Friday, 26 October 2012

Guru Speak: Buffett Partnership Letters (1957 to1970) - Key Takeaways and Learnings - Part II

In the second part on Buffett's letters, the focus is on the types of stocks he buys. My comments are marked in blue in brackets. You can read the first part here.

Our Method of Operation
Our avenues of investment break down into three categories. These categories have different behavior characteristics, and the way our money is divided among them will have an important effect on our results, relative to the Dow in any given year. The actual percentage division among categories is to some degree planned, but to a great extent, accidental, based upon availability factors.  
The first section consists of generally undervalued securities (hereinafter called "generals") where we have nothing to say about corporate policies and no timetable as to when the undervaluation may correct itself. Over the years, this has been our largest category of investment, and more money has been made here than in either of the other categories. We usually have fairly large positions (5% to 10% of our total assets) in each of five or six generals, with smaller positions in another ten or fifteen. (provides a glimpse of Buffett's portfolio sizing thoughts.)
Sometimes these work out very fast; many times they take years. It is difficult at the time of purchase to know any specific reason why they should appreciate in price. However, because of this lack of glamour or anything pending which might create immediate favorable market action, they are available at very cheap prices. A lot of value can be obtained for the price paid. This substantial excess of value creates a comfortable margin of safety in each transaction. This individual margin of safety, coupled with a diversity of commitments creates a most attractive package of safety and appreciation potential. (His cigar-butt approach - legacy from Ben Graham). Over the years our timing of purchases has been considerably better than our timing of sales. We do not go into these generals with the idea of getting the last nickel, but are usually quite content selling out at some intermediate level between our purchase price and what we regard as fair value to a private owner.
The generals tend to behave market-wise very much in sympathy with the Dow. Just because something is cheap does not mean it is not going to go down. During abrupt downward movements in the market, this segment may very well go down percentage-wise just as much as the Dow. Over a period of years, I believe the generals will outperform the Dow, and during sharply advancing years like 1961, this is the section of our portfolio that turns in the best results. It is, of course, also the most vulnerable in a declining market.
Our second category consists of “work-outs.” (mainly arbitrage operations) These are securities whose financial results depend on corporate action rather than supply and demand factors created by buyers and sellers of securities. In other words, they are securities with a timetable where we can predict, within reasonable error limits, when we will get how much and what might upset the applecart. Corporate events such as mergers, liquidations, reorganizations, spin-offs, etc., lead to work-outs.
This category will produce reasonably stable earnings from year to year, to a large extent irrespective of the course of the Dow. Obviously, if we operate throughout a year with a large portion of our portfolio in work-outs, we will look extremely good if it turns out to be a declining year for the Dow or quite bad if it is a strongly advancing year. Over the years, work-outs have provided our second largest category. At any given time, we may be in ten to fifteen of these; some just beginning and others in the late stage of their development. I believe in using borrowed money to offset a portion of our work-out portfolio since there is a high degree of safety in this category in terms of both eventual results and intermediate market behavior. (Interesting thought process. Buffett defends using leverage when the results are predictable) Results, excluding the benefits derived from the use of borrowed money, usually fall in the 10% to 20% range. My self-imposed limit regarding borrowing is 25% of partnership net worth. Oftentimes we owe no money and when we do borrow, it is only as an offset against work-outs.
The final category is "control" situations where we either control the company or take a very large position and attempt to influence policies of the company. (Again extremely interesting and instructive. As an investor Buffett thinks in terms of buying out complete companies and be able to influence management. Very few investors, including UHNIs think on those lines) Such operations should definitely be measured on the basis of several years. In a given year, they may produce nothing as it is usually to our advantage to have the stock be stagnant market-wise for a long period while we are acquiring it. These situations, too, have relatively little in common with the behavior of the Dow. Sometimes, of course, we buy into a general with the thought in mind that it might develop into a control situation. If the price remains low enough for a long period, this might very well happen. If it moves up before we have a substantial percentage of the company's stock, we sell at higher levels and complete a successful general operation.


  1. Good one. If possible, please include some examples based on your personal experience and to what extent major thoughts form part of your philosophy. For eg. Portfolio sizing etc.

    1. Hi Anil,

      My endeavour through these posts is to try and trace the way Buffett has evolved as a money manager. If you look at the companies he invested in then and what he buys now, there has been a marked difference. I will also try and fit in my experiences as and when I I can contribute something meaningful.


  2. "Oftentimes we owe no money and when we do borrow, it is only as an offset against work-outs."
    don't follow. He does not owe money, even though he has borrowed? Can you shed some light

  3. Hi Abhi,

    It means that most of the time he owes no money as he does not borrow, and when he does borrow, it is only for work-out situations, where he can predict the outcome to a fair degree of certainty.


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