Avoid the Mistake That Cost Buffett 8 Years of Better Returns

There's one investment strategy you won't read much about on, even though many have tried it. In fact, Warren Buffett spent eight years working with it before discarding it as worthless.

What investment strategy is that? Technical analysis.

Invest like a lemming
Technical analysis is the practice of predicting where stocks will trade based on charts of historical pricing and volume information. There's a certain logic to it. Stocks trade based on supply and demand, which is greatly influenced by investors' attitudes about the stock. The charts should reflect those attitudes and might predict where the stock will go.

It's an attractive idea. Johnson & Johnson has bounced between $60 and $68 quite a few times in the past four years. Why not buy at the low, and sell at the high? Or look at Rohm & Haas' (NYSE: ROH  ) chart. Clearly, investors love the stock. Its rise from $7 to $70 seems unstoppable. Why not jump aboard and profit?

Technical analysis is a simple yet compelling strategy. You can see why Buffett spent years early in his career trying to master it.

An expensive mistake
But Buffett discovered one small problem. Technical analysis didn't work. He explained, "I realized that technical analysis didn't work when I turned the chart upside down and didn't get a different answer."

After eight years of trying, he concluded that it was the wrong way to invest. Then he focused on the teachings of Ben Graham, which stressed business fundamentals, finding a strategy that both made sense and, more importantly, worked.

Three simple rules
The billionaire discussed that strategy at the 2008 Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B  ) general meeting. When he was asked how to avoid the crowd mind-set, he said he simply followed Graham's three most important lessons:

  1. Buy stocks with a margin of safety.
  2. A stock is part of a business.
  3. The market is there to serve you, not instruct you.

The first lesson usually makes the headlines. It means that you should buy stocks for less than they're worth. But when Buffett talks about the second and third lessons, he's basically admitting that he wasted eight years of his investing life.

Buying a business
After all, thinking about a stock as part of a business is the opposite of what technical analysis is all about. Technical analysis focuses on trading securities. It doesn't matter whether the security is a share of ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) , with its crude oil, natural gas, petroleum, electric power, and petrochemical divisions; or whether that security is a derivative promising the delivery of three tons of Italian meatballs. It's all the same because technical analysis doesn't care about the business -- or the fundamentals.

In Graham's second lesson, stocks are far more than just pieces of paper or lines on graphs, and to understand them, you need to understand the business. If you're looking at USG (NYSE: USG  ) , ignore whether the stock has been up three days in a row, and focus instead on whether the company is in danger of tripping its debt covenants.

Ways to serve man
Similarly, when Buffett says the market isn't there to instruct, he's saying the movements in the market aren't telling you how to invest.

When Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) fell under $2 per share in 1990, the market was saying that Intel (Nasdaq: INTC  ) was going to eat the chipmaker's lunch.

When McDonald's hit $13 in 2003, the market was announcing that the Big Mac would end up in the Museum of Neat Ideas Gone Wrong, alongside the tapeworm diet, land wars in Asia, and Paris Hilton's home videos.

But in both cases, the market was wrong.

So, instead of listening to the market, Buffett seeks to take advantage of it. Sometimes, the market will offer to buy a stock for far more than it's actually worth. Other times, it'll offer you the chance to buy shares of a great company for far less than its fair value. An investor who understands the true value of a business will be able to profit when the market offers great companies on sale.

The Foolish bottom line
You can learn from Buffett's error -- don't focus on charts. Instead, understand businesses and seek excellent stocks the market offers at low prices. These days, the market is particularly treacherous. Some stocks that seem cheap will turn out to be very expensive. Others that are simply beaten down by negativity will post amazing returns.

Our Motley Fool Inside Value team is working to take advantage of the situation, and we've identified several stocks we think will post some of those amazing returns. If you're interested in reading about them, click here for a 30-day free trial.

This article was first published June 16, 2008. It has been updated.

Fool contributor Richard Gibbons should not be used as a dessert topping. He does not own shares of any company mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire, USG, and Intel are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Berkshire is also a Stock Advisor selection. Johnson & Johnson is an Income Investor pick. The Fool's disclosure policy bears an eerie resemblance to Charlie Munger.

Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (1)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On October 18, 2008, at 11:35 PM, BYUmba wrote:

    I did a quick, non-exhaustive search of stock prices in 1990. On June 1st AMD sold for the equivalent of $5.25/share. Today, it sells for $4.25. Even if you picked up the stock at ~$2/share you'd have doubled your money in 18 years.

    On that same day in June 1990 you could have purchased Intel for split-equivalent of $1.50/share. Today, even after a brutal year, the stock is selling for >10x that price.

    If that is not 'eating the chipmaker's lunch' I'm not sure what is. Allocating your investment dollars to AMD over Intel, or many other semiconductor makers, would have been incredibly costly.

  • Report this Comment On October 19, 2008, at 12:01 AM, counturmoni wrote:

    Warren Buffet did not "discover" technical analysis was nonsense, he discovered he was ignorant about such matters. There is mathematical proof, beyond all doubt, that markets are not deterministic. It's amazing this snake oil industry continues to flourish, feeding off the ignorant masses.

  • Report this Comment On October 19, 2008, at 6:26 PM, mtghack wrote:

    The way that Fool dismisses technical analysis does more harm that you can imagine to the average long term investor. It seems like every few weeks, Fool comes out with a misleading article that labels those who use technical analysis as morons.

    In reality, technical analysis is the sole trading strategy used by many hedge funds, Wall St. traders and other pure trading firms. Essentially, these traders make 100% of their profits from short term intra-day to intra-week movements that have almost nothing to do with fundamentals. In the short term, the market is dominated by psychological factors, and technical analysis allows them to take advantage of it. And guess what? It works! That's one way, out of others, that these firms stay in business and make massive profits.

    So now you ask, as an average buy and hold investor, I don't have several millions in my trading account, how does this help me? The answer is, if you've done your research on a stock, and you found that fundamentally a stock is undervalued, or whatever your valuation metric is, you look for an entry point, if you can get in at 5 or 10% lower price wouldn't you do it? Over my years of investing, I've experimented with tons of technical analysis methods and found some that really provided me with deadly accurate predictions for short term movements. Am I lucky? Maybe. But the evidence suggests that technical analysis works for its intended purposes and should not be ignored by the long term investor.

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