Warren Buffett's Worst Enemy Is Also Yours

On the path to investing success, here's a pitfall we should all avoid.

Isaac Pino
Isaac Pino, CPA
Jul 19, 2014 at 10:09AM
Consumer Goods

We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen...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. – Warren Buffett, 1994

Throughout his annual letters to shareholders, Warren Buffett discusses all types of subject matters beyond business, from sports to psychology to – yes, even sex. But there's one rabbit hole even Buffett won't venture into, and that's the dark and desolate world of forecasting.

As described in the quote above, Buffett has no interest in predicting the future when it comes to large, complex events. In his eyes, it's a sucker's game. Beyond that, the long-term investor's tendency to worry about the wrong risks at the wrong time just might be our own worst enemy.

Fortunately, an effective remedy does exist, and Buffett laid out the prescription in his writings and lectures over the years.

Why we worry about tomorrow
The two years preceding Buffett's 1994 letter to shareholders were nothing short of phenomenal for investors. In 1993 and 1994, Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK-A)(NYSE:BRK-B) book value had increased 14.3% and 13.9%, respectively, and its share price had ballooned by 68.6% during that timeframe. This trounced the S&P 500's gain of 5.5%.

But in spite of the recent success, investors remained anxious. At the time, the U.S. was merely three years removed from a deep recession, oil price shocks, and the end of the Gulf War. And only seven years removed from the stock market crash of 1987.

What's more is that anxiety, whether rational or not, seems to be a built-in part of an investor's life. In fact, we all worry about the future, because of the numerous uncertainties it presents. Buffett's partner Charlie Munger commented on this undeniable yearning for future clarity a decade later:

People have always had this craving to have someone tell them the future. Long ago, kings would hire people to read sheep guts. There's always been a market for people who pretend to know the future. Listening to today's forecasters is just as crazy as when the king hired the guy to look at the sheep guts. It happens over and over and over.

So, in the old days, it was sheep guts. Maybe tea leaves. But in the modern world, who better than the "Oracle of Omaha" to provide us with some sort of supernatural intuition?

Buffett's investing partner, Charlie Munger. Source: Flickr/Nick Webb.

It's no surprise, for example, that thousands of investors flock to Berkshire's annual meeting in the hopes of gaining some unique insight into the state of affairs affecting their portfolio. Surely, the thinking goes, Buffett is preparing his portfolio to buffer against these same economic, political, or other potentially systemic risks, right?

Well, not exactly.

Why Buffett needs no crystal ball
As it turns out, Buffett spends very little of his time trying to predict the highly complex events that could dampen or even enhance his returns in the short-term. These types of events might affect the stock market at-large – at least for a time – but in the long run the well-run businesses on which he places his bets are likely to endure in spite of a few hiccups along the way.

Buffett described his rationale, which was inspired by none other than the father of value investing Benjamin Graham, in his 1994 letter:

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...

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. Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.

Always comfortable as a contrarian, Buffett sees value in frequently ignoring whatever it is that others are fretting about, be it the pundits, journalists, or oft-quoted analysts. Opportunities can present themselves in the form of a great business at the right price even when the rest of the world least expects it. With the right mind-set, the long-term investor can capitalize on these opportunities when others are running for cover.

Why you need to embrace market chaos
At first blush, it may sound odd for Buffett to warn investors about their worst enemy: The temptation to make predictions or follow the prognostications of others. After all, investing hinges on one's ability to successfully make predictions about the future.

But Buffett advises investors to specifically steer clear of broad, short-term forecasts and focus on the ones that are directly relatable to the long-term viability of a particular business or industry. This will serve them well, even when the investing waters get choppy.

In a similar vein, investors need to embrace the market's ebbs and flows without losing sight of long-term goals. As interconnected economies amplify volatility, this has emerged as a critical lesson for all participants, CEOs included. Back in 2011, General Electric's CEO Jeffrey Immelt described this realization in a letter to shareholders: "Volatility has become a way of life... Classic economic cycles will be shorter and more segmented. Long-term growth will be interrupted by short-term volatility."

To some, volatility might seem like an investing deterrent. It's unsettling when it comes to managing one's finances. But given its 100-plus years of operation, GE has a long-term perspective, as does Buffett. They believe the economy will continue to grow even after hitting a few minor speed bumps.

It may not be the easiest pill to swallow, but its better to worry about those things in your control than those that aren't. If you're optimistic about the long-term health of the capital markets – as Buffett is – then you can put those volatility demons to rest.