Warren Buffett: How little competition

“In terms of generally advancing within organizations, I think you’d be surprised at how little competition you really  have if you start thinking like you would if you were an owner of the place, and working like you would if you were an owner of the place, and pretty soon you may be running something.”

—Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett: Compensation systems

We pay some very big money. We have managers that have made and will make in the tens of millions annually, and we have managers that, when we suffer, they suffer. But you’ve got to treat people fairly. Even though they don’t need the money, everybody wants to be treated fairly. And so the rationale for how you’re doing it should be understood, but there is no cross-Berkshire rationale at all…. The main thing to do is, in terms of market position and all that sort of thing, the real thing I really want to pay managers for is widening the moat that separates our business from our competitors’ businesses over time. Now, that gets very subjective, so I don’t have any perfect way of doing that. But that is always going through my mind in trying to design compensation systems.” 

—Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett: Close down whole plants

Yeah, some are doing that, where you give up hours. But a lot of operations don’t lend themselves to that very well, either. So…in other cases, you basically have to close down whole plants. That’s just the nature of it. You really can’t operate every plant at 50 percent and have it work as effectively as shutting down the least-productive plants.”

—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Human potential

There’s always a lot of things wrong with the world. Unfortunately, it’s the only world we’ve got. So we live with it, and we deal with it. But the beauty of it is this system works very well. I don’t have the faintest idea what’s going to happen in business or markets in the next year or two years. But the one thing I know is that, over time, people will live better and better in this country. We have a system that works. It unleashes human potential. ”

–Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Financially fat

“We really like things that you don’t have to carry out to three decimal places, you know. If you have to carry it out to three decimal places, it’s not a good idea…. It’s like if somebody walked in the door here and they weighed somewhere between 300 and 350 pounds. I might not know how much they weigh, but I would know they were fat. That’s all I’m looking for, is something that’s financially fat.” –Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Find wonderful businesses

“In general terms, unless you find the prices of a great company really offensive…. I think it’s better just to own them. We could attempt to buy and sell some of the things that we own that we think are fine businesses. But they’re too hard to find…. So, to sit there and hope that you buy them in the throes of some panic, that you sort of take the attitude of a mortician, waiting for a flu epidemic or something…. I’m not sure that will be a great technique…. I think the main thing to do is find wonderful businesses…. We’ve had our share of flu epidemics. But you don’t want to spend your life waiting around for them.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Well protected

“A really wonderful business is very well protected against the vicissitudes of the economy over time and the competition. I mean, we’re talking about businesses that are resistant to effective competition. And three of those will be better than 100 average businesses. And they’ll be safer, incidentally. There is less risk in owning three easy-to-identify, wonderful businesses than there is in owning 50 well-known, big businesses.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: We love focus

“I love focused management. If you read the Coca-Cola annual report, you will not get the idea that Roberto Goizueta is thinking about a whole lot of things other than Coca-Cola. And I have seen that work time after time. And when they lose that focus — as, actually, did Coke and Gillette both, at one point 20 to 30 years ago somewhat — it shows up. I mean, two great organizations were not hitting their potential 20 years ago. And then they became refocused. And what a difference it makes. It makes tens of billions of dollars’ worth of difference, in terms of market value. GEICO actually started fooling around in a number of things in the early ’80s, and they paid a price to do it. They paid a very big price. They paid a direct price, in terms of the cost of those things, because they almost all worked out badly. And then they paid an additional price in the loss of focus on the main business…. So, we like focus. We love focus.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Know-nothing investing

“And there’s nothing wrong with the know-nothing investor practicing it. It’s exactly what they should practice. It’s exactly what a good professional investor should not practice. There’s no contradiction in that. A know-nothing investor will get decent results as long as they know they’re a know-nothing investor, diversify as to time they purchase their equities, and as to the equities they purchase. That’s crazy for somebody that really knows what they’re doing. And you will find opportunities that, if you put 20 percent of your net worth in it, you’ll have wasted the opportunity of a lifetime, in terms of not really loading up. And we’ve had the chance to do that, way, way in our past, when we were working with small sums of money. We’ll never get a chance to do that working with the kinds of money that Berkshire does. We try to load up on things. And there will be markets when we get a chance to from time to time, but very seldom do we get to buy as much of any good idea as we would like to.”
—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Strong probability category

“There have been…several times I had 75 percent of my net worth in one situation…. You will see things that it would be a mistake — if you’re working with smaller sums — it would be a mistake not to have half your net worth in. You really do, sometimes in securities, see things that are lead-pipe cinches. And you’re not going to see them often and they’re not going to be talking about them on television or anything of the sort, but there will be some extraordinary things happen in a lifetime where you can put 75 percent of your net worth or something like that in a given situation…. There’s quite a few people in this room that have close to a hundred percent of their net worth in Berkshire, and some of them have had it for 40 or more years. Berkshire was not in a cinch category. It was in the strong probability category, I think. But I saw things in 2002 in the junk bond field. I saw things in the equity markets. If you could have bought Cap Cities with Tom Murphy running it in 1974, it was selling at a third or a fourth what the properties were worth and you had the best manager in the world running the place and you had a business that was pretty damn good even if the manager wasn’t. You could have put a hundred percent of your net worth in there and not worry. You could put a hundred percent of your net worth in Coca-Cola, earlier than when we bought it, but certainly around the time we bought it, and that would not have been a dangerous position.”
—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Terrible mistake

“It’s a terrible mistake to kind of sleepwalk through your life, because unless Shirley MacLaine is right, it’s the only one you’re going to have…. When you’re in a position to make choices, I always tell the kids that come visit me, ‘Go to work for an organization you admire or an individual you admire.’… It’s a lot easier to behave well when things are going your way and you are enjoying your work and you’re thinking about things every day that are the kind of things that you like to think about.” –Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: First-class management

“What we really like at Berkshire is buying good-sized to very large first-class businesses with first-class management and just sitting there. Because the nice thing about that is you don’t have go from flower to flower. You can just sit there and watch them produce more and more every year and give you capital and you can buy more businesses.”

—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: We look to the business

“If we could guess successfully a high percentage of the time where the stock market was going to go, we would do nothing but play the S&P futures market. There wouldn’t be any reason to look at businesses and stocks. It’s just not our game. What we see when we look at the stock market is we see thousands and thousands and thousands of companies priced every day, and we ignore 99.9 percent of what we see, although we run our eyes over them. And then every now and then we see something that looks like it’s attractively priced to us, as a business. Forget about the word ‘stock.’ So when we buy a stock, we would be happy with that stock if they told us the market was going to close for a couple years. We look to the business.”

—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Foreign competition

“We don’t try to buy our businesses with thoughts much of world trends. We certainly think in terms of foreign competition. I mean, we do not want to buy into a business that has a very high labor content and that has a product that can be shipped in from abroad very easily…. You do not want to have something whose competitive position is going to erode over time.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Right CEO

“The job of the board of directors is to have the right CEO. I mean, if you’ve got the right CEO, 90 percent of it takes care of itself. If you were the director of Cap Cities and you had Tom Murphy as the CEO, case closed. It was all you needed. And if you have that CEO, I think you have an obligation on the board to make sure that there’s not overreaching by the CEO, because the CEO can have different interests. And I think the third thing that the board should do is they really should bring some independent judgment in on major acquisitions. Because there is a natural tendency for people with, usually, big egos, big motors, who get to be CEOs that like to do big things and to become bigger spending other people’s money…. So I think in those three respects, a good director will first make an affirmative decision [that] you’ve got a very good CEO — not the best in the whole world, not everybody can do that — but a very good CEO. That that CEO is not overreaching. And when significant deals come along, that they get a chance to weigh in, and that you really get a balanced discussion about the real economics of what you’re doing.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Fairly captive

“Money tends to be fairly captive, once it’s in a company. If you have a business that gets subnormal returns over time, there’s a big threshold in terms of either a takeover, or a proxy fight, or something like that to unleash the capital. So, money that’s tied up in an unprofitable business, or a sub-profitable business, is likely to stay tied up for a good period of time. Eventually something will probably correct it. But capitalism does not operate so efficiently as to move capital around promptly when it’s misallocated.”

—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Volatility is not a measure of risk

“Volatility is not a measure of risk…. Risk comes from the nature of certain kinds of businesses. It can be risky to be in some businesses just by the simple economics of the type of business you’re in, and it comes from not knowing what you’re doing. And if you understand the economics of the business in which you are engaged, and you know the people with whom you’re doing business, and you know the price you pay is sensible, you don’t run any real risk.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Something in the way you’re programmed

“The biggest thing, too, is to have something in the way you’re programmed so that you don’t ever do anything where you can lose a lot. I mean, our best ideas have not been better than other people’s best ideas, but we’ve never had a lot of things that pulled us way back. So we never went two steps forward and one step back. We probably went two steps forward and a fraction of a step back. But avoiding the catastrophes is a very important thing, and it will be important in the future.”

—Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Human behaviour involved

“Markets will do crazy things over time. When Charlie and I were at Salomon, they’d always talk to us about five sigma events or six sigma events, and that’s fine if you’re talking about flipping coins, but it doesn’t mean anything when you get human behavior involved. And people do things that — intelligent people do things — very intelligent, educated people do things — that are totally irrational, and they do them en masse. And you saw it in 1998. You saw it in 2002. And you’ll see it again.”

—Warren Buffett (2007).

Warren Buffett: Dollar on the dollar

“What we really want to do is buy a business that’s a great business, which means that business is going to earn a high return on capital employed for a very long period of time, and where we think the management will treat us right. We don’t have to mark those down a lot when we find those factors. We’d love to find them when they’re selling at 40 cents on the dollar but we will buy those as much closer to a dollar on the dollar. We don’t like to pay a dollar on the dollar, but we’ll pay something close.” –Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Private equity activity

“The nature of the private equity activity is such that it really isn’t a bubble that bursts. Because if you’re running a large private equity fund and you lock up $20 billion for five or longer years and you buy businesses which are not priced daily, as a practical matter — even if you do a poor job, it’s going to take many years before the score is put up on the score board, and it takes many years, in most cases, for people to get out of the private equity fund even if they wished to earlier…. The investors can’t leave and the scorecard is lacking for a long time. What will slow down the activity — or what could slow down the activity — is if yields on junk bonds became much higher than yields on high-grade bonds. Right now the spread between yields on junk bonds and high-grade bonds is down to a very low level, and history has shown that periodically that spread widens quite dramatically. That will slow down the deals, but it won’t cause the investors to get their money back.” —Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Shorted

“I’ve probably had a hundred ideas of things that should be shorted, and I would say that almost every one of them have turned out to be correct. And I’ll bet if I’d tried to do it and make money out of it, I probably would have lost money, I would have had no fun, and the opportunity cost, as Charlie said, would have been enormous. Because if somebody’s running something that’s semi-fraudulent, they’re probably pretty good at it and they’re working full time at it and they’ve succeeded for a while and they may keep succeeding. And if they succeed and you go in at X and it goes to 5X, you know, all you’re hoping after a while it that it goes back to X again or something of the sort. It’s a very tough psychological game to play. Few people may be well-suited for it. I would never put any money with a short fund, but not because I would think it would be ethically wrong. I just think they’re unlikely to make money.” –Warren Buffett.

Warren Buffett: Strategic buyer

“A strategic buyer is some guy that pays too much. And he wants to justify it, so he says it’s strategic. I have never understood being a strategic buyer. Every time somebody calls me up and says, ‘We think, maybe, you’re the logical strategic buyer for that,’ I hang up faster than Charlie would…. The idea that we’re going to find a business to buy from some guy who, from the moment he bought it a few years ago, has been thinking, ‘How do I get out of this thing?’ ‘What do I do to have…those figures for a couple years look a certain way so that I can get the maximum amount in a couple years?’ We’re just not going to make any attractive buys there. We won’t trust the figures. What we like is a business where the guy before was running with the idea of running it a hundred years, and taking care of the business in every way possible and was not contemplating sale, but, for one reason or another, finally needs to monetize the company. ” –Warren Buffett.