The title might seem like a clickbait, but it isn’t far from the truth in some sense. Ahead of the shareholder meeting, Warren Buffett published Berkshire’s annual shareholder letter. This piece looks at one key takeaway from that letter – how Buffett’s stupendous returns over 58yrs at Berkshire are almost entirely driven by just a dozen decisions i.e, one every five years. Astonishing indeed.
“What he’s suggesting is that phenomenal success isn’t about getting every decision right. It is about getting important decisions phenomenally right. In fact, Mr. Buffett himself says that most of his investments have been marginal or no better than mediocre. His average of one truly good decision every five years was still enough for that satisfactory return of 3,787,464%.
“The weeds wither away in significance as the flowers bloom,” wrote Berkshire’s chairman and chief executive. “Over time, it takes just a few winners to work wonders. And, yes, it helps to start early and live into your 90s.”
People read Warren Buffett for the same reason they watch Stephen Curry: They want to see how it should be done, even if they can’t do it themselves.
His legendary investor letters are insightful, wise, simple and yet somehow contrarian. They are also modest. Most investors who beat the market would prefer to forget the decisions they botched, but this billionaire often seems more comfortable reminding disciples about his mistakes and musing about his failures.
When he does explain his extraordinary success, Mr. Buffett makes it sound ordinary. He looks for sensibly priced opportunities at big companies with honest people, competitive advantages and “understandable, enduring and mouthwatering economics.” Then he credits the magic of compounding interest, the good fortune of living in the U.S., the execution of basic ideas, the avoidance of colossal errors and a generous slathering of luck, like hot fudge on a Dairy Queen sundae.”
He then speculates on the dozen decisions, one of which is likely not a stock purchase decision – instead the decision to partner with Charlie Munger, the most invaluable of them all.
Amongst the stocks he reckons could feature in there are Coca Cola, American Express, See’s Candies, BNF railroads, Bank of America and Apple. But perhaps the most significant could be take overs of Berkshire Hathaway Energy and GEICO.
“This romance began in 1951, when Mr. Buffett learned that his professor and intellectual hero Benjamin Graham was chairman of Geico and rode the train from New York to Washington to visit its corporate headquarters. He arrived on a Saturday morning only to discover that Geico’s employees weren’t in the habit of working on Saturday mornings. Finally, a custodian heard Mr. Buffett pounding on the doors and not only let him inside but introduced him to the other person in the office, which is how the eager young student found himself receiving an education in the insurance business from the CEO.
The compassion of a weekend janitor would alter the course of business history, as Mr. Buffett’s investment in Geico began his lifelong fascination with insurance. When he acquired National Indemnity, which belongs on any list of Mr. Buffett’s career highlights, the process was similarly informal. After he heard from a friend that the company was for sale, he wrote a two-page contract to buy it from another friend. The deal came together in 15 minutes.
“It’s one of the best capital-allocation decisions in history,” said Lawrence Cunningham, the author of “The Essays of Warren Buffett.” “And it epitomizes Buffett.””
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