What I Learned From the Berkshire Meeting

Like you, I look forward to what the Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) (NYSE: BRK-B  ) boys, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, have to say at the company's annual meeting every year.

It's like the treasure-hunting concept at Costco -- maybe I'll find that incredible bargain or an unbelievable nugget of investing knowledge. Either way, it keeps me, and many others, coming back for more.

The Berkshire duo has shaped the way I think about investing. I know I'll be right there next year searching for that eureka moment of inspiration that will magically transform me into a better investor. Yet I know it's not going to happen.

Buffett and Munger have given us plenty of paint brushes and a rainbow of colors to use on our investing canvases. But the message is becoming clear: They won't be giving away any finished pieces. It's up to us to figure out how to use the media during our investing lives -- and that's the way it should be.

Being such a quick learner, I needed just 10 years to figure that out.

The brushes
All hope is not lost, though. Repeating the messages over and over shows commitment and consistency, reinforcing the notion that "investing is all about value. You're laying out a dollar today and trying to get more for that tomorrow." And here are some of the nuggets of wisdom that Buffett and Munger passed out again.

  • Buying a stock just because Buffett or any other investor owns it is not a good idea. I think you can look to other investors as a source of ideas, but copycatting can't be a successful strategy.
  • "Intelligence [in investing] isn't everything." Buffett and Munger have said temperament, passion, and even humility are important traits investors should have.
  • "If it's too tough, don't even try [to figure it out]." There are better ways of using our time than chasing something that is too hard, especially when we may not be compensated for the opportunity cost.
  • Don't look at stock prices when evaluating a company's intrinsic value. That's because we can be weighed down by the anchoring bias that will creep into our discounted cash flow analysis, possibly distorting our thinking.

My favorite color
This is my favorite piece of advice and one that I have worked hard to put into practice. "While return on capital employed is important, it's even better when you can generate the same returns as you increase the amount of capital employed."

Let's stop here and think for a moment. I am a proponent of using return on invested capital to determine the value of a business, something I thank my Wake Forest professors for helping me understand. We can calculate the value created from the following equation:

value = capital x (return on invested capital - cost of capital)

If return on invested capital rises, but there are limited opportunities to employ the excess capital generated (I think See's Candies fits into this category), then value creation is somewhat limited. However, if there are lots of places to invest capital to generate nice returns, then value creation is constrained only by the amount of capital one can access. Of course, the best situation is increasing spreads and limitless opportunities, which Buffett called "practically non-existent."

More colors
Another classic, "price determines returns," popped up again when Buffett said, "People seem to understand that the entry price on a bond dictates the return, but they don't seem to understand that with stocks." Paying a high price for an investment is not a good idea, even if it's for great companies like General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , orWhole Foods (Nasdaq: WFMI  ) .

Another gem from the conference: To be a better investor, read voraciously, understand investments thoroughly, and then start practicing investing as soon as possible. Sorry, folks, but the underlying truth behind this advice is that investing is hard and takes time and practice. If it were easy, we'd all be rich.

"Volatility does not measure risk. ... Risk comes from the nature of certain types of businesses, and from not knowing what you're doing." And to make this one really stick, Buffett and Munger remind us not to do anything stupid to blow ourselves up. Avoiding big mistakes is so underrated.

The Foolish bottom line
Don't worry, I didn't forget about that one lesson that jumped out at me this year. I learned that maybe a leopard can change its spots. After all, Munger alluded to having to overturn a very deep-seated bias against railroads in order to make the Burlington Northern (NYSE: BNI  ) purchase.

At the risk of sounding ungrateful, we've heard these principles many, many times before. Sure, it's cool to ask Buffett and Munger for their thoughts on current events like the subprime blowup. But I think it's clear that that's all we're going to get from these two. Fortunately, the repeats are more than enough to make us better investors.

Thanks, gentlemen.

For all of our Foolish coverage on the meeting, start here: "Live From Omaha: The Berkshire Hathaway Meeting"

The Motley Fool's Inside Value newsletter is built on the same value investing principles. To see how lead analyst Philip Durell is outperforming the market by using them, sign up today for your free 30-day trial.

Berkshire Hathaway is an Inside Value recommendation. Costco and Whole Foods are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections.

Retail editor and Inside Value team member David Meier owned shares of Berkshire for two weeks before realizing he owned them for the wrong reasons. He has a beneficial ownership in GE but does not own shares of any of the other companies mentioned. You can view his TMF profile here. The Fool takes its disclosure policy very seriously.


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