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Lessons from Warren Buffett- 1

Jun 21, 2007

For the practitioners of value investing, the one name that probably comes above all else is 'Warren E Buffett', the legendary value investor who arguably played the biggest part in executing the teachings of masters like Graham and Philip Fisher in the real world and making an extraordinary success story out of it. While it is true that he has learnt a lot from the master we have just mentioned, his own larder of investment wisdom is anything but empty. And fortunately for us, over the past many years he has been dishing it out in the form of letters that he religiously writes to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway year after year. Many people reckon that careful analyses of these letters itself can make people a lot better investors and are believed to be one of the best sources of investment wisdom.Hence, starting from today, we will make an attempt to highlight and explain certain key points with respect to investing in each of his letters and in the process try and become a better investor. Laid out below are few points from the master's 1977 letter to shareholders:

"Most companies define "record" earnings as a new high in earnings per share. Since businesses customarily add from year to year to their equity base, we find nothing particularly noteworthy in a management performance combining, say, a 10% increase in equity capital and a 5% increase in earnings per share. After all, even a totally dormant savings account will produce steadily rising interest earnings each year because of compounding. Except for special cases (for example, companies with unusual debt-equity ratios or those with important assets carried at unrealistic balance sheet values), we believe a more appropriate measure of managerial economic performance to be return on equity capital."

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What Buffett intends to say here is the fact that while investors are enamored with a company that is growing its earnings at a robust pace, he is not a big fan of the management if the growth in earnings is a result of even faster growth in capital that the business has employed. In other words, the management is not doing a good job or the fundamentals of the business are not good enough if there is an improving earnings profile but a deteriorating ROE. This could happen due to rising competition eroding the margins of the company or could also be a result of some technology that is getting obsolete so fast that the management is forced to replace fixed assets, which needless to say, requires capital investments.

"It is comforting to be in a business where some mistakes can be made and yet a quite satisfactory overall performance can be achieved. In a sense, this is the opposite case from our textile business where even very good management probably can average only modest results. One of the lessons your management has learned - and, unfortunately, sometimes re-learned - is the importance of being in businesses where tailwinds prevail rather than headwinds."

The above quote is a consequence of repeated failures by Buffett to try and successfully turnaround an ailing business of textiles called the Berkshire Hathaway, which eventually went on to become the holding company and has now acquired a great reputation. Indeed, no matter how good the management, if the fundamentals of the business are not good enough or in other words headwinds are blowing in the industry, then the business eventually fails or turns out to be a moderate performer. On the other hand, even a mediocre management can shepherd a business to high levels of profitability if the tailwinds are blowing in its favour.

If one were to apply the above principles in the Indian context, then the two contrasting industries that immediately come to mind are cement and the IT and the pharma sector. Despite being stalwarts in the industry, companies like ACC and Grasim, failed to grow at an extremely robust pace during the downturn that the industry faced between FY01 and FY05. But now, almost the same management are laughing all the way to the banks, thanks to a much improved pricing scenario. Infact, even small companies in the sector have become extremely profitable. On the other hand, such was the demand for low cost skilled labor, that many success stories have been spawned in the IT and the pharma sector, despite the fact that a lot of companies had management with little experience to run the business.

It is thus amazing, that although the letter has been written way back in 1977, the principles have stood the test of times and are still applicable in today's environment. We will come out with more investing wisdom in the forthcoming weeks.

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