Nuggets of Wisdom from Warren Buffet

Warren Buffet‘s annual reports to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway are a pleasure to read. I’ve been reading and enjoying them for many years. I wish I had been smart enough to buy shares of the company long ago. I am sharing here my selected highlights from the 2023 annual report:

Charlie Munger died on November 28, just 33 days before his 100th birthday.

Though born and raised in Omaha, he spent 80% of his life domiciled elsewhere. Consequently, it was not until 1959 when he was 35 that I first met him. In 1962, he decided that he should take up money management.

Three years later he told me – correctly! – that I had made a dumb decision in buying control of Berkshire. But, he assured me, since I had already made the move, he would tell me how to correct my mistake.

In what I next relate, bear in mind that Charlie and his family did not have a dime invested in the small investing partnership that I was then managing and whose money I had used for the Berkshire purchase. Moreover, neither of us expected that Charlie would ever own a share of Berkshire stock.

Nevertheless, Charlie, in 1965, promptly advised me: “Warren, forget about ever buying another company like Berkshire. But now that you control Berkshire, add to it wonderful businesses purchased at fair prices and give up buying fair businesses at wonderful prices. In other words, abandon everything you learned from your hero, Ben Graham. It works but only when practiced at small scale.” With much back-sliding I subsequently followed his instructions.

In 1863, Hugh McCulloch, the first Comptroller of the United States, sent a letter to all national banks. His instructions included this warning: “Never deal with a rascal under the expectation that you can prevent him from cheating you.” Many bankers who thought they could “manage” the rascal problem have learned the wisdom of Mr. McCulloch’s advice – and I have as well. People are not that easy to read. Sincerity and empathy can easily be faked. That is as true now as it was in 1863.

One investment rule at Berkshire has not and will not change: Never risk permanent loss of capital. Thanks to the American tailwind and the power of compound interest, the arena in which we operate has been – and will be – rewarding if you make a couple of good decisions during a lifetime and avoid serious mistakes.

Your company also holds a cash and U.S. Treasury bill position far in excess of what conventional wisdom deems necessary. During the 2008 panic, Berkshire generated cash from operations and did not rely in any manner on commercial paper, bank lines or debt markets. We did not predict the time of an economic paralysis but we were always prepared for one.

Last year I mentioned two of Berkshire’s long-duration partial-ownership positions – Coca-Cola and American Express. These are not huge commitments like our Apple position. Each only accounts for 4-5% of Berkshire’s GAAP net worth. But they are meaningful assets and also illustrate our thought processes.

American Express began operations in 1850, and Coca-Cola was launched in an Atlanta drug store in 1886. (Berkshire is not big on newcomers.) Both companies tried expanding into unrelated areas over the years and both found little success in these attempts. In the past – but definitely not now – both were even mismanaged.

But each was hugely successful in its base business, reshaped here and there as conditions called for. And, crucially, their products “traveled.” Both Coke and AMEX became recognizable names worldwide as did their core products, and the consumption of liquids and the need for unquestioned financial trust are timeless essentials of our world.

The lesson from Coke and AMEX? When you find a truly wonderful business, stick with it. Patience pays, and one wonderful business can offset the many mediocre decisions that are inevitable.

See also, Charlie Munger (1924-2023).

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