“Take the probability times the amount of possible loss from the probability of gain times the amount of possible gain. that is what we are trying to do. its imperfect, but thats what it is all about.”- BuffettThe Primacy of the Expected Value Table
“Our purchases of Wells Fargo in 1990 were helped by a chaotic market in bank stocks.The disarray was appropriate: Month by month the foolish loan decisions of once well-regarded banks were put on publicdisplay. “As one huge loss after another was unveiled - often on the heels of managerial assurances that all was well -investors understandably concluded that no banks numbers were to be trusted. “Aided by their ﬂight from bank stocks, wepurchased our 10% interest in Wells Fargo for $290 million, less than ﬁve times after-tax earnings, and less than three timespre-tax earnings.”
Three Risks: 1. Earthquake 2. Systemic 3. Real estate exposure“Of course, ownership of a bank - or about any other business - is far from riskless. California banks face the speciﬁcrisk of a major earthquake, which might wreak enough havoc on borrowers to in turn destroy the banks lending tothem.“A second risk is systemic - the possibility of a business contraction or ﬁnancial panic so severe that it would endangeralmost every highly-leveraged institution, no matter how intelligently run.“Finally, the markets major fear of the moment is that West Coast real estate values will tumble because ofoverbuilding and deliver huge losses to banks that have ﬁnanced the expansion. “Because it is a leading real estatelender, Wells Fargo is thought to be particularly vulnerable.”
“None of theseeventualities can be ruled out. The probability of theﬁrst two occurring, however, is low and even ameaningful drop inreal estate values is unlikely to causemajor problems for well-managed institutions.
“Consider some mathematics: Wells Fargo currently earns well over $1 billion pre-tax annually after expensing more than $300 million for loan losses. If 10% of all $48 billion of the banks loans - not just its real estate loans - were hit by problems in 1991, and these produced losses (including foregone interest) averaging 30% of principal, the company would roughly break even.”A year like that - which we consider only a low-level possibility, not a likelihood - would not distress us. “In fact, atBerkshire we would love to acquire businesses or invest in capital projects that produced no return for a year, but thatcould then be expected to earn 20% on growing equity.Nevertheless, fears of a California real estate disaster similar to that experienced in New England caused the price ofWells Fargo stock to fall almost 50% within a few months during 1990.
“Even though we had bought someshares at the prices prevailing before the fall, we welcomed the decline because itallowed us to pick up many more shares at the new, panic prices.”
Fear is a Foe of the Faddist, but a Friend of the Fundamentalist ."The best thing that could happen from our standpoint is to have markets go down a tremendous amount. If you asked us next month whether wed bebetter off if the stock market were down 50% or if it remained where it is now, wed tell you that wed be better off if it were down 50%. Were going tobe buyers of things over time. If were going to be buyers of groceries over time, wed like grocery prices to go down. If were going to be buying carsover time wed like car prices to go down. We buy businesses. We buy parts of businesses called shares. And were going to be much better off if we canbuy those things at attractive prices than if we cant. We dont have anything to fear. What we fear is a long, sustained, irrational bull market."
“Its not that hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost everyday of your life. The Fermat/Pascal system is dramatically consonant with the way that the world works. And its fundamental truth. So you simply have to have the technique.”Fermat/pascal Letters:http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/pascal.pdf
Our consistently-conservativeﬁnancial policies may appear to havebeen a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that signiﬁcantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have producedconsiderably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps wecould have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default.
We wouldnt have liked those 99:1 odds - and never will. A small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be offset by a large chance of extra returns.If you hand me a gun metaphor
Severe change and exceptional returns usually dont mix. Most investors, of course, behave as if just the opposite were true. That is, they usually confer the highest price-earnings ratios on exotic- sounding businesses that hold out the promise of feverish change. That prospect lets investors fantasize about future proﬁtability rather thanface todays business realities. For such investor-dreamers, any blind dateis preferable to one with the girl next door, no matter how desirable shemay be.
“We make bricks in Texas which use the same process as in Mesopotamia.” - MungerWarren Buffett has made most of his money in businesses which you mayconsider as BORING - Carpets, furniture, insurance, candy, cola…
Experience, however, indicates that the best business returns are usually achieved by companies that are doing something quite similar today to what they were doing ﬁve or ten years ago.That is no argument for managerial complacency. Businesses always have opportunities to improve service, productlines, manufacturing techniques, and the like, and obviously these opportunities should be seized. But a businessthat constantly encounters major change also encounters many chances for major error. Furthermore, economicterrain that is forever shifting violently is ground on which it is difficult to build a fortress-like businessfranchise. Such a franchise is usually the key to sustained high returns.
The Fortune study I mentioned earlier supports our view. Only 25 of the 1,000 companies met two tests of economic excellence - an average return on equity of over 20% in the ten years, 1977 through 1986, and no year worse than 15%. These business superstars were also stock market superstars: During the decade, 24 of the 25 outperformed the S&P 500.The Fortune champs may surprise you in two respects. First, most use very little leverage compared to theirinterest-paying capacity. Really good businesses usually dont need to borrow. Second, except for one companythat is "high-tech" and several others that manufacture ethical drugs, the companies are in businesses that, onbalance, seem rather mundane. Most sell non- sexy products or services in much the same manner as they didten years ago (though in larger quantities now, or at higher prices, or both). The record of these 25 companiesconﬁrms that making the most of an already strong business franchise, or concentrating on a single winningbusiness theme, is what usually produces exceptional economics.
“After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difﬁcult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.” - BuffettThe ﬁnding may seem unfair, but in both business and investments it isusually far more proﬁtable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than itis to resolve the difficult. - Buffett
Vs.1998 Meeting:Munger: I’ve heard Warren say since very early in his life that the difference between a good business and a bad one is that a good business throws up one easy decision after another whereas a bad one gives you horriblechoices – decisions that are extremely hard to make: “Can it work?” “Is it worth the money?”One way to determine which is the good business and which is the bad one is to see which one is throwing management bloopers – pleasant, no-brainer decisions – time aftertime after time. For example, it’s not hard for usto decide whether or not we want to open a See’s store in a new shopping center in California. It’s going to succeed. That’s a blooper.On then other hand, there are plenty of businesses where the decisions that come across your desk are awful. And those businesses, by and large, don’t work very well.Buffett: I’ve been on the board of Coke for 10 years now. And during that time, we’ve had project after project come up to be reviewed by the board. And they always estimate the ROI – the return on investment. However, itdoesn’t make much difference to me – because in the end, almost any decision you make that solidiﬁes and extends Coke’s dominance around the world in a rapidly growing industry that enjoys great inherent proﬁtability isgoing to be right. And you’ve got people there to execute ‘em well.Munger: …You get blooper after blooper?Buffett: Yeah.Buffett: In contrast, Charlie and I sat on the board of USAir. And there, decisions would come along – and they’d be: “Do you buy the Eastern Shuttle?” And you’re running out of money. And yet, to play the game and keeptrafﬁc ﬂows such that it will connect passengers, you just have to continually make these decisions where you spend $100 million more on some airport. You’re in agony – because you don’t have any real choice. And youalso don’t have any great conviction that the expenditures are going to translate into real money later on.So one game is just forcing you to push more money onto the table with no idea of what kind of hand you hold. And in the other you get a chance to push more money in knowing that you’ve got a winning hand all the way.
Investors should remember that their scorecard is not computed using Olympic- diving methods: Degree-of-difﬁculty doesnt count.If you are right about a business whose value is largely dependent on a single key factor thatis both easy to understand and enduring, the payoff is the same as if you had correctlyanalyzed an investment alternative characterized by many constantly shifting and complexvariables.
The economic value of any asset is essentially the present value of all future cash ﬂows going into and out of the business discounted at the appropriate interest rate.There are all kinds of businesses where Charlie and I don’t have the faintest idea what that future steamwill look like. And if we don’t have the faintest idea what those streams will look like, then we don’t havethe faintest idea what it’s worth today. If you think you know what the price of a stock should be today,but you don’t think you have any idea what the stream of cash will be over the next 20 years, thenyou’ve got cognitive dissonance.We’re looking for things where we feel a fairly high degree of probability that we can come within arange of those numbers over a period of time. And then we discount them back. And we’re moreconcerned with the certainty of those numbers than we are with getting the one that looks absolutelythe cheapest, but is based on numbers that we don’t have great conﬁdence in. That’s basically whateconomic value is all about.
It’s nonsense to get into situations – or to try and evaluate situations – where we don’t have any conviction to speak of as to what the future is going to look-like. I don’t think that you can compensate for that by having a higher discount rate and saying, “Well, it’s riskier. And I don’t really know what’s going to happen. Therefore, I’ll apply a higher discount rate.”Buffett uses long term treasury bond yield as discount rate for DCFBonds inside stocks
Last year MidAmerican wrote off a major investment in a zinc recovery project that was initiated in 1998 and became operational in 2002.“Large quantities of zinc are present in the brine produced by our California geothermal operations, and we believed we could proﬁtably extract the metal. For manymonths, it appeared that commercially-viable recoveries were imminent. But in mining, just as in oil exploration, prospects have a way of “teasing” their developers,and every time one problem was solved, another popped up. In September, we threw in the towel.Our failure here illustrates the importance of a guideline – stay with simple propositions – that we usually apply in investments as well as operations. If only onevariable is key to a decision, and the variable has a 90% chance of going your way, the chance for a successful outcome is obviously 90%. But if ten independentvariables need to break favorably for a successful result, and each has a 90% probability of success, the likelihood of having a winner is only 35%. In our zinc venture,we solved most of the problems. But one proved intractable, and that was one too many. Since a chain is no stronger than its weakest link, it makes sense to look for –if you’ll excuse an oxymoron – mono-linked chains.”A Chain is weaker than it’s weakest link.Milestones in Risk Arb
We prefer to ﬁnance in anticipation of need rather than in reaction to it. A business obtains the best ﬁnancial results possible by managing both sides of its balance sheet well.This means obtaining the highest-possible return on assets and the lowest-possible cost on liabilities. It would beconvenient if opportunities for intelligent action on both fronts coincided. However, reason tells us that just theopposite is likely to be the case: Tight money conditions, which translate into high costs for liabilities, will create thebest opportunities for acquisitions, and cheap money will cause assets to be bid to the sky. Our conclusion: Action onthe liability side should sometimes be taken independent of any action on the asset side.
Alas, what is "tight" and "cheap" money is far from clear at any particular time. We have no ability to forecast interest rates and - maintaining our usual open- minded spirit - believe that no one else can.Therefore, we simply borrow when conditions seem non-oppressive and hope that we will later ﬁndintelligent expansion or acquisition opportunities, which - as we have said - are most likely to pop upwhen conditions in the debt market are clearly oppressive.
Our basic principle is that if you want to shoot rare, fast-moving elephants, you should always carry a loaded gun.Our fund-ﬁrst, buy-or-expand-later policy almost always penalizes near-term earnings. For example, we are now earningabout 6 1/2% on the $250 million we recently raised at 10%, a disparity that is currently costing us about $160,000 per week.This negative spread is unimportant to us and will not cause us to stretch for either acquisitions or higher-yielding short-terminstruments. If we ﬁnd the right sort of business elephant within the next ﬁve years or so, the wait will have been worthwhile.
Some investment strategies - for instance, our efforts in arbitrage over the years - require wide diversiﬁcation.If signiﬁcant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one ofmany mutually- independent commitments. Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment - one thatindeed has a signiﬁcant possibility of causing loss or injury - if you believe that your gain, weighted forprobabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number ofsimilar, but unrelated opportunities. Most venture capitalists employ this strategy. Should you choose topursue this course, you should adopt the outlook of the casino that owns a roulette wheel, which will want tosee lots of action because it is favored by probabilities, but will refuse to accept a single, huge bet.
It is not given to human beings to have such talent that they can just know everything about everythingall the time. But it is given to human beings who work hard at it – who look and sift the world for a mispriced bet – that they canoccasionally ﬁnd one. And the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have odds. And the rest of the time, they don’t. It’s just that simple.
"Our experience tends to conﬁrm a long-held notion that being prepared, on a few occasions in a lifetime, to act promptly in scale, in doing some simple and logicalthing, will often dramatically improve the ﬁnancial results of that lifetime. A few major opportunities, clearly recognizable as such, will usually come to one who continuously searches and waits, with acurious mind, loving diagnosis involving multiple variables. And then all that is required is a willingness to bet heavily when the odds are extremely favorable, using resources available as a result of prudence and patience in the past."
The bottom right cell is where insurance is bought. People are willing to pay much more for insurance than expected value—which is how insurance companies cover their costs and make their proﬁts. Here again, people buy more than protection againstan unlikely disaster; they eliminate a worry and purchase peace of mind.This is Buffett’s speciality. He sells overpriced insurance to people in this cell.