October 24, 2005

Q&A with Warren buffett (Tuck school of business)


Some excerpts from the Q&A

Q: In your letters you speak frequently of the importance of not over-complicating things. What are your secrets to keeping your life simple?A: When making investments, pretend in life you have a punch-card with only 20 boxes, and every time you make an investment you punch a slot. It will discipline you to only make investments you have extreme confidence in. Big money is made by obvious things. If using a discount rate of 8% vs. 10% is going to make or break an investment idea, it's probably not a good idea. Back in 1951 Moody's published thick handbooks by industry of every stock in circulation. I went through all of them, thousands of pages, motivated by the hope that a great idea was just on the next page. I found companies like National American Insurance and Western Insurance Securities Company that nobody was paying attention to that were trading for far less than their intrinsic values. Last year we found a steel company on the Korean Stock Exchange that had no analyst coverage, no research, but was the most profitable steel company in the world

Q: I have worked in various technologies businesses, but I understand that you do not typically invest in the technology sector. Why is that? How do you view technology as an individual and as an investor?A: Technology is clearly a boost to business productivity and a driver of better consumer products and the like, so as an individual I have a high appreciation for the power of technology. I have avoided technology sectors as an investor because in general I don't have a solid grasp of what differentiates many technology companies. I don't know how to spot durable competitive advantage in technology. To get rich, you find businesses with durable competitive advantage and you don't overpay for them. Technology is based on change; and change is really the enemy of the investor. Change is more rapid and unpredictable in technology relative to the broader economy. To me, all technology sectors look like 7-foot hurdles

Q: In many of your letters you speak about the importance of looking through the windshield and not the rearview mirror. What issues do you think people today are mistakenly looking at through the rearview mirror?A: Investors are always looking for the holy grail, the next great idea that will carry performance and pension returns for the several years. Right now its 'alternative investments' - private equity, hedge funds, the assets that have outperformed public equities for the past five years since the tech bubble burst. There's so much money chasing these ideas now that the returns in the future will probably not be as good. At some point, public equities will become good investments again and fewer people will be looking at them. At Berkshire, we look at a lot of "super-cat" (super catastrophe) insurance business that few firms will write. The challenge is determining when there's a paradigm shift, when the future will no longer look like the past. It's probable that the next hundred years of hurricane activity will not look like the past hundred years. Another example, we write a lot of D and O insurance, Directors and Officers liability. Post Enron, I feel strongly that juries will award much harsher penalties to victims of corporate fraud, etc. than they would have five years ago before the average juror watched hours of news stories about all the scandals. There's no model that can quantify that added risk, but it's a risk that won't be captured looking at historical data.

My thought -  The last Q&A  throws up an interesting question for Indian investors. After 3 years of great returns, are we as investors also operating with a rear mirror view? Any thoughts ?

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