A Dozen Things Taught by Warren Buffett in his 50th Anniversary Letter that will Benefit Ordinary Investors

1. “We are limited, of course, to businesses whose economic prospects we can evaluate. And that’s a serious limitation: Charlie and I have no idea what a great many companies will look like ten years from now.”

“My experience in business helps me as an investor and that my investment experience has made me a better businessman. Each pursuit teaches lessons that are applicable to the other. And some truths can only be fully learned through experience.”

Treat an investment security as a proportional ownership of a business!  A security is not just a piece of paper. Not all businesses can be reasonably valued. That’s OK. Put them in the “too hard pile” and move on. See my #3 in my Bill Ackman post.


2. “Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality.”

“For those investors who plan to sell within a year or two after their purchase, I can offer no assurances, whatever the entry price. Movements of the general stock market during such abbreviated periods will likely be far more important in determining your results than the concomitant change in the intrinsic value of your Berkshire shares. As Ben Graham said many decades ago: ‘In the short-term the market is a voting machine; in the long-run it acts as a weighing machine.’ Occasionally, the voting decisions of investors – amateurs and professionals alike – border on lunacy.”

Make bi-polar Mr. Market your servant rather than your master! See my Howard Marks post or my Jason Zweig post.


3. “A business with terrific economics can be a bad investment if it is bought for too high a price. In other words, a sound investment can morph into a rash speculation if it is bought at an elevated price. Berkshire is not exempt from this.”

Buy at a bargain price which provides a margin of safety! See my Seth Klarman, Bill Ackman or Howard Marks posts.


4. “As Tom Watson, Sr. of IBM said, ‘I’m no genius, but I’m smart in spots and I stay around those spots.'”

Circle of competence! Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing. See #6 in my Joel Greenblatt post.


5. “Decades ago, Ben Graham pinpointed the blame for investment failure, using a quote from Shakespeare: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'”

Most investing mistakes are psychological! Investing is simple, but not easy. Buffett has a great system, but his emotional and psychological temperament is especially suitable for investing. Like Charlie Munger, he is highly rational as human beings go. Everyone, including Buffett, makes mistakes. You can do very well in investing by just avoiding stupid mistakes. See my post on Kahneman or Michael Mauboussin.


6. “It is entirely predictable that people will occasionally panic, but not at all predictable when this will happen. Though practically all days are relatively uneventful, tomorrow is always uncertain. (I felt no special apprehension on December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001.) And if you can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, you must be prepared for whatever it does. Investors, of course, can, by their own behavior, make stock ownership highly risky. And many do. Active trading, attempts to “time” market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees to managers and advisors, and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy. Indeed, borrowed money has no place in the investor’s tool kit: Anything can happen anytime in markets. And no advisor, economist, or TV commentator – and definitely not Charlie nor I – can tell you when chaos will occur. Market forecasters will fill your ear but will never fill your wallet.”

Buy at a bargain and wait! See my post on avoiding forecasting. See also Seth Klarman and Howard Marks posts on this point. You can determine that buying an investment *now* is a bargain that creates a margin of safety based on a valuation process, but you cannot predict *when* the price will rise.  So you wait.


7. “Gains won’t come in a smooth or uninterrupted manner; they never have.”

Investing results will always be lumpy! See #10 in my Henry Singleton post.


8.”Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widely-diversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions. That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk. Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.”

“It is true, of course, that owning equities for a day or a week or a year is far riskier (in both nominal and purchasing-power terms) than leaving funds in cash-equivalents. That is relevant to certain investors – say, investment banks – whose viability can be threatened by declines in asset prices and which might be forced to sell securities during depressed markets. Additionally, any party that might have meaningful near-term needs for funds should keep appropriate sums in Treasuries or insured bank deposits.”

Risk is not the same as volatility! See #6 in my Jason Zweig post.


9. For the great majority of investors, however, who can – and should – invest with a multi-decade horizon, quotational declines are unimportant. Their focus should remain fixed on attaining significant gains in purchasing power over their investing lifetime. For them, a diversified equity portfolio, bought over time, will prove far less risky….”

Most investors should buy a diversified portfolio of low fee index funds/ETFs! See my posts on John Bogle and asset allocation.


10. “Huge institutional investors, viewed as a group, have long underperformed the unsophisticated index-fund investor who simply sits tight for decades. A major reason has been fees: Many institutions pay substantial sums to consultants who, in turn, recommend high-fee managers. And that is a fool’s game.”

Follow the cost matters hypothesis! See #1 and #3 in my John Bogle post.


11. Cash, though, is to a business as oxygen is to an individual: never thought about when it is present, the only thing in mind when it is absent.” “When bills come due, only cash is legal tender. Don’t leave home without it.”

The only unforgivable sin in business is to run out of cash! See #7 in my post on Don Valentine. The need for some cash as dry powder applies to everyone, the only question is how much cash to have on hand.


12. “We will never play financial Russian roulette with the funds you’ve entrusted to us, even if the metaphorical gun has 100 chambers and only one bullet. In our view, it is madness to risk losing what you need in pursuing what you simply desire.”

Black Swans can appear any time! People will try to get you to buy things by hiding this risk. See my post on Nassim Taleb.

22 thoughts on “A Dozen Things Taught by Warren Buffett in his 50th Anniversary Letter that will Benefit Ordinary Investors

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  3. Tren,

    Another great post!

    Panic + the huge growth of ETF’s and Index funds in recent years is going to provide fantastic opportunities to buy great businesses at low prices as the funds sell indiscriminately at the next big correction.

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