An auspicious start
Let me say, right off the bat, that Berkshire Hathaway
Fellow Fool Bill Mann and I were bouncing some ideas around the other day and I told him I wanted to write a piece about why Berkshire, the marvel of capitalism, is not a stock everyone should own. I had my list of reasons, but Bill crystallized my thoughts with this comment:
"If you take away 'because Warren Buffett is managing my capital' as a reason to invest in Berkshire, most people shouldn't."
Why? Because doing so might violate some of Warren's most treasured rules of investing: Stick to your circle of competence, and invest in businesses you understand.
The extent of my knowledge
I've studied the company, and I think I have a pretty good idea of how it works. It's not unlike my former employer General Electric
So much has been written about Buffett's equity investments that I think most people understand them: Coca-Cola
That's where it ends for me. Catastrophe insurance and reinsurance? Forget it. I am certainly no expert on either of them. But they are extremely important to the success of Berkshire. Does that mean I should overlook this or rationalize it away with, "Well, Warren et al. know plenty about it, and I should trust them?"
Do as Warren says (and does)
Sure, I could learn, and yes, I could accept the fact that Warren and his managers are some of the best in the business and do a great job. But I ask myself, "What would Warren do?" (Maybe that's an idea: Make "WWWD?" reminder bracelets!) He would either decide that he understood it and make an investment, or he would decide that he didn't understand it. If he didn't understand it, he would either decide to take the time to learn, or he would put it in the "too hard" category and try to find the next place for his capital. And that's why I think Berkshire Hathaway is not an investment for everyone. To me, the reinsurance and catastrophe businesses are tough to get a handle on. Competitive advantage lies in people knowledge and industry knowledge, of which I have neither at the moment.
So as an investor, I heed Warren's words (and I can't think of too many people from whom I have learned more about investing than the Oracle). I should only take ownership in a business when I understand why it's undervalued and why it's not likely to stay that way. If that means I don't become a Berkshire Hathaway investor, I am sure Warren would give me kudos for my decision.
There's plenty of fish in the sea
The beauty of Warren's words is that rather than merely giving you a fish, they teach you to go fishing. It's not like there aren't plenty of other businesses that I understand and can buy. And wouldn't my portfolio be better served by allocating my capital to the best investment opportunities that I understand? Isn't that how Warren made his billions, by sticking to the situations he knew and then being opportunistic?
As I said, I've taken Warren's words to heart and created my own portfolio of successful investments, including AES, Nike
The Foolish bottom line
Look, I am not saying Berkshire is a lousy company or that Berkshire shareholders are like a cult following. (Munger thinks most of them are nuts, so, to borrow his catchphrase, "I have nothing to add.") But just because Warren Buffett is one of the greatest investors in the world does not necessarily mean you should own shares of his company. Investing is not about being a part of some exclusive club. It's about finding the best ways to allocate your money to investments that should generate the best returns.
If you understand Berkshire thoroughly and believe it's a bargain today, go for it. If not, don't worry. There are plenty of great investment opportunities out there. Use what you know to go find them, because the more you understand about what a company does, how it makes money, and why it has a lasting competitive advantage, the higher your investment returns will be.
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Retail editor and Inside Value team member David Meier owes Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger a huge debt for sharing their knowledge and is committed to sharing it via The Motley Fool. He owns shares of AES, Nike, Deckers, and Cabela's and has beneficial ownership of GE. He does not own shares in any of the other companies mentioned. The Fool takes its disclosure policy very seriously.