Market hero never quits

With David Potts

With David Potts

Even before he started buying up newspapers, Warren Buffett was my hero. America’s, no the world’s, richest investor rarely makes a bad call, and even when he does he always manages to make up for it. So if you’ll forgive an indulgence, the fact that he also likes newspapers enough to buy their owners makes my day.

Besides, his annual letter as chairman to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders has more investment insights than you’ll ever glean from a broker or a fund manager.

Don’t know about you, but his biggest problem is spending, as in not being able to. He’s sitting on a $42 billion-and-rising cash pile earning next to nothing.

That’s a dilemma all American investors face, if with more modest amounts. For them just about any sharemarket, but perhaps especially our high-dividend-yielding one, is an improvement.

Berkshire shares, perhaps out of their reach since they cost more than $150,000 each (though the B class are a steal at $101), have risen an average 20 per cent annually for 48 years and this has inspired many wannabe Buffetts.

They fail because they don’t realise he doesn’t always follow himself either.

Buffett’s avowed strategy is to pay less than the intrinsic value of a stock. Guess everybody thinks they’re doing that, but he puts a figure on expected future profits discounted into today’s dollars.

Except he doesn’t really. His long-time business partner Charlie Munger gave the game away when he joked he’d never seen him do one of those calculations.

Perhaps he does them mentally. More likely everybody second-guessing him has made it pointless.

Intrinsic value is an industrial stock trading on a nine or 10 times price-earnings (P/E) ratio. Any online broking site can tell you the P/E ratio of a stock. As we speak, the market is on about 14, so your average stock is 40 per cent too expensive.

Not to worry. He’s bought a big stake in IBM, breaking that rule too. He admits he paid top price.

The real secret is that for all his folksiness – this year’s best line: news is ‘‘what people don’t know that they want to know’’ – he’ll only invest in companies with an unassailable competitive advantage, preferably a monopoly or an oligopoly at worst. Unlike most fund managers, he doesn’t chop and change either. Most telling of all, he never quits the market. The lower it goes the more he buys.

Erratic it may be, but the market rises over time with economic growth. ‘‘Since the basic game is so favourable, Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of ‘experts’, or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it,’’ Buffett writes.

There’s even a hint about where you should be investing: the transport and energy sectors based on ‘‘our past experience and by the knowledge that society will forever need massive investment in both’’. So where do newspapers come in? He likes one-paper towns because nobody does local news better. ‘‘Berkshire’s cash earnings from its papers will almost certainly trend downward over time,’’ he says.

Oh dear, sorry I asked. Turns out he got them so cheaply that won’t even matter.

Twitter @moneypotts

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