further down the same letter and see what other investment wisdom the master has to offer.

One of the biggest qualities that separate the master from the rest of the investors is his knack of identifying on a consistent basis, investments that have the ability to provide the best risk adjusted returns on a long-term basis. In other words, the master does a very good job of arriving at an intrinsic value of a company based on which he takes his investment decisions. Indeed, if the key to successful long-term investing is not consistently identifying opportunities with the best risk adjusted returns than what it is.

However, not all investors and even the managers of companies are able to fully grasp this concept and get bogged down by near term outlook and strong earnings growth. This is nowhere more true than in the field of M&A where acquisitions are justified to the acquiring company's shareholders by stating that these are anti-dilutive to earnings and hence, are good for the company's long-term interest. The master feels that this is not the correct way of looking at things and this is what he has to say on the issue.

"In corporate transactions, it's equally silly for the would-be purchaser to focus on current earnings when the prospective acquiree has either different prospects, different amounts of non-operating assets, or a different capital structure. At Berkshire, we have rejected many merger and purchase opportunities that would have boosted current and near-term earnings but that would have reduced per-share intrinsic value. Our approach, rather, has been to follow Wayne Gretzky's advice: "Go to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is." As a result, our shareholders are now many billions of dollars richer than they would have been if we had used the standard catechism."

He goes on to say, "The sad fact is that most major acquisitions display an egregious imbalance: They are a bonanza for the shareholders of the acquiree; they increase the income and status of the acquirer's management; and they are a honey pot for the investment bankers and other professionals on both sides. But, alas, they usually reduce the wealth of the acquirer's shareholders, often to a substantial extent. That happens because the acquirer typically gives up more intrinsic value than it receives."

Indeed, rather than giving in to their adventurous instincts, managers could do a world of good to their shareholders if they allocate their capital wisely and look for the best risk adjusted return from the excess cash they generate from their operations. If such opportunities turn out to be sparse, then they are better off returning the excess cash to shareholders by way of dividends or buybacks. However, unfortunately not all managers adhere to this routine and indulge in squandering shareholder wealth by making costly acquisitions where they end up giving more intrinsic value than they receive.

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