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Lessons from Warren Buffett - III

Jul 5, 2007

Last week, we discussed how Warren Buffett in his 1978 letter to his shareholders places a great deal of importance on the quality of business and also the fact that he had to let go of many attractive investment opportunities just because the price was not right. In the following write up, let us see what the master has to offer in terms of investment wisdom in his 1979 letter:"The inflation rate plus the percentage of capital that must be paid by the owner to transfer into his own pocket the annual earnings achieved by the business (i.e., ordinary income tax on dividends and capital gains tax on retained earnings) - can be thought of as an "investor's misery index". When this index exceeds the rate of return earned onequity by the business, the investor's purchasing power (real capital) shrinks even though he consumes nothing at all. We have no corporate solution to this problem; high inflation rates will not help us earn higher rates of return on equity."

The above paragraph clearly demonstrates that in order to improve one's purchasing power, one will have to earn after tax returns that are higher than the inflation rate at all times. Imagine a scenario where the inflation rate touches 9%, which means that a commodity that you purchased at Rs 100 per unit last year will now cost you Rs 109. Further, assume that you put Rs 100 last year in a business that earns 10% return on equity and the tax rate that currently prevails is 20%.

Thus, while you earned Rs 10 by virtue of the 10% return on equity, the tax rate ensured that only Rs 8 has flown to your pocket. Not a good situation since your purchasing power has diminished as while your returns were only 8% post tax, you will have to shell out Re 1 extra for buying the commodity as inflation has remained higher than the after tax returns that you have earned. Further, high inflation does not help the business too unless it has some inherent competitive advantages, which enables it to pass on the hike in inflation to the end consumers. Little wonder, investors lay such high emphasis on businesses that earn returns way above inflation so that the purchasing power is enhanced rather than diminished.

"Both our operating and investment experience cause us to conclude that "turnarounds" seldom turn, and that the same energies and talent are much better employed in a good business purchased at a fair price than in a poor business purchased at a bargain price."

In the above paragraph, the master once again extols the virtues of a good quality business and says that he would rather pay a reasonable price for a good quality business than pay a bargain price for a poor business. It would be worthwhile to add that in the early part of his investing career, the master himself was a stock picker who used to rely only on quantitative cheapness rather than qualitative cheapness. However, somewhere down the line, he started gravitating towards good quality businesses and out of this thinking came such quality investments as 'Coca Cola' and 'American Express'. These were the companies that had virtually indestructible brands (a very good competitive advantage to have), generated superior returns on their capital and had ability to grow well into the future.

We prod you to find similar businesses in the Indian context, pick them up at a reasonable price and hold them for as long as you can. For if the master has made millions out of it, we don't see any reason as to why you can't.

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