Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What Would Warren Do? - by Megan McArdle

This article was written by one of my dinner companions at Gorat’s during this year's Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting.

Much of what Graham and Dodd did so well was simply hard coolie labor. In an era before spreadsheets or financial databases, they looked at company reports and painstakingly did the arithmetic to see where a company stood. That effort offers no competitive advantage in today’s information-saturated market. So while value investors still hew to the core notion of determining a company’s intrinsic value, waiting for the market to misprice the stock, and then buying on the cheap, nowadays that determination has much more of a subjective skill element.

Buffett is the one who has, more than anyone else, refined and redefined value investing for a new era. He is the one who stopped hunting for superbargains and started buying exceptional companies, even if they weren’t available at fire-sale prices. But what makes a company “exceptional” is idiosyncratic. Warren Buffett is exceptionally good at asking the right questions; the speech he gave in 1999 explaining why he wasn’t investing in the tech boom is astonishing for its foresight. But teaching someone to ask the right questions is much easier said than done.

When Buffett lectures on his craft, his precepts often sound less like investing rules than like the distilled essence of bourgeois virtue. Don’t speculate. Don’t risk money you can’t afford to lose. Don’t try to ride market trends. Don’t try to get rich quick. Don’t panic when the price drops. If there are no good buys, don’t buy anything. Above all, ignore what other people are saying. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?

These are admirable traits in any investor. But they are hard to uphold, even in the best of times.

Right now, the academic literature suggests that value investing has a modest advantage over a broader market strategy. Better information, more widely available, may continue to erode that edge. But the principles of prudence, patience, and thrift will always, in the end, offer a better chance at outsize returns.