"Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful." It's one of the most oft-invoked and misunderstood insights from Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A ) (NYSE: BRK-B ) Chairman Warren Buffett. Does the oil spill in the Gulf present investors with a Buffett-like buying opportunity? Is BP (NYSE: BP ) a stock that Warren Buffett might consider now?
I recently asked Georgetown University McDonough School of Business professor Prem Jain, author of Buffett Beyond Value: Why Warren Buffett Looks to Growth and Management When Investing.
Mac Greer: When I interviewed The Snowball author Alice Schroeder in early July, I asked her whether there was any chance we might see Buffett invest in BP. She said that it was highly unlikely. Now that the BP well is apparently capped, and given that shares of BP are still far below their highs, is there any chance Buffett might invest in BP?
Prem Jain: Buffett likes to invest in a company only when he does not have to monitor the company for a long time. BP is still an evolving story and is enticing short-term speculators who expect BP to recover in the short run, but are not necessarily concerned with the company's long-term prospects. They may indeed make some money in this process.
However, Buffett is not a speculator and does not engage in frequent buying and selling. In the recent past, he invested in another petroleum company, ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP ) , and decided to sell soon after. He must have realized that it was not a good long-term investment. BP appears similar to ConocoPhillips, and I do not see any reason for Buffett to change his stance.
In addition, BP is currently viewed as an environmentally unfriendly company, which implies a huge downside risk to Buffett's reputation from investing in BP. I cannot imagine Buffett tarnishing his squeaky-clean image for a short-term monetary benefit.
You may recall that Buffett invested heavily in American Express (NYSE: AXP ) in 1960s after a substantial decline in its price, due to a large loan that had gone bad. However, there was no damage to American Express's image or its long-term profitability. The current BP situation is obviously very different. If I were to speculate, he may invest in other companies that may have suffered collateral damage, but are good long-term investments. Transocean (NYSE: RIG ) is one such possibility that comes to my mind.
Greer: You studied Berkshire Hathaway's annual reports from the past 50 years. You read his writings and did extensive research for the book. What most surprised you as you were researching the book?
Jain: I have learned a few important lessons that have been helpful to me as an investor and as a person. I was surprised to find that many principles for investing are similar to principles for life. For example, avoiding downside risk is just as important in life as it is in investing. Engaging in activities that may destroy your reputation would bring more downside risk into your life, and thus should be avoided.
Also, just as managers are instrumental in the growth of companies, the people around you are important for your mental health and personal growth. As Buffett has argued, there is no such thing as a good deal with a bad person.
Finally, practices in personal lives of managers or even CEOs carry over to their professional lives. I would rather invest with CEOs who do not lead an extravagant lifestyle. Buffett does not have a high compensation package, has lived in the same house for about 50 years, and lives an all-around frugal lifestyle. Also, he has kept about 99% of his net worth in Berkshire stock. Investing with such leaders is the secret for producing large returns in the long run.
Want more? Get Jain's thoughts on how Buffett consistently beats the market.