Over at stockpickr.com, James Altucher recently offered up an article discussing how Berkshire Hathaway
Don't just cheat
First off, Altucher rightly warned against blindly copying the master. Here's how this might work: You read Buffett's annual letter to shareholders and see his list of top stock holdings, including American Express
Well, there are some flaws with this system. For one thing, you wouldn't be buying each holding at the same price that Buffett did. So your ultimate performance with each will be different. Remember that he's owned shares of some of these companies for many years. He bought into Washington Post
All that is to say that there's a good chance some of his holdings are not the same ones he'd buy today -- though copycats might still, unwittingly, be doing so.
Another consideration is that whenever details about Berkshire's holdings are revealed, they're not necessarily fresh. A holding may have been significantly trimmed or even sold by the time you become aware of it and buy in.
What to do
So how should you go about making use of Berkshire's holdings? Altucher offers some good advice: "Look at the prices [at] which Buffett has purchased his most recent stocks," for one, and "buy the new positions." If Buffett once bought something at around $50 per share, and it's currently around $70, it's no longer the same kind of bargain, but his more recent purchases, such as building materials maker USG, reflect his latest thinking on where promising investments lie.
An even better option?
Still, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, I'd be wary of trying to copy Buffett's success. Note that he has, for example, more than $700 million worth of some 17 companies, according to his recent annual letter to shareholders. Are you going to buy all of them, in similar proportions? If not, your return will differ considerably from his. (And then there's the problem of 14% of Berkshire's stock holdings not being listed, as they represent less than $700 million in market value.)
It gets more complicated. That's because stocks are only part of Buffett's amazing company. It's really largely an insurance company, and also a company whose success comes more from acquiring other businesses in their entirety (or nearly so) than from investing in stock.
These are factors that lead me to this suggestion: If you really want to achieve Buffett-like returns, let Buffett just invest for you. In other words, consider (after doing your homework on it, of course) buying one or more shares of Berkshire Hathaway.
And more possibilities ...
You have more choices, though. You can let Buffett inspire you, for example. When you read about his increasing interest in foreign investments like PetroChina, you might want to start looking abroad yourself. As Bill Mann, lead analyst of our Motley Fool Global Gains newsletter, has said, many international stocks have huge potential, even in comparison with some U.S. companies. It's an extra-tricky arena, though, so perhaps only do so after a lot of research.
A final piece of advice is to just spend some time becoming a smarter investor. Buffett himself can help you with that. Go to Berkshire Hathaway's website, and you can read all his letters to shareholders, going back as far as 1977, some 30 years ago. The letters are educational -- and often even funny. It's also very worthwhile to attend the annual shareholder meeting, where Buffett and his partner Charlie Munger answer questions for several hours and offer a lot of valuable insight for free.
Here are some more articles touching on Berkshire and Buffett:
- The Power of the Chairman's Letter
- Warren Buffett's Priceless Investment Advice
- The Buffett Common Denominator
- A Simple Lesson from Buffett