Monday, 18 November 2013

Buffett's Investing Wisdom - Buy Wonderful Companies

It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. – Warren Buffett

Interestingly enough, Buffett’s mentor, Benjamin Graham, was quite fond of jumping at fair companies trading at wonderful prices. Graham termed this “cigar butt” investing -- as in, he was looking for discarded cigars that still had a few good puffs left in them. In Buffett’s pre-Berkshire days, he ran with this page from Graham’s book. To be sure, Berkshire Hathaway itself looked a lot like a cigar butt when Buffett bought it -- at the time it was a bedraggled textile business that was markedly unprofitable.

Through his career, though, Buffett realized that the real money wasn’t in puffing on dirty cigar butts. Instead, the big profits in investing come from finding well-run companies that dominate their industries and hanging onto those companies for a long time. Of course, Buffett isn’t one to pay any crazy price for a stock, though, so part of the investment process is determining what a fair price is for the stock and looking for an opportunity to buy the stock at that price.

Costco (Nasdaq: COST) is a great example of a company that dominates its industry. Sure, there are other warehouse-shopping clubs out there, but in terms of quality of operations and management, none stack up. And Buffett -- and even more so his right-hand man, Charlie Munger -- are not shy about professing their admiration for the low-price giant. The problem for investors is that it’s highly unlikely we’ll see shares of Costco trade at true bargain levels unless something dramatically changes the quality and outlook for the company.

In a similar vein, Visa (NYSE: V) and MasterCard (NYSE: MA) are among a very small, very dominant group in the growing and highly profitable credit card industry. As the nature of the global payment system continues to move rapidly away from cash and toward cards and electronic payments, both of these payment-network operators stand to rake it in. Just like Costco, though, investors looking for a “blue light” special on Visa or MasterCard shares will likely find themselves with their hands in their pockets as long as the major growth and success continue.

It’s not just academic to say that investors who balk at a premium price for these companies missed out. Over the past five years, the S&P 500 is up 35%. Costco is up 93%. As for Visa and MasterCard, they’ve tacked on an amazing 162% and 127%, respectively. And investors that bought those companies five years ago weren’t buying on the cheap. In 2008, Costco fetched an average price-to-earnings multiple of 23.5, while Visa and MasterCard sported respective multiples of 53 and 45.

Today, the stocks of all three of these companies still sport higher-than-average earnings multiples. But all three are also still top-notch businesses with stellar growth and profit potential.

Ref:  Warren Buffett's Greatest Wisdom

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