I’ll keeping adding to this over time, as I come across quotes to add to it. If you have any, feel free to pass them along (email@example.com), especially if they are from Mr. Buffett or Mr. Munger.
Ray Dalio: “The biggest mistake investors make is to believe that what happened in the recent past is likely to persist.”
Tom Russo: “I think…it’s the inability to do nothing for a long period of time. The inability to do nothing is what most people get tripped up on.”
Howard Marks: (1) "I think it is risk consciousness. I think that the great accomplishment in investing is not making a lot of money, but is making a lot of money with less-than-commensurate risk. So you have to understand risk and be very conscious of it and control it and know it when you see it." (2) "The main mistake that people make , be they individual or professionals, is that they allow themselves to be affected by emotion. Emotion is the enemy."
Ed Thorp: "Looking to outside sources for guidance in their positions. The belief that you can watch CNBC and get useful advice is very misguided. You really have to formulate your own opinion and not rely on so-called experts."
Michael Shearn: “The three most common investing mistakes relate to the price you pay, the management team you essentially join when you invest in a company, and your failure to understand the future economics of the business you’re considering investing in.”
Charles de Vaulx: "If I have to mention one mistake, one overwhelming mistake is the inability of investors, be it individual or professional investors, to pay enough attention to the price. I think investors pay way too much attention to the outlook and not enough to the price. When they wait for the sky to be blue or at least for the gray sky to become bluer and when the outlook looks better, they will want to buy, but typically it’s too late. It has already been priced in.....If there was a second mistake I could comment on, it’s these two types of investors – those that trade too much, which is not healthy, and those that have too much of a buy-and-hold mentality."
Brian Bares: "I would say that--especially to the value crowd that sort of follows the Buffett/Munger philosophy--it's this mistaken notion that a low P/E stock can potentially outperform...Companies with low valuations on rule-of-thumb metrics like price-to-earnings, price-to-cash flow, price-to-book are often indicative, even in the small and micro-cap space, of broken businesses. They are value traps. They are poor competitive businesses run by management teams that are treating the company as a personal cash machine. They may essentially be a declining annuity that deserves to be valued at, say, 7 or 6 times earnings, 3 or 4 times cash flow. So this idea that low P/E stocks outperform over time, I know has been reinforced by research (Fama and French and others). I sort of view low multiples as an indicator, telling me that it's probably a chronically under-earning business on its capital base, indicative of a poor competitive position. That's the thesis that I start out with when I see that sort of valuation. It's not always the case, but it more often than not is reinforced...That's where the screeners really get led into poor performance; in the identification of these companies that frankly deserve to be cheap."
Ben Horowitz (on start-up companies and founders, but it relates to all investing): "There are so many mistakes…I think probably the most common mistake is trying to be consistent. What happens is you get an idea, you sell people on the idea—investors, the employees—and you get into it and the idea turns out to be wrong. But you want to be consistent and you hold onto it longer than you should…It’s better to be right than consistent. And that’s a very hard thing to learn, particularly early in life."
Warren Buffett, from his 1989 letter to shareholders:
Mistakes of the First Twenty-five Years (A Condensed Version)
To quote Robert Benchley, "Having a dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down." Such are the shortcomings of experience. Nevertheless, it's a good idea to review past mistakes before committing new ones. So let's take a quick look at the last 25 years.
o My first mistake, of course, was in buying control of Berkshire. Though I knew its business - textile manufacturing - to be unpromising, I was enticed to buy because the price looked cheap. Stock purchases of that kind had proved reasonably rewarding in my early years, though by the time Berkshire came along in 1965 I was becoming aware that the strategy was not ideal.
If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long- term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the "cigar butt" approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the "bargain purchase" will make that puff all profit.
Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish. First, the original "bargain" price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces - never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns. For example, if you buy a business for $8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return. But the investment will disappoint if the business is sold for $10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost. Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.
You might think this principle is obvious, but I had to learn it the hard way - in fact, I had to learn it several times over. Shortly after purchasing Berkshire, I acquired a Baltimore department store, Hochschild Kohn, buying through a company called Diversified Retailing that later merged with Berkshire. I bought at a substantial discount from book value, the people were first-class, and the deal included some extras - unrecorded real estate values and a significant LIFO inventory cushion. How could I miss? So-o-o - three years later I was lucky to sell the business for about what I had paid. After ending our corporate marriage to Hochschild Kohn, I had memories like those of the husband in the country song, "My Wife Ran Away With My Best Friend and I Still Miss Him a Lot."
I could give you other personal examples of "bargain- purchase" folly but I'm sure you get the picture: It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. But now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first- class managements.
o That leads right into a related lesson: Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire's textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand.
I've said many times that when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. I just wish I hadn't been so energetic in creating examples. My behavior has matched that admitted by Mae West: "I was Snow White, but I drifted."
o A further related lesson: Easy does it. After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.
The finding may seem unfair, but in both business and investments it is usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult. On occasion, tough problems must be tackled as was the case when we started our Sunday paper in Buffalo. In other instances, a great investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business encounters a one-time huge, but solvable, problem as was the case many years back at both American Express and GEICO. Overall, however, we've done better by avoiding dragons than by slaying them.
o My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call "the institutional imperative." In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative's existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn't so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play.
For example: (1) As if governed by Newton's First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.
Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem.
o After some other mistakes, I learned to go into business only with people whom I like, trust, and admire. As I noted before, this policy of itself will not ensure success: A second- class textile or department-store company won't prosper simply because its managers are men that you would be pleased to see your daughter marry. However, an owner - or investor - can accomplish wonders if he manages to associate himself with such people in businesses that possess decent economic characteristics. Conversely, we do not wish to join with managers who lack admirable qualities, no matter how attractive the prospects of their business. We've never succeeded in making a good deal with a bad person.
o Some of my worst mistakes were not publicly visible. These were stock and business purchases whose virtues I understood and yet didn't make. It's no sin to miss a great opportunity outside one's area of competence. But I have passed on a couple of really big purchases that were served up to me on a platter and that I was fully capable of understanding. For Berkshire's shareholders, myself included, the cost of this thumb-sucking has been huge.
o Our consistently-conservative financial policies may appear to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default.
We wouldn't have liked those 99:1 odds - and never will. A small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be offset by a large chance of extra returns. If your actions are sensible, you are certain to get good results; in most such cases, leverage just moves things along faster. Charlie and I have never been in a big hurry: We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds - though we have learned to live with those also.