For Warren Buffetts
most devoted followers, a meal at Gorats Steak House is near the apex
of the visit to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, second only
to seeing Buffett onstage at the Qwest Center. You do not eat at Gorats
for the food, which is the apotheosis of indifferent midwestern cooking. You
eat at Gorats because it is Warren Buffetts favorite restaurant.
Really serious Buffett devotees order the T-bone and hash browns, because
that is what Warren is rumored to eat.
After five days
in Omaha, I still dont understand what Buffetts disciples hope
to learn by copycatting his food choices. I do have a better sense, though,
of why some 30,000 people now make what amounts to an annual pilgrimage to
Omaha, from places as far-flung as Singapore and South Africa.
More like the
early Christians in pagan Rome than the millions of Muslims thronging Mecca,
Buffetts hard-core value investors are few, and in many
ways, their entire lives run against the grain of the dominant culture. Only
here in Omaha, for one weekend a year, are they a majority. The meeting, with
its quasi-ritual speeches, canonical stories and jokes, and the fellowship
of other value investors, helps to brace them against a society that almost
actively rejects their austere financial philosophy.
And, of course,
there is Buffett himself. It is his achievements that give value investing
a good name. But while many popularizers who become the public face of a discipline
reap the scorn of their colleagues, Buffett epitomizes value investing for
insiders as much as for those on the outside. He seems to be the very reason
why most value investors are value investors. Much of the writing on the arcane
craft eventually comes around to a central question: What Would Warren Do?
Which of course makes one wonder: What happens to the value-investing community
once he is gone?
the only one wondering about this. During the Q&A, Buffett was asked,
once again, why he hasnt started to give some control of Berkshire Hathaway
to a successor. Buffetts response: If we had a good way to inject
someone into some role that would make them a better CEO of Berkshire, wed
do it, but the candidates we have right now are running businesses, making
decisions, getting experience. To bring them into the Berkshire offices while
Im sitting there reading would be a waste of talent.
Beyond a certain
point, what Warren Buffett does cant be taught. Thats why, as
the British financial writer Merryn Somerset Webb once drily pointed out,
despite all the self-proclaimed value investors in the world, Buffett
is certainly the only money manager around in a position to give £20
billion to charity.
But if Buffett
is such a hard act to follow, then why were we all spending a beautiful spring
day in the Omaha convention center trying to drink in his wisdom, not to mention
eat his brain food?
I spent much
of my time in Omaha trying to answer that question, a task complicated by
the difficulty of defining what, exactly, value investing is. When Benjamin
Graham and David L. Dodd wrote the value-investing urtext, Security Analysis,
in 1934, the rules were more hard-and-fast. Graham and Dodd looked for companies
whose price was less than their intrinsic value, and offered various formulas
for divining this value.
in firms where the intrinsic value of the assets is higher than the market
capitalization worked well in the depths of the Great Depression, when investors
were wary of holding equity. Between 1929 and 1932, the Dow lost just about
90 percent of its value, bottoming out at 41.22. What economists call the
equity premiumthe extra return that investors demand to
compensate for the risk of holding stockshas never since been so high.
Thats why Graham and Dodd could find companies whose liquidation value
offered a substantial margin of safety for people who bought their
value and other balance-sheet-based metrics have become less useful, as the
market, and the economy, have changed. Persistent inflation means that the
historical cost of the assets on the balance sheet in many cases bears only
passing resemblance to their actual worth. Meanwhile, firms get more and more
of their value from intangible assets, like intellectual property or strong
brands, that dont show up in the financial statements. Geico, one of
Buffetts crown jewels, gets much of its value not from physical equipment
or even investment savvy, but from a sterling brand name built on relentless
Much of what
Graham and Dodd did so well was simply hard coolie labor. In an era before
spreadsheets or financial databases, they looked at company reports and painstakingly
did the arithmetic to see where a company stood. That effort offers no competitive
advantage in todays information-saturated market. So while value investors
still hew to the core notion of determining a companys intrinsic value,
waiting for the market to misprice the stock, and then buying on the cheap,
nowadays that determination has much more of a subjective skill element.
Buffett is the
one who has, more than anyone else, refined and redefined value investing
for a new era. He is the one who stopped hunting for superbargains and started
buying exceptional companies, even if they werent available at fire-sale
prices. But what makes a company exceptional is idiosyncratic.
Warren Buffett is exceptionally good at asking the right questions; the speech
he gave in 1999 explaining why he wasnt investing in the tech boom is
astonishing for its foresight. But teaching someone to ask the right questions
is much easier said than done.
lectures on his craft, his precepts often sound less like investing rules
than like the distilled essence of bourgeois virtue. Dont speculate.
Dont risk money you cant afford to lose. Dont try to ride
market trends. Dont try to get rich quick. Dont panic when the
price drops. If there are no good buys, dont buy anything. Above all,
ignore what other people are saying. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would
you jump too?
These are admirable
traits in any investor. But they are hard to uphold, even in the best of times.
And for value investors, the past few decades have not been the best of times.
They have spent those years fighting not only their own human instincts, but
also a broader financial culture that expected maximum returns for minimum
effort. Many hedge funds piled up fortunes with abstruse mathematical trading
strategies that paid little attention to the individuals or companies underlying
their trades. Consumers bet wildly on stocks they knew little about, or passively
stowed their net worth in index funds that required no mental effortand
either way, they expected double-digit annual returns.
discovered the magic of using more leverage to make money faster. What consumers
were doing with no-money-down mortgages, financial firms were doing by investing
borrowed money. In a booming market, this is an easy way to make big returns:
for a small annual interest payment, you can bank any increase in the value
of your house or portfolio. The less of your own money you put in, the better
the return you get on your initial investment.
can hide the downside of leverage for years. But as John Kenneth Galbraith
noted in The Great Crash, 1929, Geometric series are equally dramatic
in reverse. Millions of underwater homeowners can now attest to leverages
downside, with graphs and profanity. So can any number of laid-off bankers:
one of the few uncontested causes of the current crisis is the 2004 decision
by the Securities and Exchange Commission to let the largest investment banks
increase their leverage ratio from about 12-to-1 to 30-to-1, or even higher.
Even the most
committed professional value managers felt a lot of pressure to participate
in the madness. During boom times, when value-investing strategies underperform
lunatic gambles, clients get tempted by funds that deliver outsize returns
by assuming a lot of hidden risk. And what about now, when value investors
should theoretically be in a position to clean up? Well, for starters, the
market still hasnt fallen to Graham-and-Dodd levels; most of the managers
I talked to groused that they were finding few real bargains. The market was
irrational enough to drag down their investment results, but too rational
to offer stocks at deep discounts from intrinsic value. Meanwhile, many of
their potential investors had just lost half their money.
love to deride academics and the efficient-market hypothesis, but they cant
deny that stock-screening tools and other analytics have taken away many of
the best bargains. At least some managers have lost the will to wait patiently
for superdeals and have taken on more risk to get more return. As we walked
to dinner through the soft Omaha twilight, a fund manager I had encountered
at a meet and greet suddenly said, The only way to make
money these days is leverage.
We had been
discussing Mohnish Pabrai, a famous value-fund manager and author, whose portfolio
had reportedly declined severely in 2008. Pabrais apparent willingness
to invest in leveraged situations where a major loss is possible has caused
some to argue that he isnt really a value investor. But here was another
Buffett follower essentially defending leveraged investing, because only leverage
generates the kind of returns weve all come to expect. Investing in
a highly leveraged company, or in a bunch of them, exposes you to many of
the same risks as taking on leverage yourself. And my dinner companion seemed
to be saying that value managers couldnt compete with other funds without
taking at least some of those bets.
This is a controversial
position. Yet arguably, even Warren Buffett himself profits from substantial
financial leverage. Like banking, insurance is in some sense a leveraged bet.
Companies take on large deferred liabilities, in the form of future claims
or account withdrawals, in exchange for payment now. They make their money
by investing most of the proceeds from the deposits or premiums and keeping
a moderate cash reserve, relying on the pooling of many accounts to ensure
that at any one time, the demands on their assets will be smaller than the
reserves set aside to cover them. Like banks, insurance companies are therefore
vulnerable to a sudden mismatch between claims and underlying assets. Many
analysts are now anxiously eyeing life insurers.
insurers are run more conservatively than most. But despite all that, he,
too, has taken a beating in the downturn. The answer to What Would Warren
Do? seems, these days, to be lose money. His acolytes had
taken a beating, tooat least the ones I met. Most private-fund managers
are cagey about their returns, but everyone at my table at Gorats readily
admitted to having had a very, very bad year. Im down 25 percent,
said one friend I ran into at a meet and greet. He runs a tiny
hedge fund mostly composed of his own money. But he quickly added, with some
cheer, Im still outperforming other funds!
In the coming
years, well find out if rising above the madness is enough of a success.
In many ways, its not even clear that Buffett could replicate his own
success if he started out today. He built his reputation as an investor in
an era when there were more opportunities for easy money, and these days,
the news that Buffett has bought a stock is often enough to help support,
or even boost, its price.
not brave enough to second-guess the Sage of Omahacertainly not while
seated at Gorats, cramming myself full of investment advice and moderately
priced midwestern beef. And even if none of the value investors I ate with
are likely to replicate his outlandish success, they will still have an edge
over competitors, and the rest of us, because one Warren-like trait they do
share is his commitment to thrift and prudence. Just as Warren still famously
lives in the same modest house he purchased in the 1950s, almost everyone
I met seemed more interested in building wealth and security than in spending
riches. During my five days in Omaha, I had at least three conversations about
the best way to save money on rental cars. Im pretty sure that at least
one of the people enthusiastically pitching me an off-brand vendor half an
hour from the airport was there on an expense account.
Right now, the
academic literature suggests that value investing has a modest advantage over
a broader market strategy. Better information, more widely available, may
continue to erode that edge. But the principles of prudence, patience, and
thrift will always, in the end, offer a better chance at outsize returns.
The question is whether, once Saint Warren passes, his followers will find
the courage to stick to them.