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Lessons from Warren Buffett - V...

Jul 25, 2007

Last week, we got to know the master's views on non-controlled ownership earnings and corporate acquisitions through his 1980 letter to shareholders. In the following write-up, let us see what he had to offer in his 1981 letter. "Our acquisition decisions will be aimed at maximizing real economic benefits, not at maximizing either managerial domain or reported numbers for accounting purposes. (In the long run, managements stressing accounting appearance over economic substance usually achieve little of either.)

Regardless of the impact upon immediately reportable earnings, we would rather buy 10% of Wonderful Business T at X per share than 100% of T at 2X per share. Most corporate managers prefer just the reverse, and have no shortage of stated rationales for their behavior."

By making the above statements, Buffett is trying to highlight the difference between acquisition rationale for Berkshire Hathaway and most of the other corporate managers. While for the latter group of people, the motivation behind high premium acquisitions could range from reasons like penchant for adventure, misplaced compensations and a fair degree of overconfidence in their managerial skills, for Berkshire Hathaway, the maximisation of real economic benefits is the sole aim behind acquisitions.

Infact, the company is even happy to deploy large sums where there is a high probability of long-term economic benefits but an absence of ownership control. In other words, the company is comfortable both with total ownership of businesses and with marketable securities representing small ownership of businesses.

The paragraphs that follow bring to the fore some of the biggest qualities of the man and what makes him an extraordinary investor. Warren Buffett has a knack of knowing his circle of competence better than most and also a rather unmatched ability to learn from past mistakes. These could be gauged from the following comment:

"We have tried occasionally to buy toads at bargain prices with results that have been chronicled in past reports. Clearly our kisses fell flat. We have done well with a couple of princes - but they were princes when purchased. At least our kisses didn't turn them into toads. And, finally, we have occasionally been quite successful in purchasing fractional interests in easily-identifiable princes at toad-like prices."

In the above paragraph, the master uses a childhood analogy and likens managers to princesses who kiss toads (ordinary businesses) to convert them into princes (attractive businesses). Put differently, there are certain managers who believe that their managerial kiss will do wonders for the profitability of a company and convert them from toads to princes. While the master has gone on to add that there are indeed certain managers that can achieve this feat, his own track record is nothing to write home about and hence, he would rather prefer buying 'easily-identifiable princes at toad-like prices'.

Although the opportunities for finding these types of companies are very rare, the master is willing to commit a large sum once such opportunities surface. According to him, such businesses must have two favored characteristics:

  1. An ability to increase prices rather easily (even when product demand is flat and capacity is not fully utilised) without fear of significant loss of either market share or unit volume, and

  2. An ability to accommodate large dollar volume increases in business (often produced more by inflation than by real growth) with only minor additional investment of capital.

Indeed, an ability to preserve margins and generate attractive return on capital year after year are the qualities that one should seek in a firm that one wants to invest in.

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