Ted Williams, in The Story of My Life, explains ... "My argument is, to be a good hitter, you've got to get a good ball to hit. It's the first rule in the book. If I have to bite at stuff that is out of my happy zone, I'm not a .344 hitter. I might only be a .250 hitter." Charlie and I agree and will try to wait for opportunities that are well within our own "happy zone."
-- Warren Buffett, 1994
Warren Buffett exhibits a childlike sense of excitement when talking about his all-time favorite baseball player, the Boston Red Sox's Ted Williams. He grew up admiring the left fielder's swing, and later on he channeled the wisdom of the legendary slugger to enhance his stock-picking strategy.
In 1994, Buffett borrowed the quote shown above to convey to Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders the importance of being selective when hunting for great companies. What worked at the plate for Ted Williams worked just as well for Buffett and his investing partner Charlie Munger. And there's no doubt that a similar approach can boost your portfolio, too.
Here are three key strategies you can use to hit home runs in the stock market a la Buffett:
1. Swing within your "happy zone"
The most obvious takeaway from this particular quote is Buffett's suggestion that investors should stick with the industries and companies they know best.
Instead of chasing curveballs all over the plate, Buffett and Munger exhibit a patient approach in their search for great stocks. They admitted they weren't smart enough, for example, to predict the future landscape of the tech industry, so they opted to avoid it almost entirely over the years.
Ironically, one of the best quotes Buffett frequently repeats to convey this idea is from Tom Watson, the founder of tech giant IBM (one of Buffett's extremely rare tech investments): "I'm no genius. I'm smart in spots and I stay around those spots."
That's exactly what Buffett and Munger opted to do over the years, refusing to veer off course even when Berkshire grew from a $22 million company to a multibillion-dollar conglomerate. Over time, this approach served them well, increasing Berkshire's book value at a 23% annual clip from inception until the 1994 letter to shareholders quoted at the start of this article.
Still, it's important to keep in mind that your "happy zone" as an investor might not mirror Buffett's and Munger's. Legendary fund manager Peter Lynch, for example, swung at all types of pitches during his day, accumulating up to 1,400 stocks at a single point in time. He, too, managed to absolutely destroy the market's average during his career.
Lynch became known as the Will Rogers of investing since he "Never saw a stock he didn't like." Obviously, his "happy zone" was quite a bit wider than Buffett's, but he too was very familiar with his limitations. And that's what matters the most.
2. Be wary of overhyped industries
If there's one consistent theme that can be found among successful investors, it's that they're usually searching for opportunities in places where the masses are not.
It's very difficult, for example, to say that an investor could find an edge over the market in evaluating a company like Google or Apple in this day and age. Both tech giants have been completely picked to the bone by the media and analysts. It could be done, perhaps, but it's unlikely that an investor could gain an information advantage over the rest of the market when it comes to blue chips like those.
What's more is that the hype around these companies can lead to wildly fluctuating stock prices and lofty valuations due to a follow-the-herd mentality. Not to mention the fact that they operate in a rapidly changing industry that requires constant innovation.
Buffett loathes those types of companies, where leadership must always have its finger on the ever-changing preferences of consumers. As he once said, "We see change as the enemy of investments... so we look for the absence of change. We don't like to lose money. Capitalism is pretty brutal. We look for mundane products that everybody needs."
For Buffett, those products include household staples like Gillette razors (now part of Procter & Gamble) or soft drinks from Coca-Cola. Over the past three decades, the value of Procter & Gamble's shares has increased by 2,320% for investors. Coca-Cola, meanwhile, boasted gains of 3,130% during that timeframe. There's nothing "mundane" about that when you consider the S&P 500's less impressive return of 1,210%.
Fortunately for Buffett, he realized early on that a boring business often beats a "whiz-bang" tech outfit over the long haul.
What's fascinating is that those types of brands have absolutely crushed the returns generated from tech companies. The consumer staples sector racked up 13.3% annual returns versus the tech industry's paltry 9.8% over the last 50 years, according to information gathered by fellow Fool Morgan Housel.
3. Avoid making big mistakes
If the above lessons are about resisting temptation -- by staying within your comfort zone and ignoring the market hype -- the last bit of wisdom is about limiting your downside if you do swing at an outside pitch. As Buffett has pointed out in previous letters to shareholders, "An investor needs to do very few things right as long as he or she avoids big mistakes."
To a clutch hitter in baseball, that translates to taking calculated risks. If a batter steps up to the plate during the late innings of a tight game, it's probably not the right time to aim for the upper deck if a runner's in scoring position. Why swing with reckless abandon when a base hit could put your team over the top?
This logic holds true in investing as well. If you avoid taking too much risk when the stakes are high, you'll effectively limit your potential losses. But using leverage while attempting to time the market's bottom is a recipe for disaster. Even selling a winning stock for superficial reasons is an example of allowing greed-driven emotion to overtake a more rational decision-making process.
With practice, you can be an investing slugger
These three rules might sound surprisingly simple, but remember that Buffett once said, "You don't need to be a rocket scientist. Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with 130 IQ."
Being the most skilled player on the playing field is one thing. Knowing how to translate that talent into home runs is another. Follow Buffett's straightforward advice, and you'll have a better chance at clearing the outfield fence.
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