Monday, September 21, 2020

Buffett on ignoring stock price fluctuations and thinking like a business owner

One of my favorite Berkshire Hathaway letters to shareholders is the one from 2013. It left a very big impression on me, mostly because it discussed some important lessons on dealing with market fluctuations. The lessons were illustrated by two investments that Buffett had made.

The investments were in a farm in Nebraska and a New York property adjacent to NYU.

He made these investments at what he believed to be a low price. In the case of the farm, Buffett tried to estimate how much agricultural products like soybeans and corn can be produced. He looked at estimated costs, and calculated the effect on future productivity improvements.  While he knew that there will be disappointing years, he did know that over time, things would be ok. As a result he held on to the farm. It cost $280,000 in 1986 and had an yield of about 10%. By 2013, the farm had increased five times in value, and tripled its earnings. In this deal, he seeked the expertise of his son Howard, who is a farmer.

The other property he invested in 1993 was the one close to NYU. It also had an unlevered yield of 10%, When analyzing the deal, Buffett looked for improvements such as replacing tenants that weren’t charged market rents with new ones as well as leasing vacant stores. He partnered with a couple experienced real estate investors, who knew how to manage the property and unlock value.

As a result of a couple of debt refinancing, expiring leases which were signed at higher rates, and better management of operations, annual distributions increased to 35% of the original equity investment. In addition, he also received several special distributions totaling more than 150% of the original investment. Annual distributions being compared to original cost remind me of the Yield on Cost indicator than many dividend growth investors use. 

Buffett used these investments in order to illustrate several fundamentals of investing:

- You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns

- Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering.

- Think only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations

- If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating

- Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. What the economy, interest rates, or the stock market might do in the years immediately following is of no importance of making those investments.

There was a big difference between investing in businesses and investing in stocks however. Equities offer minute by minute prices. Yet, his farm or real estate do not produce quotes.

Warren Buffett is famous for saying :

 ‘‘After we buy a stock, consequently, we would not be distrurbed if markets closed for a year or two. We don’t need a daily quote on our 100 percent position in See’s to validate our well being. Why, then, should we need a quote on our 7 percent interest in Coke (KO)?’’

Sometimes Mr Market offers a tremendous bargain and sometimes Mr Market offers a ridiculously high price for an asset. Most of the time, it pays to just ignore Mr Market, unless you want to take advantage of this moody fellow.

People who focus too much on stock price fluctuations, end up being influenced by the manic depressive Mr Market. They feel the urge to do something, which leads to many investors selling low and buying high.

Most of these investors would likely do better by sticking to private businesses and real estate, where they do not get a daily quote. This let’s them focus on the business, its fundamentals and ignore all the noise. For many folks, the instant liquidity that the stock market offers is more of a curse, than a blessing. Perhaps these folks would be better off buying and owning a private business. But if they were to invest in equities, they need to see themselves as partial owners of a business enterprise, and not view stocks as some sort of a lottery ticket. Perhaps that’s why Buffett has stated that you should not buy a business, unless you are willing to hold it for a decade, even if they closed the stock market for ten years.

Thinking like a business owner has a lot of advantages. Mostly, it lets you focus on the business, and ignore noise. Second, it helps you stay patient, when everyone around you is panicking. This was evident during the Global Financial Crisis, and was evident during the Covid-19 crash in 2020. Few investors can sit patiently, when their stocks are going down or even going up. 

This is why I try to tell investors to focus on the dividend stream produced by the companies they own, and try to research to see if the payout is adequate and that earnings can grow over time. This lifehack of focusing on the stability of the dividend stream lets the investor avoid being scared away by share price fluctuations. If you are an investor in the accumulation phase, stock price declines should be viewed with excitement, because lower prices mean that future retirement income can be bought on sale. 

If you are a retired investor, you should ignore price fluctuations. Instead, focus on the income from your investments.

Both groups should care about prices only when they have money to invest.

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