Sunday, 13 September 2009

*****Buffett's Shrinking Portfolio of the 1980s (1)

Market Call by Buffett: Seeing the opportunities that would open up in the 1980s

By 1979, the Dow Jones Industrial Average traded no higher than it did in 1964 - 15 years without a single point gain!

Pessimism hit extreme levels. The public had gradually shifted their portfolios into bonds, real estate, and precious metals, and brokers found it difficult to peddle even stocks with 15 percent dividend yields.

Leading market strategists of the day, predicting more of the same financial morass, implored investors to buy bonds and avoid stocks. Buffett saw things differently. From his perspective, quality blue-chip stocks were being given away; some sold for less than their book values, despite the fact that econmic prospects for the United States still appeared bright.

Corporate returns on equity remained healthy, blue-chip earnings were advancing at double-digit rtes, and the speculative frenzy that had destroyed the integrity of the late-1960s markets had finally been removed from the equation.

"Stocks now sell at levels that should produce long-term returns superior to bonds," he told shareholders. "Yet pension managers, usually encouraged by corporate sponsors that must necessarily please, are pouring funds in record proportion into bonds. Meanwhile, orders for stocks are being placed with eyedropper." How right Buffett was.

As Tilson pointed out, the stock market has returned an annualised 17.2 percent since Buffett penned those words. Bonds returned 9.6%.

Market Call by Buffett: Avoiding the 1987 Crash

By the mid-1980s, Buffett's buy-and-hold philosophy had been carved in stone. He maintained large stakes in his three favorite companies - GEICO, Washington Post Co., and Capital Cities/ABC (which later merged with Walt Disney) - and pledged to hold these "inevitables", as he called them, forever. He didn't share the same convictions about the rest of the stock market.

At the Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in 1986, Buffett lamented that he could not find suitable companies trading at low prices. Rather than dilute his portfolio with short-term stock investments, and given the fact that Buffett's stock holdings had already provided him tens of millions of dollars in gains, Buffett opted to take profits and shrink his portfolio.

"I still can't find any bargains in today's market," he told shareholders. "We don't currently own any equities to speak of." Just 5 months before the 1987 crash, he told shareholders of his inability to find any large-cap stocks offering a high rate-of-return potential: "There's nothing that we could see buying even if it went down 10 percent."

In retrospect, Buffett's comments about a 10 percent decline ultimately proved conservative. Five months after telling shareholders of his dilemma, the stock market lost 30 percent within a matter of days.

His decision to whittle away his portfolio slowly before the crash undoubtedly kept Berkshire's stock portfolio from imparting too big a negative influence on book value.

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