Warren Buffett's Awful Two-Decade Investment

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U.S. stocks pulled back from their all-time high on Monday, with the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX: ^GSPC  ) down 0.15%, while the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) lost 0.2%.

Despite this, the CBOE Volatility Index (VIX) (VOLATILITYINDICES: ^VIX  ) , Wall Street's "fear index," continued its descent, shedding 1.17% to close at 11.84. (The VIX is calculated from S&P 500 option prices and reflects investor expectations for stock market volatility over the coming 30 days.)

That's unusual for two reasons: First, daily movements in the VIX and the S&P 500 are highly negatively correlated, with a correlation of minus 0.70, i.e., when the S&P 500 declines, the VIX usually rises (correlation indicates the degree to which two variables move together and takes values between -1.00 and +1.00, the former indicates two variables are perfectly negatively correlated). Second, the VIX was already at a very low level on Friday -- well within the bottom 10% of the entire series going back to the inception of the index in January 1990.

"Get your Post here! Just $250 million."
  (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) CEO Jeff Bezos is acquiring The Washington Post's (NYSE: GHC  ) newspaper publishing business, including its flagship daily, for $250 million. It bears emphasizing that Bezos is acquiring it as a private citizen -- this is not a case of Amazon swallowing the Post.

Rather than speculate on Bezos' motives or what it means for the future of media, I thought it would be an opportune time to examine how well Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  )  -- the Washington Post's largest investor – has done on its investment. In his 1993 Chairman's Letter, Warren Buffett wrote:

In 1973, we purchased our stock in her company for about $10 million. Our holding now garners $7 million a year in dividends and is worth over $400 million. At the time of our purchase, we knew that the economic prospects of the company were good.

At that time, his investment in the Washington Post had proved spectacular, producing an annualized return in the region of 20% over a 20-year period -- and that's before you include dividends. But note that the 14.8% stake Berkshire owned in the company at the end of 1993 was then worth 60% more than the sum Bezos is now paying for all the newspaper publishing assets.

Indeed, over the ensuing 19-and-a-half years, the performance of the Washington Post's stock has been very disappointing. The following table shows the total return (i.e., including dividends) of the shares vs. that of the S&P 500 and Berkshire Hathaway shares between the end of 1993 and today:


Washington Post

S&P 500

Berkshire Hathaway ("A" shares)

Total return (annualized)




Source: Author's calculations based on data from Yahoo! Finance, CBOE, and S&P Dow Jones Indices.

It's a good bet that any other investment Buffett made during that period would have been a better use of shareholder wealth than Washington Post shares. At least, he didn't throw good money after bad -- he hasn't added a single share to the position since at least 1977 (he even sold a few in 1985).

Is there any justification for hanging to a stock that has lagged the market over a span of two decades? Buffett has warned shareholders in the past that he will not sell businesses simply because they are underperforming. There is a logic to that attitude, as it is a competitive advantage as a buyer of family-owned/ closely held businesses. Although The Washington Post isn't one of Berkshire's operating companies, it appears that the depth and duration of the ties Buffett established with the Graham family led him to treat this common stock investment in the same manner.

One poor investment isn't enough to invalidate Buffett's strategy of buying solid companies selling at depressed or even fair prices. That strategy has propelled him to the top of the ranks of the world's most successful investors by preserving capital, minimizing risk, and achieve long-term, market-trampling returns. To find out why Berkshire Hathaway remains "The One REMARKABLE Stock to Own Now", just click here to get started.

Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (7)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2013, at 12:48 AM, maniladad wrote:

    Maybe Warren Buffett and I share two characteristics. (The first is that neither one of us seems to have any understanding of IT.) As I read your numbers, in the first 20 years that he owned shares of the Washington Post their worth increased by a factor of 40. I think that's 4000%. Since then that value has increased at an annual rate of a tad above 6%. My ability in math is comparable to my knowledge of IT but off the cuff I think this means that he has been earning something like 240% annually on his initial investment. Of course with his resources he might have been able to make more profit by selling and buying something else but I can certainly see a justification for just enjoying the ride. And of course, as you inferred, there are some things that are even more important than just making more money. That Buffett seems to appreciate that is probably the best thing, among many good things, that I have heard about him.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2013, at 10:52 AM, kmet312 wrote:

    The "awful" investment with WPO in recent years can be largely attributed to the ongoing slow death of print media and the numerous headwinds for-profit colleges have faced (Kaplan Higher Education is owned by WaPo).

    (Disclosure: long BRK-B)

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2013, at 11:46 AM, bloomr wrote:

    maniladad: the article is in the right ballpark for annual growth, because of the power of compounding. 20% annual growth from an initial 10 million dollars becomes over 383 million dollars in 20 years. 12 million after year 1, 14.4 million after year 2, 17.3 million after year 3, 25 million after year 5, 62 million after year 10, etc. Even Warren Buffett couldn't sustain 240% annual growth for very long. That would turn 10 million dollars into over 2 trillion dollars... in 10 years.

  • Report this Comment On August 06, 2013, at 12:00 PM, TMFAleph1 wrote:

    "As I read your numbers, in the first 20 years that he owned shares of the Washington Post their worth increased by a factor of 40. I think that's 4000%. Since then that value has increased at an annual rate of a tad above 6%. My ability in math is comparable to my knowledge of IT but off the cuff I think this means that he has been earning something like 240% annually on his initial investment."

    Certainly not 240%! I estimate the annualized lifetime return on Buffett's 1973 investment in the Washington Post at 11.5%, which, although much diminished compared to the performance during the first half of that period, remains a very decent return.

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