Buffett's Baseball Lesson

It isn't breaking news that Warren Buffett has been a wizard in the financial world, to the tune of a nearly 1,000,000% gain, since taking over the reins of Berkshire Hathaway decades ago.

What many investors don't appreciate fully is not the magnitude of his success, but his incredible consistency over the years.

Since taking control of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) in 1965, Buffett has managed to increase shareholder value every year except one. Before that, Buffett managed an investment partnership -- similar to what we'd call a hedge fund today -- for nine years without losing money in a single year.

Some might think such performance is the result of Buffett's ability to spot complex investment situations the rest of the world just didn't understand. Maybe it's because he took huge amounts of risk that rewarded him handsomely down the road. Or heck -- maybe the guy's just lucky.

These explanations couldn't be further from the truth.

One key factor for Buffett's success is his keen instinct to go only for investments where all the stars align; the no-brainer situations Buffett refers to as "the fat pitch."

Buffett has a simple explanation for how he sticks to investments that he is all but sure to walk away from with a smile. A longtime fan of baseball, Buffett often mentions The Science of Hitting, a book written by Red Sox great Ted Williams. In it, Williams describes part of the secret to his phenomenal .344 career batting average.

Greed at its finest
The theory behind Williams' runaway success was quite simple. He split the strike zone into 77 cells, each of which made up the size of a baseball, and rather than swing at anything that made its way into the strike zone, he would swing only at balls within his best cell -- the ones he knew he could hit. If balls didn't enter his best cell, he simply waited for the next one -- even if it meant striking out now and then.

How does this relate to investing and Buffett's success? Buffett, like Williams, will "swing" only at investments that come right down the center, at just the right speed, straight into his best cell. As Buffett describes, the analogy works out better for investors than for baseball hitters because investors can never be struck out. Patient investors can wait around as long as they wish until they are served exactly what they demand.

And I thought baseball was boring.

During times of jubilant investment valuations -- the dot-com mania days of 2000, for instance -- Buffett undoubtedly viewed the market as a series of wildly flung pitches that ended up far outside his ideal zones. He sat back patiently, waiting for a relief pitcher to send him exactly what he was looking for. Less swinging, more bridge!

Barry Bonds ain't got nothin'
This begs the question: What do investments that fall into Buffett's best cell look like? Let's take a look at one of Buffett's more recent investments, PetroChina (NYSE: PTR  ) . Here's what Buffett told fellow Fool Sham Gad about the Chinese company last year:

The whole company was selling for $35 billion. It was selling for one-fourth of the price of Exxon, but was making profits equal to 80% of Exxon. I was reading the annual report one day and in it I saw a message from the Chairman saying that the company would pay out 45% of its profits as dividends. This was much more than any company like this, and I liked the reserves. If it were a U.S. company, it would sell for $85 billion; it's a good, solid company.

It was simple. Buffett found a top-quality company with attractive growth prospects selling for a fraction of its value. In other words, a nice slow pitch right down the center -- so he took a swing.

Buffett indeed hit this one out of the park, making several times his money in only four years. The key here was the amount of upside potential PetroChina held when compared to its downside risk. Comparing it to ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , Buffett concluded there was a significant margin of safety, and didn't require much more than a comfortable swing to ensure a hit. Stand back, Barry Bonds.

Steeeerike 3!
So if that's "the fat pitch," what would a wild pitch look like? Take, for example, companies such as Chipotle (NYSE: CMG  ) (NYSE: CMG-B  ) or Baidu.com (Nasdaq: BIDU  ) . Both are strong companies with fantastic futures ahead of them, but both sell at nosebleed valuations that certainly don't guarantee investment success down the road. Sure, the growth prospects of these stocks may indeed place them in the investment "strike zone" -- but their valuations may put them far outside your best cells, causing you to overreach more than you're comfortable with and to take on unneeded risk.

There are tens of thousands of investments to choose from, yet only a select few will go on to produce Buffett-like returns over long periods of time. Rather than attempting to go for quantity by taking uncomfortable swings at every ball that comes your way, take Ted Williams' advice and demand the perfect pitch before starting that swing.

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