FOOL ON THE HILL
Buffett's Wise Words on Investing

Whitney Tilson believes that if one read, understood, and followed Warren Buffett's teachings -- and had the three T's of time, training and temperament -- investment success would be virtually guaranteed. But as shown in this article, which collects excerpts from Buffett's writings, his words are often timely as well as timeless.

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By Whitney Tilson
October 30, 2001

When I first started investing, a friend who was already in the business advised me to "Just go read all of Warren Buffett's shareholder letters. That's all you'll need to know." I think he was pretty much right. 

That's not to denigrate the contributions to investment literature of Graham and Dodd, Philip Fisher, Peter Lynch, and others, but I firmly believe that if one read, understood, and followed Buffett's teachings -- and had the three T's of time, training, and temperament -- investment success would be virtually guaranteed. (Read Richard McCaffery's September column, "Watching Warren Buffett," for further discussion of this concept.)

Best of all, Buffett's letters dating back to 1977 are available for free on the website of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.A), which he runs. (I also recommend The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America as a more organized, efficient way to read them.) There's a lot of reading in those 24 letters, so I'd like to share my favorite quotes from them. In my opinion, these are among the wisest words ever written on investing.

The keys to investment success
"To invest successfully, you need not understand beta, efficient markets, modern portfolio theory, option pricing, or emerging markets. You may, in fact, be better off knowing nothing of these. That, of course, is not the prevailing view at most business schools, whose finance curriculum tends to be dominated by such subjects. In our view, though, investment students need only two well-taught courses: How to Value a Business, and How to Think About Market Prices.

"Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher 5, 10, and 20 years from now. Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet these standards -- so when you see one that qualifies, you should buy a meaningful amount of stock. You must also resist the temptation to stray from your guidelines: If you aren't willing to own a stock for 10 years, don't even think about owning it for 10 minutes. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio's market value."
-- 1996 Shareholder Letter

Ignore macroeconomic factors
"We try to price, rather than time, purchases. In our view, it is folly to forego buying shares in an outstanding business whose long-term future is predictable, because of short-term worries about an economy or a stock market that we know to be unpredictable. Why scrap an informed decision because of an uninformed guess?

"We purchased National Indemnity in 1967, See's in 1972, Buffalo News in 1977, Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983, and Scott Fetzer in 1986 because those are the years they became available and because we thought the prices they carried were acceptable. In each case, we pondered what the business was likely to do, not what the Dow, the Fed, or the economy might do. If we see this approach as making sense in the purchase of businesses in their entirety, why should we change tack when we are purchasing small pieces of wonderful businesses in the stock market?"
-- 1994 Shareholder Letter

"We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen.  Thirty years ago, no one could have foreseen the huge expansion of the Vietnam War, wage and price controls, two oil shocks, the resignation of a president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a one-day drop in the Dow of 508 points, or treasury bill yields fluctuating between 2.8% and 17.4%.

"But, surprise: None of these blockbuster events made the slightest dent in Ben Graham's investment principles. Nor did they render unsound the negotiated purchases of fine businesses at sensible prices.  Imagine the cost to us, then, if we had let a fear of unknowns cause us to defer or alter the deployment of capital. Indeed, we have usually made our best purchases when apprehensions about some macro event were at a peak... 

"A different set of major shocks is sure to occur in the next 30 years. We will neither try to predict these nor to profit from them. If we can identify businesses similar to those we have purchased in the past, external surprises will have little effect on our long-term results."
-- 1994 Shareholder Letter

Keep it simple!
"Our investments continue to be few in number and simple in concept: The truly big investment idea can usually be explained in a short paragraph. We like a business with enduring competitive advantages that is run by able and owner-oriented people. When these attributes exist, and when we can make purchases at sensible prices, it is hard to go wrong (a challenge we periodically manage to overcome).

"Investors should remember that their scorecard is not computed using Olympic-diving methods: Degree-of-difficulty doesn't count. If you are right about a business whose value is largely dependent on a single key factor that is both easy to understand and enduring, the payoff is the same as if you had correctly analyzed an investment alternative characterized by many constantly shifting and complex variables."
-- 1994 Shareholder Letter

Argument for buying great businesses
"We continually search for large businesses with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements. This focus doesn't guarantee results: We both have to buy at a sensible price and get business performance from our companies that validates our assessment. But this investment approach -- searching for the superstars -- offers us our only chance for real success. Charlie and I are simply not smart enough to get great results by adroitly buying and selling portions of far-from-great businesses."
-- 1991 Shareholder Letter

Welcome market declines
"[Many] investors who expect to be ongoing buyers of investments throughout their lifetimes... illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and unhappy when they fall. They show no such confusion in their reaction to food prices: Knowing they are forever going to be buyers of food, they welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. (It's the seller of food who doesn't like declining prices.) Similarly, at the Buffalo News we would cheer lower prices for newsprint -- even though it would mean marking down the value of the large inventory of newsprint we always keep on hand -- because we know we are going to be perpetually buying the product.

"Identical reasoning guides our thinking about Berkshire's investments. We will be buying businesses -- or small parts of businesses, called stocks -- year in, year out as long as I live (and longer, if Berkshire's directors attend the seances I have scheduled). Given these intentions, declining prices for businesses benefit us, and rising prices hurt us.

"The most common cause of low prices is pessimism -- some times pervasive, some times specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It's optimism that is the enemy of the rational buyer.

"None of this means, however, that a business or stock is an intelligent purchase simply because it is unpopular; a contrarian approach is just as foolish as a follow-the-crowd strategy. What's required is thinking rather than polling. Unfortunately, Bertrand Russell's observation about life in general applies with unusual force in the financial world: 'Most men would rather die than think. Many do.'"
-- 1990 Shareholder Letter

Don't confuse growth with sustainable competitive advantage
"The key to investing is not assessing how much an industry is going to affect society, or how much it will grow, but rather determining the competitive advantage of any given company and, above all, the durability of that advantage. The products or services that have wide, sustainable moats around them are the ones that deliver rewards to investors.
-- Fortune magazine, 11/22/99

(OK, so I cheated and included a quote that's not from one of Buffett's shareholder letters. Mea culpa.)

Conclusion
Buffett's word's are often timely as well as timeless. If there's one sentence I'd urge you to keep in mind during these tumultuous times, it's this one, from the 1994 letter: "Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist."

-- Whitney Tilson

Guest columnist Whitney Tilson is Managing Partner of Tilson Capital Partners, LLC, a New York City-based money management firm. He owned shares of Berkshire Hathaway at press time. Mr. Tilson appreciates your feedback at Tilson@Tilsonfunds.com. To read his previous columns for The Motley Fool and other writings, visit http://www.tilsonfunds.com/