Lessons from Warren Buffett - VIII - Views on News from Equitymaster

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Lessons from Warren Buffett - VIII

Aug 16, 2007

Last week we saw Warren Buffett put forth his views on the concept of 'economic goodwill' and why he prefers companies that have a high amount of the same. Let us now see what the master has to offer in terms of investment wisdom in his 1984 letter to the shareholders.

While Buffett has devoted a lot of space in his 84' letter to discussing in detail, some of Berkshire's biggest investments in those times, but as usual, the letter is not short on some general investment related counsel either. In a rather simplistic way that only he can, the master gives his opinion on a couple of extremely important topics like 'investments in bonds' and 'corporate dividend policies'. On the former, he has to say the following:

"Our approach to bond investment - treating it as an unusual sort of "business" with special advantages and disadvantages - may strike you as a bit quirky. However, we believe that many staggering errors by investors could have been avoided if they had viewed bond investment with a businessman's perspective. For example, in 1946, 20-year AAA tax-exempt bonds traded at slightly below a 1% yield. In effect, the buyer of those bonds at that time bought a "business" that earned about 1% on "book value" (and that, moreover, could never earn a dime more than 1% on book), and paid 100 cents on the dollar for that abominable business."

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Berkshire Hathaway in 1984 had purchased huge quantities of bonds in a troubled company, where the yields had gone upto as much as 16%. While usually not a huge fan of long term bond investments, the master chose to invest in the troubled company because he felt that the risk was rather limited and not many businesses during those times gave as much return on the invested capital. Thus, despite the rather limited upside potential, he went ahead with his bond investments. This is further made clear in his following comment:

"This ceiling on upside potential is an important minus. It should be realized, however, that the great majority of operating businesses have a limited upside potential also unless more capital is continuously invested in them. That is so because most businesses are unable to significantly improve their average returns on equity - even under inflationary conditions, though these were once thought to automatically raise returns."

Years and years of studying companies had led the master to conclude that there are very few companies on the face of this earth that are able to continuously earn above average returns without consuming too much of capital. Indeed, such brutal are the competitive forces that sooner or later and in this case, more sooner than later that returns for majority of the companies tend to gravitate towards their cost of capital. If we do a similar study on our Sensex, we will too come to the conclusion that there are not many companies that were a part of the index 15 years back and are still a part of the same index. Hence, while valuing companies, having a fair judgement of when the competitive position of the company, the one that enables it to consistently earn above average returns is likely to deteriorate. This will help you to avoid paying too much for the company's future growth.

After touching upon the topic of bond investments, the master then gives his take on dividends and this is what he has to say:

"The first point to understand is that all earnings are not created equal. In many businesses particularly those that have high asset/profit ratios - inflation causes some or all of the reported earnings to become ersatz. The ersatz portion - let's call these earnings "restricted" - cannot, if the business is to retain its economic position, be distributed as dividends. Were these earnings to be paid out, the business would lose ground inone or more of the following areas: its ability to maintain its unit volume of sales, its long-term competitive position, its financial strength. No matter how conservative its payout ratio, a company that consistently distributes restricted earnings is destined for oblivion unless equity capital is otherwise infused."

While the master is definitely in favour of dividend payments, he is also aware of the fact that not all companies have similar capital needs in order to maintain their ongoing level of operations. Hence, in cases where businesses have high capital needs, a high payout ratio is likely to result in deterioration of the business or sooner or later will require additional capital to be infused. On the other hand, companies that have limited capital needs should distribute the remaining earnings as dividends and not pursue investments which drive down the overall returns of the underlying business. In a nutshell, capital should go where it can be put to earn maximum rate of return.

He then goes on to add how his own textile company, Berkshire Hathaway, had huge ongoing capital needs and hence was unable to pay dividends. He also further adds that had Berkshire Hathaway distributed all its earnings as dividends, the master would have left with no capital at all to be put into his other high return yielding investments. Thus, by not letting the operational performance of the company deteriorate by retaining earnings and not distributing it as dividends, he was able to avoid a situation in the future where he would have had too put in his own capital in the business.

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