Saturday, 18 March 2017

Learnings from Buffett's 2017 Annual Letter

This year Buffett dealt with a few important points. I found his lengthy discourse on the superiority of index funds intriguing - but not really applicable for the Indian markets as here, maybe unlike in the US, there is significant outperformance by good funds over the index.

On being in the market
The years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks. No one can tell you when these traumas will occur – not me, not Charlie, not economists, not the media. Meg McConnell of the New York Fed aptly described the reality of panics: “We spend a lot of time looking for systemic risk; in truth, however, it tends to find us.” During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost  certainly do well.
Having a portfolio of good businesses, without being leveraged and not needing to pull out of the market when there is a downturn, can produce good results over a long period of time.

On share repurchases
It is important to remember that there are two occasions in which repurchases should not take place, even if the company’s shares are underpriced. One is when a business both needs all its available money to protect or expand its own operations and is also uncomfortable adding further debt. Here, the internal need for funds should take priority. This exception assumes, of course, that the business has a decent future awaiting it after the needed expenditures are made. The second exception, less common, materializes when a business acquisition (or some other investment opportunity) offers far greater value than do the undervalued shares of the potential repurchaser.
Here, I think, the Indian tax laws on dividend distribution has skewed the investor giveback so that companies are looking at share repurchases as an alternate mode of returning cash to shareholders. But, in general, the principle outlined by Buffett holds true.


On insurance operations
A sound insurance operation needs to adhere to four disciplines. It must (1) understand all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) conservatively assess the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) set a premium that, on average, will deliver a profit after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) be willing to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained. Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. They simply can’t turn their back on business that is being eagerly written by their competitors. That old line, “The other guy is doing it, so we must as well,” spells trouble in any business, but in none more so than insurance.


This is important bit of wisdom to be kept in mind, since we are seeing listed companies in this space now in India. Insurance is a long gestation business which has the potential to create significant wealth for shareholders.

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