Friday, 16 April 2010

Buffett (1994): Investing can be done successfully even without making an attempt to figure out the unknowables.

Staying within one's circle of competence and investing in simple businesses were some of the key points that were discussed in Warren Buffett's 1993 letter to shareholders. Now let us fast forward to the year 1994 and see what investment wisdom the master has to offer in this letter.

Are you one of those guys who are quite keen on learning the nitty-gritty of the stock market but the sheer size of literature that is on offer on the topic makes you nervous? Further, with the kind of resources that the institutions, the ones that you would compete against, have at their disposal, it is quite normal for you to give up the thought without even having tried. Indeed, things like coming out with quaint economic theories, crunching a mountain of numbers and working on sophisticated spread sheets should be best left to professionals. While it is definitely good to be wary of the competition, in investing, one can still comfortably beat the competition without the aid of the sophisticated tools mentioned above. All it needs is loads of discipline and patience.

Thus, for those of you, who in an attempt to invest successfully, are trying to predict the next move of the Fed chief or trying to outguess fellow investors on which party will come to power in the next national elections, you are well advised to stop in your tracks because investing can be done successfully even without making an attempt to figure out these unknowables. Some words of wisdom along similar lines come straight from the master's 1994 letter to shareholders and this is what he has to say on the topic.

"We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen. Thirty years ago, no one could have foreseen the huge expansion of the Vietnam War, wage and price controls, two oil shocks, the resignation of a president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a one-day drop in the Dow of 508 points, or treasury bill yields fluctuating between 2.8% and 17.4%.

But, surprise - none of these blockbuster events made the slightest dent in Ben Graham's investment principles. Nor did they render unsound the negotiated purchases of fine businesses at sensible prices. Imagine the cost to us, then, if we had let a fear of unknowns cause us to defer or alter the deployment of capital. Indeed, we have usually made our best purchases when apprehensions about some macro event were at a peak. Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.

A different set of major shocks is sure to occur in the next 30 years. We will neither try to predict these nor to profit from them. If we can identify businesses similar to those we have purchased in the past, external surprises will have little effect on our long-term results."

Infact, the master is not alone in his thinking on the subject but has an equally successful supporter who goes by the name of 'Peter Lynch', one of the most revered fund managers ever. He had once famously quipped, "If you spend 13 minutes per year trying to predict the economy, you have wasted 10 minutes".

Indeed, if these guys in their extremely long investment career could continue to ignore political and economic factors and focus just on the strength of the underlying business on hand and still come out triumphant, we do not see any reason as to why the same methodology cannot be copied here with equally good results.

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