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  • DECEMBER 20, 2007

Lessons from Warren Buffett - XXIII

In our previous discussion on Warren Buffett's 1992 letter to his shareholders, we touched upon his views on short-term forecasting in equity markets and how it could prove worthless. In the following few paragraphs, let us go further down through the letter and see what other investment wisdom he has on offer.

Most of the financing community puts stock investments into one of the two major categories viz. growth and value. It is of the opinion that while the former category comprises stocks that have potential of growing at above average rates, the latter category stocks are likely to grow at below average rates. However, the master belongs to an altogether different camp and we would like to mention that such a method of classification is clearly not the right way to think about equity investments. Let us see what Warren Buffett has to say on the issue and he has been indeed very generous in trying to put his thoughts down to words.

"But how, you will ask, does one decide what's 'attractive'? In answering this question, most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: 'value' and 'growth'. Indeed, many investment professionals see any mixing of the two terms as a form of intellectual cross-dressing.

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We view that as fuzzy thinking (in which, it must be confessed, I myself engaged some years ago). In our opinion, the two approaches are joined at the hip: Growth is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive.

In addition, we think the very term 'value investing' is redundant. What is 'investing' if it is not the act of seeking value at least sufficient to justify the amount paid? Consciously paying more for a stock than its calculated value - in the hope that it can soon be sold for a still-higher price - should be labeled speculation (which is neither illegal, immoral nor - in our view - financially fattening).

Whether appropriate or not, the term 'value investing' is widely used. Typically, it connotes the purchase of stocks having attributes such as a low ratio of price to book value, a low price-earnings ratio, or a high dividend yield. Unfortunately, such characteristics, even if they appear in combination, are far from determinative as to whether an investor is indeed buying something for what it is worth and is therefore truly operating on the principle of obtaining value in his investments. Correspondingly, opposite characteristics - a high ratio of price to book value, a high price-earnings ratio, and a low dividend yield - are in no way inconsistent with a 'value' purchase.

Similarly, business growth, per se, tells us little about value. It's true that growth often has a positive impact on value, sometimes one of spectacular proportions. But such an effect is far from certain. For example, investors have regularly poured money into the domestic airline business to finance profitless (or worse) growth. For these investors, it would have been far better if Orville had failed to get off the ground at Kitty Hawk: The more the industry has grown, the worse the disaster for owners.

Growth benefits investors only when the business in point can invest at incremental returns that are enticing - in other words, only when each dollar used to finance the growth creates over a dollar of long-term market value. In the case of a low-return business requiring incremental funds, growth hurts the investor."

If understood in their entirety, the above paragraphs will surely make the reader a much better investor. We believe the most important takeaways could be as follows:

  • Do not categorise stocks into growth and value types. A high P/E or a high price to cash flow stock is not necessarily a growth stock. A low P/E or a low price to cash flow stock is not necessarily a value stock either.
  • Growth in profits will have little role in determining value. It is the amount of capital used that will mostly determine value. Lower the capital used to achieve a certain level of growth, higher the intrinsic value.

  • There have been industries where the growth has been very good but the capital consumed has been so huge, that the net effect on value has been negative. Example - US airlines.

  • Hence, steer clear of sectors and companies where profits grow at fast clip but the return on capital employed are not enough to even cover the cost of capital.

We will save more wisdom from the master for latter articles.

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