What Surprised Me Most About Warren Buffett

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Going into the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) annual meeting this year, my excitement was tangible. A longtime student of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, I was thrilled to finally be able to see them both in person, answering a barrage of questions from 40,000 shareholders off the cuff.

My weekend in Omaha certainly didn't disappoint. In addition to checking out Berkshire's headquarters, Nebraska Furniture Mart, and Buffett's house, I was able to see Buffett and Munger speak twice -- first at the now-famous annual meeting and again the next day in a much cozier setting at the Berkshire press conference. The two were on top of their game the entire weekend, giving their thoughts on questions on so many different topics such as Berkshire's valuation, European debt problems, and the U.S. educational system.

One thing about their responses caught me by surprise, though. These two investors are known, among other things, for their investment focus on the qualitative facets of a business. Buffett emphasizes management, integrity, reputation, and competitive advantage. To be sure, these concepts showed up in their answers to various questions. But what struck me most was their numerical focus: For all their focus on qualitative factors, Munger and Buffett are quantitative hounds. Entirely offhand, the two men rattled off all of these figures:

  • The percentage of trained engineers that end up in the financial sector.
  • The percentage of the time the wind blows in Iowa.
  • The percentage of all U.S. corporate taxes paid by Berkshire.
  • The relative income tax rates of hedge fund managers and physics teachers.
  • The market price of gold when Buffett took over Berkshire Hathaway.
  • The increase in See's Candies' revenue relative to increases in invested capital.
  • The percentage of Europeans who died from the Black Death.
  • The population of New Zealand.
  • The total reinsurance losses on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the percentage attributable to Berkshire.
  • The value today of $1 in 1930.
  • The total number of employees of all Berkshire subsidiaries.
  • The dimensions of a cube containing all the world's gold supply and its total market value.

Buffett and Munger quickly put each question into quantitative context, and their answers flowed from this context. Take, for example, the last figure on this list. In response to a question about why he hadn't invested in gold, Buffett whipped out a response that sounded something like this (after my paraphrasing):

Imagine a cube containing all of the world's gold. This cube will measure just over 67 feet to a side. It's great; it's shiny; it's pretty. You can look at it; you can fondle it; you can stand on it. It's isn't going to do anything -- except it will depreciate in value unless demand keeps up with the annual growth in the gold supply as we mine more of the stuff. So I ask you this: Would you prefer this 67-foot-to-a-side cube of gold, or instead all the farmland in the United States, 10 ExxonMobils, AND a trillion dollars of walking-around money? Because the current market values are the same.

If that's not a quantitative mind at work, I don't know what is.

The striking thing about these figures is their scarcity. Buffett and Munger are both known for their voracious reading habits, but these are not figures you would stumble upon in a book or newspaper. These are calculated figures. Warren and Charlie's off-the-cusp knowledge of these numbers makes clear to me a major difference between their investment processes and those of the average investor. Most average investors take available information and use it to make decisions. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger do the reverse: They figure out exactly the information they need to make an investment decision, and then they go find it -- often patching it together and calculating it themselves.

We can all learn a ton about decision-making (investment and otherwise) from Warren and Charlie. There is much to be said for their focus on qualitative business factors, but don't miss the bigger concept: The qualitative factors combine with the quantitative context to form a clearer investment picture. The next time you are considering a new investment, take a page from Warren and Charlie's book and decide what you need to know, then seek it out. Besides making you sound smart at cocktail parties, the information you patch together will help you make better, more independent investment decisions -- and over time, better decisions mean better returns.

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Alex owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway, which Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


Read/Post Comments (7) | Recommend This Article (21)

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  • Report this Comment On May 16, 2011, at 9:25 PM, extremist wrote:

    Of course they need to focus on quantitative aspects. It sounds much better to say "I've got 60 billion dollars" than "I've got an obscene amount of money." Clearly, their most important considerations are how big the pot is, how fast it's ballooning, and how much is still left out there for them to rake in -- all best expressed quantitatively and precisely, not via some vague references to zillions, gobs or oodles.

  • Report this Comment On May 16, 2011, at 11:43 PM, alan0101 wrote:

    I agree with the writer, two very impressive gents, who use data in the context they need it for, asopposed to analysts who trawl through data hoping for redemption..

    I was disappointed by the Sokol affair, because it clearly caught them off guard, ie they didn't really know who Sokol was, or what he had become. Also, given that BRK has grown zero over the last 3 years, I would feel more comfortable if Warren spent less of his energy on talk shows, and other completely unecessary PR.

    Other than that, you leave the meeting believing in America, the way it was, far from Wall Street and lobbyists in Washington

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 12:20 AM, XFinancial wrote:

    I can only shudder at the thought of an evening spent over a dinner of Big Macs with Warren & Charlie.

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 4:03 AM, Eysteinh wrote:

    Exellent observation from the article writer. Thank you for this insight.

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 6:55 AM, midnightmoney wrote:

    Most of the percentages you quote are basically trivia and could be answers on any given night on Jeopardy. As an insurer, shouldn't buffett know the population of many countries along with the risks that occur in those countries, and be able to slap a percentage on them? That is one tool in an insurer's risk-assessment kit, isn't it? The whole cube of gold thing smacks of an obsession with visualising the world in terms of money. Interesting as the image may be, it really doesn't speak to the perils of investing in gold or exxon or farmland. While it may make you think, what are you thinking about? Warren Buffett standing on a cube of gold, that's what.

    I'd argue that anyone who is investing in the stock market and has a half a brain is thinking in both quantitative and qualitative terms to begin with, for how can you not? Buffett doesn't have a corner on that market, though I'd imagine deep down he'd like to have.

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 8:28 AM, plange01 wrote:

    you can bet paulsons investment in lubrizol is under federal investigation! that is accidentally the same company buffett got caught insider trading in......

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2011, at 10:22 AM, TMFAleph1 wrote:

    @plange01

    There is absolutely zero reason to believe that Paulson's investment in Lubrizol is under federal investigation? Paulson started his investing career as a merger arbitrageur, so it's anything but surprising that he would have a position in takeover stocks.

    Alex Dumortier

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