Warren Buffett gets opportunities the rest of us don't. He's the name-brand investor companies go to when they need cash or a smidge of reputation in a hurry.
I have previously chronicled the crazy-sweet terms Goldman Sachs and General Electric gave Buffett. How crazy-sweet? They begged Buffett -- technically his company, Berkshire Hathaway -- to lend them money at a guaranteed 10% plus equity upside.
But before you get too jealous, know that this wasn't always the case.
How Buffett made his opportunities
Let me take you back to a time when Buffett wasn't worth 11 figures. Back to a time when he had only five figures to work with.
In his 20s, Buffett's eventual avalanche was just a snowball. All his name could get him was a dinner reservation ... if he called ahead.
So he had to work to find deals to invest in -- deals that would form the basis of his fortune. He sought out the master investors of his time, including his hero Benjamin Graham, and learned everything they would teach him.
But more than anything, he did the legwork that others weren't willing to do. In this time before the Internet, he'd physically go to Moody's and Standard & Poor's to read old reports, to the SEC to read filings, and to company headquarters to talk with management.
His persistence was rewarded handsomely, particularly in tiny, underfollowed companies. In Buffett's own words: "I would pore through volumes of businesses and I'd find one or two ... that were just ridiculously cheap."
How cheap? In one six-year period, he grew his wealth by more than 60% a year. By age 26, he had amassed so much wealth that he considered retirement.
How Buffett lost his opportunities
Of course, he didn't retire. In the decades since, he's continued putting up incredible returns, and he's laid claim to the unofficial title of greatest investor ever.
But with all this wealth comes a problem.
That problem is exemplified by Buffett's recent purchase of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad -- which he admits wasn't a particular bargain.
The man who has absolutely throttled the market for more than five decades now says, "Reasonable return is good enough. ... I mean, 50 years ago, I was looking for spectacular returns, but I can't -- I can't get them."
Why the surrender? One word: size.
Berkshire Hathaway is roughly the size of a Wal-Mart
For Buffett, analyzing and buying a small-cap stock has roughly the same cost benefit as us walking a mile to pick up a quarter. Instead, he's stuck stalking elephants like Burlington Northern, which was roughly the size of a Lowe's
Could he still do it today?
When Buffett could stalk mosquitoes instead of elephants, his returns were consistently monstrous. That was a long, long time ago, though. Could he still do it today?
He thinks so. He says, "It's a huge structural advantage not to have a lot of money. I think I could make you 50% a year on $1 million. No, I know I could. I guarantee that."
Wow. Now, before we get carried away, that's the greatest investor in the world taking on the market with no restrictions.
The takeaway for us mere mortals is that there's more opportunity for outsized returns in small-cap stocks than there is in larger-cap stocks.
Just like Buffett
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This article was originally published Dec. 24, 2009. It has been updated.
Anand Chokkavelu owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Berkshire Hathaway, Lowe's, and Wal-Mart are Motley Fool Inside Value recommendations. Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, and eBay are Stock Advisor picks. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on eBay. The Fool owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and Neutral Tandem. The Fool has a disclosure policy.