Monday, June 18, 2018

Inevitables vs. Highly Probables

From Warren Buffett's 1996 Letter to Shareholders:
Companies such as Coca-Cola and Gillette might well be labeled "The Inevitables."  Forecasters may differ a bit in their predictions of  exactly how much soft drink or shaving-equipment business these companies  will be doing in ten or twenty years.  Nor is our talk of inevitability meant to play down the vital work that these companies must continue to carry out, in such areas as manufacturing, distribution, packaging and product innovation.  In the end, however, no sensible observer - not even these companies' most vigorous competitors, assuming they are assessing the matter honestly -questions that Coke and Gillette will dominate their fields worldwide for an investment lifetime. Indeed, their dominance will probably strengthen.  Both companies have significantly expanded their already huge shares of market during the past ten years, and all signs point to their repeating that performance in the next decade. 
Obviously many companies in high-tech businesses or embryonic industries will grow much faster in percentage terms than will The Inevitables.  But I would rather be certain of a good result than hopeful of a great one. 
Of course, Charlie and I can identify only a few Inevitables, even after a lifetime of looking for them.  Leadership alone provides no certainties:  Witness the shocks some years back at General Motors, IBM and Sears, all of which had enjoyed long periods of seeming invincibility.  Though some industries or lines of business exhibit characteristics that endow leaders with virtually insurmountable advantages, and that tend to establish Survival of the Fattest as almost a natural law, most do not.  Thus, for every Inevitable, there are dozens of Impostors, companies now riding high but vulnerable to competitive attacks.  Considering what it takes to be an Inevitable, Charlie and I recognize that we will never be able to come up with a Nifty Fifty or even a Twinkling Twenty.  To the Inevitables in our portfolio, therefore, we add a few "Highly Probables." 
You can, of course, pay too much for even the best of businesses.  The overpayment risk surfaces periodically and, in our opinion, may now be quite high for the purchasers of virtually all stocks, The Inevitables included.  Investors making purchases in an overheated market need to recognize that it may often take an extended period for the value of even an outstanding company to catch up with the price they paid. 
A far more serious problem occurs when the management of a great company gets sidetracked and neglects its wonderful base business while purchasing other businesses that are so-so or worse.  When that happens, the suffering of investors is often prolonged.  Unfortunately, that is precisely what transpired years ago at both Coke and Gillette.  (Would you believe that a few decades back they were growing shrimp at Coke and exploring for oil at Gillette?)  Loss of focus is what most worries Charlie and me when we contemplate investing in businesses that in general look outstanding.  All too often, we've seen value stagnate in the presence of hubris or of boredom that caused the attention of managers to wander.  
Mr. Buffett also added a little more in response to a question at the 1997 annual meeting about whether or not McDonald's fit in the same category as Coca-Cola and Gillette:
In the annual report, we talked about Coca-Cola and Gillette in terms of their base business being what I call “The Inevitables.” But that related, obviously, to the soft drink business in the case of Coca-Cola and the shaving products with Gillette. It doesn’t extend to necessarily everything they do. But fortunately in both those companies those are very important products.  
I would say that in the food business, you would never get the total certainty of dominance that you would get in products like Coca-Cola and Gillette. People move around in the food business, from where they eat, from — they may favor McDonald’s but they will go to different places at different times. And somebody starts shaving with a Gillette Sensor Plus is very unlikely to go elsewhere, in my view.  
So they do not — you just — you never would get in the food business, in my judgment, quite the inevitability that you would get in the soft drink business with a Coca-Cola.  
You’ll never get it again in the soft drink business. I mean, it took a hundred — I guess it’d be 1886, so it’d be about 111 years to get to the point where they are. And the infrastructure’s incredible, and — so I wouldn’t put it quite in the same class, in terms of inevitability. 
And then he added more color in his answer to the next question at that meeting:
But I should — I’m glad you brought up the subject of the annual report. Because what I was doing in the annual report is I had talked about Coke and Gillette as being “The Inevitables,” and what wonderful businesses they were.  
And I thought it appropriate, particularly — the report goes to a lot of people — that they would not take that as an unqualified buy recommendation about the companies, because they’re absolutely wonderful companies run by outstanding managers.  
But you can pay too much, at least in the short run, for businesses like that. So I thought it was only appropriate to point out that no matter how wonderful a business it is, that there always is a risk that you will pay a price where it will take a few years for the business to catch up with the stock. That the stock can get ahead of the business.  
And I don’t know where that point is with those companies or any other companies, but I did say that I thought that the risks were fairly high that that situation existed with most securities in the market, including companies such as “The Inevitables.”  
But it was designed to be sure that people did not take the remarks that I made about those companies, and just take that as an unqualified buy recommendation regardless of price.  
We have no intention of selling those two stocks. We wouldn’t sell them if they were selling at prices considerably higher than they are now.  
But I didn’t want — particularly — relatively unsophisticated people to see those names there and then think, “This guy is touting these as a wonderful buy.” Generally speaking, I think if you’re sure enough about a business being wonderful, it’s more important to be certain about the business being a wonderful business than it is to be certain that the price is not 10 percent too high or 5 percent too high or something of the sort.  
And that’s a philosophy that I came slowly to. I originally was incredibly price conscious. We used to have prayer meetings before we would raise our bid an eighth, you know, around the office. (Laughter)  
But that was a mistake. And in some cases, a huge mistake. I mean, we’ve missed things because of that.  
And so what I said in the report was not a market prediction in any sense. We never try to predict the stock market.  
We do try to price securities. We try to price businesses, is what we try to do. And we find it hard to find wonderful, good, average, substandard businesses that look to us like they’re cheap now. But, you know, you don’t always get a chance to buy things cheap.