Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Lessons from Warren Buffett

We seem to be starting something of a value-investor's symposium this week, and you'll see why I say that as we get into today's post.

On Monday we featured the writings and interview thoughts of noted value investor Seth Klarman.

Today's guest of honor in our developing blog lecture series is Berkshire Hathaway chief Warren Buffett, an investor who, for most Americans, requires no further introduction.

Yet it is fair to say that Buffett was not as well known in international investment circles until a recent business trip to Europe this past spring, where he announced that Berkshire Hathaway would begin stepping up its investments and business acquisitions in certain foreign countries where business conditions were favorable.

At that time, Buffett gave a series of press conferences at each stop along the way through Europe. Today, we will outline some of the lessons learned from a press conference held for Buffett in Lausanne, Switzerland.

In this Bloomberg video clip, Buffett discusses Berkshire Hathaway's investment and acquisition philosophy, as well as his personal views on investing and some of the oft-discussed economic themes of 2008. Some highlights and notes from that discussion:

· On doing business with Eitan Wertheimer and purchasing a majority stake in Israeli manufacturing firm, Iscar: Buffett said that Berkshire's acquisition of Iscar was, "the right business, with the right people, at the right price, at the right time".

Buffett was especially impressed with the written communication he initially received from Wertheimer, a letter barely longer than one page describing a company he had never heard of before. Buffett recalls, "both the quality of the business and the quality of the person writing it just leapt off the page".

The quality of this initial correspondence helped set Iscar apart from the hundreds of letters Buffett receives from other companies looking to do a deal with Berkshire. The importance of developing communication skills is a point mentioned later on in the Q&A session, as Buffett responds to a question on business school education.

· The differences in buying whole businesses, rather than shares: When buying marketable securities, you can always change your mind tomorrow. When buying businesses, Berkshire wants to, "buy to keep".

Margin of safety is not in the price paid for the business, but in qualitative factors, such as a company's durable competitive advantage and management that is passionate about running the business.

· Timing of deals: "We don't do deals when we're ready to buy, but rather, when a company is ready to sell". Owners of successful businesses should maintain control and ownership as long as they can (since the business is an appreciating asset), but at some point many are forced to sell, for one reason or another. This is where Berkshire comes in.

· Berkshire is an attractive purchaser for owners looking to sell. The acquisition price will be lower than that achieved at auction, but business owners are buying into the Berkshire culture and way of doing business. The negotiations are usually simple, and once the business is acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, there is little to no meddling from the parent company in the subsidiary's affairs.

· Currency factors are not a main consideration in seeking European acquisitions. Buffett is "perfectly happy" to earn money in Euros, but says it's not a big factor over the long term. He does believe that the European currencies will remain strong against the US dollar over the long term, due to US policies that are likely to weaken the dollar over time.

· Buffett on business-school education: There are really two important investment concepts - how to value a business, and how to think about markets. The stock market is there to serve you, not to inform you (The "Mr. Market" philosophy).

Students could benefit from improving their verbal and written communication skills. People who have honed these skills can have an enormous impact, and will "jump out from the pack".

· On the current state of the financial system and financial institutions: The financial world has become increasingly complex with the growth of derivatives and structured investment products.

As Buffett says, "We talk about too big to fail; I think some of these places [financial firms] are too big to manage", citing the case of Berkshire's own experience with General Re's complex derivatives book.

The current period (last spring, and up to the present) has shown the consequences of people not understanding the instruments they are selling.

· Asked about sovereign wealth funds (SWFs), Buffett replies that they are a natural outgrowth of the US' current account deficit. The money we pay for foreign goods is collected by exporting nations, and that money must end up somewhere.

Many nations would, of course, prefer to invest these funds in real assets and companies, rather than just "stick the money under the mattress".

· Speculators are not, in Buffett's opinion, the real driver of higher commodity prices. The rise in corn, agricultural commodities, and oil prices were all easily explained (and driven) by supply and demand fundamentals.

He notes that US subsidies for corn ethanol had driven demand for corn higher, and produced knock-on effects for crops displaced by increased corn acreage. Inflationary monetary policies are also helping to drive commodity prices higher.

· On succession at Berkshire Hathaway: Key people have been identified by Berkshire's board of directors to replace Warren Buffett at a moment's notice. Just as Wal-Mart continued to execute their business strategy and grow after the passing of founder Sam Walton, Berkshire will march on as its culture is now well-defined and institutionalized.

Hope you enjoyed the video and the business lessons from Warren Buffett.

Tune in tomorrow, as we continue this series with a video lecture and lessons from Berkshire Hathaway Vice-Chairman, Charlie Munger.

Related articles and posts:

1. Lessons from Charlie Munger - Finance Trends

2. Buffett's successor + Woodstock for capitalists - Finance Trends

3. Calling all Buffettheads - Finance Trends.