That’s a known fact. As human beings we accumulate new knowledge every day; from reading and listening, experimenting and exploring and from observing others in what they do. And if you’re interested in learning, then the world has a limitless supply of information ready for you to absorb.
It’s one of the things I’ve always admired about the Investment Masters, and in particular, Warren Buffett. Even at 88, and with more than 50 years of investing experience behind him, you’d think he would have already learnt everything there it to know. But it’s not the case. He still has lessons to give, and I am always on the hunt for any new gems that fall from the fertile tree of his mind.
Warren was recently interviewed by Betty Quick on CNBC. During that interview, he spoke about his thoughts on recessions, investing (or not investing) in IPO’s and about the media landscape. All are topical conversations in the investment world currently and I found his thoughts on each subject compelling.
Here are the highlights from that interview:
“[Recessions] are part of a capitalistic system. We will have them and it won’t change anything Berkshire invests in. It may offer us more opportunities in marketable securities or businesses. If we see a good business and everybody in the world is bearish and [thinks the yield curve] inversion is going to 100 basis points, we are going to buy it and buy it enthusiastically.”
Interest Rates and Stock Prices
“The lower interest rates are, basically, the better the option stocks are, because stocks are going to produce whatever they are over the next 20 or 30 or 40 years. But if you buy a 30 year bond, you’re going to get that rate. So when the 30 year is at 2.8-2.9% and the Federal Reserve’s intent is to have 2% a year inflation, and you pay tax on that 2.8-2.9% that you receive, your net is around 2%. Your’e essentially saying ‘I’m willing to go with a profitless investment for 30 years’. I don’t get excited about that. You can buy good businesses that may earn 14-15% on taxable equity and they’ve done it in aggregate for a long, long time. You have to think about these good businesses and how they’ll compound over time. You can start with [stock] yields that are higher than the bonds give you and the odds are that a diversified group [which are effectively] bonds with ascending coupons [will do better]. Because that’s all a stock really is, it’s a bond with a whole bunch of coupons that go out to infinity, you just have to [effectively] print the amount on the coupons yourself [because they are not fixed]. The one thing you know is the numbers on stocks as a whole are going to be way greater than 2.8%. The lower bond yields go, the more attractive stocks are as a long term investment.”
The Auto Industry
“The auto industry is not a static industry and if you keep doing everything the same way you did it in that business, if you aren’t thinking many years ahead, you’re making a very big mistake. Every footprint that an auto company might have had 10 or 30 or 50 years ago is going to be obsolete at some time. And the ones they are putting in now are going to be obsolete. It’s the nature of it.”
“Capitalism is described as creative destruction. Change is part of a capitalist system. If you don’t believe it, you’re going to be doing some very dumb things.”
“I’m 100% for free trade. I think is has benefited this country enormously and will continue to benefit it. But the benefits of free trade are invisible. You don’t think about the fact your shoes or underwear or whatever cost ten percent less. You’re benefiting all the time in ways totally invisible. There’s nothing at Walmart that says you’ve just saved 8% because we bought this somewhere other than an American manufacturer. So you have this huge national benefit, unseen, but you ruin the economic lives of people who are 50 or 55 and are not going to be re-trained or re-located. A rich country can take care of those people if they follow policies that benefit all of us and take care of the relatively few who are dislocated. I think that’s the obligation of a rich country.”
IPO’s and LYFT’s $25b Market Capitalisation
“I certainly wouldn’t buy [the] business for $25b. I always think in terms of buying the whole business. I look at what I’m getting as a part owner of a business and I don’t know why, with all the things you could buy for $25b in this world, that you would pick a business that really has to be earning $2.5-$3b pre-tax in five years [versus losses now] to even be on the same radar screen as things you can buy right now. I’ve never been a big buyer of IPO’s. Charlie and I haven’t bought an IPO since 1955.”
“I don’t think buying new offerings during hot periods in the market is anything the average person should think about at all.”
“[Question from Becky Quick – But IPO’s always could be opportunities, e.g. Google and Amazon:] You can go around making dumb bets and win. It’s not something you want to take as a lifetime policy though. I worry much more about the things I do than I don’t do. I’ve missed all kinds of opportunities in my life. You just want to make sure you’re on the side of the house when you bet, rather than bet against the house.”
Media is Too Tough
“Entertainment is a big game with big players in it and they are playing for keeps. One problem they all have is that everybody has just two eyeballs and they’ve got x hours discretionary time, maybe they have 4 hours a day. Obviously there is disruption going on in delivering various things. People are always going to want to watch sports. They’ll want to watch the Olympics; the question is how much it’s worth. You’ve got some very, very big players who are going to fight for those eyeballs. The eyeballs aren’t going to double. The time isn’t going to double. It’s a relatively fixed market and then you get the size of certain players and disruption from Netflix which no-one predicted ten years ago. We’ll see how it plays out but that’s not an easy game to predict because you have very smart people with lots of resources trying to figure out how to grab another half hour of your time. I would not want to play in that game myself, that’s too tough for me.”
“Ten years from now when we look at entertainment delivery, it will be what people want. It will be in the form they want, it will be whatever the creativity comes up with. It’s going to be a very hotly contested game and the one thing I can guarantee you, is the public will be the winner.”
Companies and Mistakes
“I’d love to see Apple succeed [in media]. That’s a company that can afford a mistake or two. You don’t want to buy stock in a company that has to do everything right. In the mining business, they say any mine being dug should be able to stand a certain amount of bad luck because you get into different things as you get 5,000 feet down. There’s some businesses that are quite predictable. Berkshire’s made lots of mistakes over the years; my mistakes. We started with a textile mill and we had two businesses that failed. You’re gonna make mistakes and you don’t want to make them with too big a portion of your capital and you want to recognise them when you make them. You want to basically hang onto your winners. Apple should do some things that don’t work.”
Addressing Bad Acts
“The only thing I worry about Berkshire Hathaway [is bad acts of one or a few people reflecting on the business]. I don’t worry about our financials or earnings. I recognise we have 390,000 people and somebody’s doing something wrong. Probably fifty or a hundred people are doing something wrong at any given time. The only thing I have to remember is an ounce of prevention isn’t worth a pound of cure; an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure. So anytime you have anything unpleasant you’ve got to attack it immediately. It’s so easy just to shove it off or hope somebody down the line solves it. You pay a huge price for that.”
It’s clear that even after those 50 years, Buffett still thinks in simple terms.
He sees recessions as opportunities, doesn’t invest in hot IPO stocks or businesses he doesn’t understand, but he does want the businesses he invests in to make the odd mistake now and then. That’s how innovation comes about – from stumbling on occasion and learning from the error.
Investing is about connecting the dots. This also is a known fact. But if you want to succeed in investing, its important that you actually have dots to connect. In reality, the dots are information, disparate pieces of knowledge that we accumulate through learning from others, such as Buffett. And I for one am glad that the man still has ‘dots’ that the rest of us can learn from.