MONEY Warren Buffett

The 6 Most Important Quotes From Warren Buffett’s Greatest Shareholder Letter Ever

Warren Buffett
Nati Harnik—AP

Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well?

Last week, Berkshire Hathaway released its 2014 shareholder letter. Warren Buffett’s letter, always closely followed, was particularly anticipated this year. Indeed, as this year will mark a half-century of Berkshire Hathaway under “current management,” Buffett had promised two “looking back/looking forward” analyses, one from his pen and one from that of his partner, Berkshire Vice Chairman Charlie Munger.

Here are some of the key quotes from this year’s letter. (I’ve identified those that come from Munger.)

Buffett’s successor: one of two men?

With Buffett now 84, Berkshire’s succession plan is a matter of intense speculation. His latest comments on the matter (my emphasis):

Our directors believe that our future CEOs should come from internal candidates whom the Berkshire board has grown to know well. Our directors also believe that an incoming CEO should be relatively young, so that he or she can have a long run in the job. Berkshire will operate best if its CEOs average well over 10 years at the helm. (It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.) And they are not likely to retire at 65 either (or have you noticed?). … Both the board and I believe we now have the right person to succeed me as CEO — a successor ready to assume the job the day after I die or step down. In certain important respects, this person will do a better job than I am doing.

Who might the successor be? Munger offers a clue that appears to narrow it down to two individuals (my emphasis):

But under this Buffett-soon-leaves assumption, his successors would not be “of only moderate ability.” For instance, Ajit Jain and Greg Abel are proven performers who would probably be under-described as “world-class.” “World-leading” would be the description I would choose. In some important ways, each is a better business executive than Buffett.

Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance head Ajit Jain is 63, and Berkshire Hathaway Energy CEOGreg Abel is 52. In terms of age and expected tenure, Abel has the advantage.

The timing of the elusive Berkshire dividend

Another recurring debate in the financial media is the value and timing of a potential Berkshire dividend — although, as we shall see, it’s not much of a debate among shareholders. Buffett provides his first time-bound guidelines:

Eventually — probably between 10 and 20 years from now — Berkshire’s earnings and capital resources will reach a level that will not allow management to intelligently reinvest all of the company’s earnings. At that time our directors will need to determine whether the best method to distribute the excess earnings is through dividends, share repurchases, or both. If Berkshire shares are selling below intrinsic business value, massive repurchases will almost certainly be the best choice. You can be comfortable that your directors will make the right decision.

That doesn’t appear to be a problem for current shareholders:

Nevertheless [in response to last year’s proxy motion requesting a dividend], 98% of the shares voting said, in effect, “Don’t send us a dividend but instead reinvest all of the earnings.” To have our fellow owners — large and small — be so in sync with our managerial philosophy is both remarkable and rewarding. I am a lucky fellow to have you as partners.

Munger’s contribution to Berkshire

Although he has remained in Buffett’s shadow over the past 50 years, it’s almost impossible to overstate Munger’s contribution to Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett pays tribute to it:

From my perspective, though, Charlie’s most important architectural feat was the design of today’s Berkshire. The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices. … Charlie never tired of repeating his maxims about business and investing to me, and his logic was irrefutable. Consequently, Berkshire has been built to Charlie’s blueprint. My role has been that of general contractor, with the CEOs of Berkshire’s subsidiaries doing the real work as sub-contractors.

The 4 keys to Berkshire’s success

Munger returns Buffett’s compliment:

Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well?

Only four large factors occur to me: (1) the constructive peculiarities of Buffett, (2) the constructive peculiarities of the Berkshire system, (3) good luck, and (4) the weirdly intense, contagious devotion of some shareholders and other admirers, including some in the press.

I believe all four factors were present and helpful. But the heavy freight was carried by the constructive peculiarities, the weird devotion, and their interactions. In particular, Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza. Buffett succeeded for the same reason Roger Federer became good at tennis.

Buffett was, in effect, using the winning method of the famous basketball coach John Wooden, who won most regularly after he had learned to assign virtually all playing time to his seven best players. That way, opponents always faced his best players, instead of his second best. And, with the extra playing time, the best players improved more than was normal.

And Buffett much out-Woodened Wooden, because in his case the exercise of skill was concentrated in one person, not seven, and his skill improved and improved as he got older and older during 50 years, instead of deteriorating like the skill of a basketball player does.

The Berkshire system: 15 rules for building a world-leading conglomerate

What is this “Berkshire system” Munger refers to, which has been at the core of Berkshire’s unparalleled success? He codifies it in 15 points:

The management system and policies of Berkshire under Buffett (herein together called “the Berkshire system”) were fixed early and are described below:

(1) Berkshire would be a diffuse conglomerate, averse only to activities about which it could not make useful predictions.

(2) Its top company would do almost all business through separately incorporated subsidiaries whose CEOs would operate with very extreme autonomy.

(3) There would be almost nothing at conglomerate headquarters except a tiny office suite containing a chairman, a CFO, and a few assistants who mostly helped the CFO with auditing, internal control, etc.

(4) Berkshire subsidiaries would always prominently include casualty insurers. Those insurers as a group would be expected to produce, in due course, dependable underwriting gains while also producing substantial “float” (from unpaid insurance liabilities) for investment.

(5) There would be no significant systemwide personnel system, stock option system, other incentive system, retirement system, or the like, because the subsidiaries would have their own systems, often different.

(6) Berkshire’s chairman would reserve only a few activities for himself. […]

(7) New subsidiaries would usually be bought with cash, not newly issued stock.

(8) Berkshire would not pay dividends so long as more than one dollar of market value for shareholders was being created by each dollar of retained earnings.

(9) In buying a new subsidiary, Berkshire would seek to pay a fair price for a good business that the chairman could pretty well understand. Berkshire would also want a good CEO in place, one expected to remain for a long time and to manage well without need for help from headquarters.

(10) In choosing CEOs of subsidiaries, Berkshire would try to secure trustworthiness, skill, energy, and love for the business and circumstances the CEO was in.

(11) As an important matter of preferred conduct, Berkshire would almost never sell a subsidiary.

(12) Berkshire would almost never transfer a subsidiary’s CEO to another unrelated subsidiary.

(13) Berkshire would never force the CEO of a subsidiary to retire on account of mere age.

(14) Berkshire would have little debt outstanding as it tried to maintain (i) virtually perfect creditworthiness under all conditions and (ii) easy availability of cash and credit for deployment in times presenting unusual opportunities.

(15) Berkshire would always be user-friendly to a prospective seller of a large business. An offer of such a business would get prompt attention. No one but the chairman and one or two others at Berkshire would ever know about the offer if it did not lead to a transaction. And they would never tell outsiders about it.

Both the elements of the Berkshire system and their collected size are quite unusual. No other large corporation I know of has half of such elements in place.

The continued success of Berkshire after Buffett

Will the “Berkshire system” ensure continued success, despite its size, and after Buffett? Buffett says yes:

Despite our conservatism, I think we will be able every year to build the underlying per-share earning power of Berkshire. That does not mean operating earnings will increase each year — far from it. The U.S. economy will ebb and flow — though mostly flow — and when it weakens, so will our current earnings. But we will continue to achieve organic gains, make bolt-on acquisitions, and enter new fields. I believe, therefore, that Berkshire will annually add to its underlying earning power.

Munger concurs:

The next to last task on my list was: Predict whether abnormally good results would continue at Berkshire if Buffett were soon to depart. The answer is yes. Berkshire has in place in its subsidiaries much business momentum grounded in much durable competitive advantage. Moreover, its railroad and utility subsidiaries now provide much desirable opportunity to invest large sums in new fixed assets. And many subsidiaries are now engaged in making wise “bolt-on” acquisitions.

Provided that most of the Berkshire system remains in place, the combined momentum and opportunity now present is so great that Berkshire would almost surely remain a better-than-normal company for a very long time even if (1) Buffett left tomorrow, (2) his successors were persons of only moderate ability, and (3) Berkshire never again purchased a large business.

These quotes provide some of the important lessons from this year’s letter, but the document is extraordinarily rich in business and investing lessons and will be analyzed and debated for years to come — including here on Fool.com. Be sure to check back in the next few days for more coverage of the 2014 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letter.

MONEY Warren Buffett

The Guy Who Made a $1 Million Bet Against Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett
Nati Harnik—AP

Even if hedge funds were winning—which they aren't—you still should be in indexes.

Warren Buffett bet a prominent U.S. hedge fund manager in 2008 that an S&P 500 index fund would beat a portfolio of hedge funds over the next ten years. How’s it going?

“We’re doing quite poorly, as it turns out,” president of Protege Partners Ted Seides, who made the bet with Buffett, told Marketplace Morning Report today. In fact, an S&P 500 fund run by Vanguard rose more than 63%, while the other side of the wager, a portfolio of funds that only invest in hedge funds, has only returned 20% after fees.

The fees are the important component. When the two sides made their respective cases for why they would win, Buffett noted that active investors incur much higher expenses than index funds in their quest to outperform the market. These costs only increase with hedge funds, or a fund of hedge funds, thus stacking the deck even more in his favor.

“Funds of hedge funds accentuate this cost problem because their fees are superimposed on the large fees charged by the hedge funds in which the funds of funds are invested,” Buffett argued at the time. “A number of smart people are involved in running hedge funds. But to a great extent their efforts are self-neutralizing, and their IQ will not overcome the costs they impose on investors.”

Before fees, Seides’s picks would be up 44%—still almost twenty percentage points behind Buffett, but way ahead of where they are.

Seides, to his credit, has been transparent. “Standing seven years into a 10-year wager with Warren Buffett, we sure look wrong,” he wrote in a recent blog post for CFA Institute. He went on to cite the Federal Reserve, both for its decision to keep interest rates at basically zero and undertake an unconventional bond-buying program to jumpstart the economy in the wake of the Great Recession, as one reason why his portfolio has been so roundly beaten by the S&P 500. Of course, investors inability to consistently foresee and time major market events is one reason why index funds are so powerful. (He also points out that a broad stock market index fund is a poor measuring stick for hedge fund performance.)

There’s still three years left in the bet, but barring a prolonged stock market crash, Girls Incorporated of Omaha—Buffett’s charity of choice—seems well placed to win. (The size of that donation stands right now at more than $1.5 million, for reasons having to do with zero-coupon bonds.) Those who are inclined to support passive investing, like MONEY, can be satisfied that once again indexes trumped active traders.

Now here’s the thing: Seven years ago, Seides’ chances of winning this bet actually weren’t so terrible. Cheap index funds have a strong statistical edge over active managers, but that doesn’t mean every stock picker loses. Last December, S&P Dow Jones Indices published “The Persistence Scorecard,” which measures whether outperforming fund managers in one year can continue to outperform the market going forward. “Out of 681 funds that were in the top quartile as of September 2012, only 9.8% managed to stay in the top quartile at the end of September 2014,” according to the report. While that’s not a terribly good record, about 10% of portfolio managers (and their shareholders) think that they are clever investors.

The trouble is, they probably won’t be in the top 10% of investors over the next ten years. There will always be market beaters, even if just by random (and unfortunately unpredictable) chance. That fact goes a long way towards keeping money managers in business.

So when you hear a hot-shot alpha investor type say that he’s beaten the market over the last couple of years, just remember: Stuff happens.

MONEY Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett’s Secret to Staying Young: 5 Cokes a Day

150226_INV_WarrenBuffettCoke
Daniel Acker—Bloomberg via Getty Images Warren Buffett, chief executive officer of Berkshire Hathaway, drinks a Cherry Coca-Cola.

The world’s most successful investor stays youthful by eating "like a 6-year-old." Turns out, the Berkshire Hathaway CEO’s bizarre diet is highly strategic.

How does the world’s top investor, at 84 years old, wake up every day and face the world with boundless energy?

“I’m one quarter Coca-Cola,” Warren Buffett says.

When he told me this in a phone call yesterday (we were talking about the death of his friend, former Coca-Cola president Don Keough), I assumed he was talking about his stock portfolio.

No, Buffett explained, “If I eat 2700 calories a day, a quarter of that is Coca-Cola. I drink at least five 12-ounce servings. I do it everyday.”

Perhaps only a man who owns $16 billion in Coca-Cola KO 0.71% stock—9% of Coke, through his company, Berkshire Hathaway BRK.A -0.23% —would maintain such an odd daily diet. One 12-ounce can of Coke contains 140 calories. Typically, Buffett says, “I have three Cokes during the day and two at night.”

When he’s at his desk at Berkshire Hathaway headquarters in Omaha, he drinks regular Coke; at home, he treats himself to Cherry Coke.

“I’ll have one at breakfast,” he explains, noting that he loves to drink Coke with potato sticks. What brand of potato sticks? “I have a can right here,” he says. “U-T-Z” Utz is a Hanover, Pennsylvania-based snack maker. Buffett says that he’s talked to Utz management about potentially buying the company.

Investors in Berkshire Hathaway may feel relieved that the CEO isn’t addicted to Utz Potato Stix at every breakfast. “This morning, I had a bowl of chocolate chip ice cream,” Buffett says.

Asked to explain the high-sugar, high-salt diet that has somehow enabled him to remain seemingly healthy, Buffett replies: “I checked the actuarial tables, and the lowest death rate is among six-year-olds. So I decided to eat like a six-year-old.” The octogenarian adds, “It’s the safest course I can take.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME advice

Warren Buffett on Scorecards, Investing, Friends, and the Family Motto

Warren Buffett at a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses event in Detroit on Sept. 18, 2014.
Bloomberg—Getty Images Warren Buffett at a Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses event in Detroit on Sept. 18, 2014.

Shane Parrish writes Farnam Street

Hang around with people better than you

This website is named after a street located in Omaha, Nebraska. An amazing place, Omaha is famous for being the home of Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men. The headquarters of Berkshire Hathaway — and his house — just happen to be on “Farnam Street.” The name of this website is a homage to both Buffett and his business partner Charlie Munger.

While Buffett is famous for his investing acumen, he’s also full of sage wisdom on life and living.

In October 2009, while the housing crisis was still in full effect, his authorized biography The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life hit the shelves.

Here are some of his lessons on life and investing.

***
Three Early Lessons in Investing

Having bought three shares of Cities Service Preferred at the age of 11, Buffett learned a valuable lesson. After the stock plunged from $38.25 to $27 a share. His sister Doris reminded him daily on the way to school that her stock was going down. Buffett felt “terribly” responsible. When the stock recovered he sold with a slight $5 profit. Almost immediately after, Cities Service quickly soared to $202 a share.

Warren learned three lessons and would call this episode one of the most important of his life. One lesson was not to overly fixate on what he had paid for a stock. The second was not to rush unthinkingly to grab a small profit. He learned these two lessons by brooding over the $ 492 he would have made had he been more patient. It had taken five years of work, since he was six years old, to save the $ 120 to buy this stock. Based on how much he currently made from selling golf balls or peddling popcorn and peanuts at the ballpark, he realized that it could take years to earn back the profit he had “lost.” He would never, never, never forget this mistake. And there was a third lesson, which was about investing other people’s money. If he made a mistake, it might get somebody upset at him. So he didn’t want to have responsibility for anyone else’s money unless he was sure he could succeed.

***
The Scorecard

This is an important one to keep in mind. If we place too much emphasis on what the world thinks, we end up with an outer scorecard.

I feel like I’m on my back, and there’s the Sistine Chapel, and I’m painting away. I like it when people say, ‘Gee, that’s a pretty good-looking painting.’ But it’s my painting, and when somebody says, ‘Why don’t you use more red instead of blue?’ Good-bye. It’s my painting. And I don’t care what they sell it for. The painting itself will never be finished. That’s one of the great things about it.

The big question about how people behave is whether they’ve got an Inner Scorecard or an Outer Scorecard. It helps if you can be satisfied with an Inner Scorecard. I always pose it this way. I say: ‘Lookit. Would you rather be the world’s greatest lover, but have everyone think you’re the world’s worst lover? Or would you rather be the world’s worst lover but have everyone think you’re the world’s greatest lover?’ Now, that’s an interesting question.

This has implications if you’re a parent: What you put emphasis on matters.

If all the emphasis is on what the world’s going to think about you, forgetting about how you really behave, you’ll wind up with an Outer Scorecard.

***
Hang Around People Better Than You

After graduating from Columbia University, Buffett returned to Omaha to live with his parents. He spent part of that first summer fulfilling his obligation to the National Guard. While he wasn’t a natural, it sure beat going off to fight in Korea. Part of his duties in the guard required him to attend training camp in La Crosse, Wisconsin, for a few weeks. That experience taught him an incredible lesson that he’d carry forward for the rest of his life.

“It’s a very democratic organization. I mean, what you do outside doesn’t mean much. To fit in, all you had to do was be willing to read comic books. About an hour after I got there, I was reading comic books. Everybody else was reading comic books, why shouldn’t I? My vocabulary shrank to about four words, and you can guess what they were.

“I learned that it pays to hang around with people better than you are, because you will float upward a little bit. And if you hang around with people that behave worse than you , pretty soon you’ll start sliding down the pole. It just works that way.”

***
The Buffett Family Motto

As simple as it is powerful.

“Spend less than you make” could, in fact, have been the Buffett family motto, if accompanied by its corollary, “Don’t go into debt.”

***
On Why he Wanted Money

Even when he was little he was always fixated on money. He wanted money. Why?

“It could make me independent. Then I could do what I wanted to do with my life . And the biggest thing I wanted to do was work for myself . I didn’t want other people directing me. The idea of doing what I wanted to do every day was important to me.”

***
Principles

In July of 1952, Susie Buffett, having been married only a few months to Warren, went to Chicago with her parents and new in-laws for the Republican convention. The convention was covered on television for the first time in history. Warren, who stayed in Omaha, watched eagerly — “struck by the power of this medium to magnify and influence events.”

The front-runner was Senator Robert Taft, known as “Mr. Integrity.” He wanted three things: (1) small government; (2) pro-business; and (3) eradicate Communism. Taft’s friend and Warren’s father, Howard Buffett, was the head of his presidential campaign. Taft’s main opponent was the moderate and popular war hero General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

While it might have been the first convention covered by television it still lives in the history books as one of the most controversial Republican conventions. Eisenhower backers pushed through a controversial amendment to the rules that handed him the nomination on the first ballot. Taft and his supporters were, of course, outraged.

But Eisenhower soon made peace with them by promising to combat “creeping socialism.” Taft insisted that his followers swallow their outrage and vote for Eisenhower for the sake of regaining the White House. The Republicans united behind him and his running mate, Richard Nixon; “I Like Ike” buttons sprouted everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except on Howard Buffett’s chest. He broke with the party by refusing to endorse Eisenhower.

This was an act of political suicide. His support within the party evaporated overnight. He was left standing on principle— alone. Warren recognized that his father had “painted himself into a corner.” From his earliest childhood, Warren had always tried to avoid broken promises, burned bridges, and confrontation. Now Howard’s struggles branded three principles even deeper into his son: that allies are essential; that commitments are so sacred that by nature they should be rare; and that grandstanding rarely gets anything done.

***
Still Curious?

While reading about Buffett won’t make you as smart as he is, you might learn something in the process. Pick up a copy of The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life and give it a shot.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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MONEY

What the Oscar Movies Can Teach Us About Money

The envelope please...

2015 Warrens Award
Leah Bailey

The Oscars do a fine job of honoring great movies. But who honors great movies about money?

No one—until now, that is. To accompany the 87th Academy Awards, MONEY is inaugurating its own prizes to commemorate 2014’s finest cinematic lessons in personal finance. We’re calling them the Warrens, in a nod to Warren Buffett, the shrewd money manager who’s also a celebrated dispenser of financial common sense.

Had the Warrens existed in past years, awards likely would have gone to movies like Blue Jasmine, for which Cate Blanchett won a 2014 Oscar portraying a woman whose life falls apart after her husband’s Madoff-like fraud is exposed. One key lesson from that movie: Don’t abdicate all financial responsibilities to your spouse. Another: Bad things can happen if your self-image is tied up in your net worth.

Another past recipient would have been the 2009 Best Picture Oscar winner, Slumdog Millionaire, which, despite its focus on a get-rich-quick game show, argues that love, not money, is the key to happiness.

So which 2014 movies win this year’s Warrens, and what lessons do they teach?

The envelope please….

— By Kara Brandeisky, Margaret Magnarelli, Susie Poppick, Ian Salisbury, Taylor Tepper, and Jackie Zimmermann

 

  • Best Argument for the Value of Education

    BOYHOOD, Patricia Arquette, 2014.
    Matt Lankes—IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Boyhood

    In this Best Picture-nominated movie, Olivia (played by Oscar favorite Patricia Arquette), raising two children without their father, goes back to school to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. That effort ultimately helps her land a dream job as a psychology professor. At a lunch celebrating her son Mason’s high school graduation, Olivia encounters a young man she once hired to install her septic tank and whom she had encouraged to go to community college. Turns out he did just that and now runs the restaurant where she’s eating. “You changed my life,” he tells Olivia. No, it was education that did it—for both of them. (For a guide to affordable colleges that have the strongest economic payback, check out Money’s Best Colleges.)

  • Best Lesson in Estate Planning

    THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, from left: Paul Schlase, Tony Revolori, Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, 2014.
    Martin Scali—Fox Searchlight/Courtesy Everett Collection

    The Grand Budapest Hotel

    In director Wes Anderson’s Oscar-nominated movie, famed concierge Gustave H (Ralph Fiennes) is willed a priceless work of art, “Boy With Apple,” by a rich patron of his hotel—who also happened to be his lover. The deceased’s progeny are none too pleased by this unexpected turn and go to great lengths to reclaim the valuable piece of art. This drama could have been avoided if the murdered Madame D (Tilda Swinton) had simply followed good practices in estate planning, such as identifying which possession should go to which people.

  • Best Career-Change Advice (tie)

    BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE), (aka BIRDMAN), from left: Zach Galifianakis, Michael Keaton, 2014.
    Alison Rosa—20th Century Fox

    Birdman

    Onetime movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) sinks his life savings into a Broadway play to revitalize his career; the attendant pressures, financial on top of personal, pose serious threats to his mental health. One key takeaway: If you’re looking for a second-act career, make sure you have the resources to fund your new venture without having to make the drastic move, in Thomson’s case, of refinancing the Malibu home you promised to your daughter.

  • Best Career-Change Advice (tie)

    LETS BE COPS, from left: Damon Wayans, Jake Johnson, 2014.
    Frank Masi—20th Century Fox Licensing/Everett Collection

    Let’s Be Cops

    This buddy movie won’t win any Oscars — it scored a pathetic 30 of 100 on Metacritic—but it’s got our vote for job-switching smarts. Pals Justin (Jake Johnson) and Ryan (Damon Wayans Jr.) dress up as the fuzz for a costume party, find they like the attention their garb garners, and decide to keep up the act. After they get mixed up in a real crime, one of them—spoiler alert!— heads to the police academy. It’s a smart move to do a trial run on a dream second career. Not so smart: breaking the law in the process.

  • Best Performance by a Financing Campaign

    VERONICA MARS, Kristen Bell, 2014.
    Robert Voets—Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Veronica Mars

    Spunky detective Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) transitioned from the small screen to the big one in 2014 to help clear the name of her hottie ex Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring). While fans of the cancelled TV show were delighted to see the Neptune High gang reunited, it wasn’t the contents of this film that earned it a Warren — it was the financing. Appealing to a rabid Veronica Mars fan base, Bell and show creator Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the film. The effort paid off: The film stands as Kickstarter’s highest-funded film project, and the sixth-highest-funded project ever for the site. If you have a project you’d like to raise money for, start with these tips for a successful crowdfunding campaign.

  • Best Small-Business Strategy

    CHEF, from left: Emjay Anthony, Jon Favreau, 2012.
    Merrick Morton—Open Road Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Chef

    This indie hit isn’t just about food and family. It’s also about how to promote your small business on social media—and how not to. High-powered chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) makes a big mistake after joining Twitter, losing his cool and firing off a series of obscenity-laced tweets at a famous restaurant blogger. After Carl loses his job, however, his son Percy uses savvier social media posts in a wildly successful effort to promote Carl’s new venture, a Cuban sandwich truck.

  • Best Real Estate Recommendation

    NEIGHBORS, from left: Rose Byrne, Seth Rogen, 2014.
    Glen Wilson—Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

    Neighbors

    Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), adjusting to life with a newborn, suddenly have their lives turned upside down when a fraternity moves in next door. Frats throw parties—loud ones that make it hard for babies to fall asleep—and soon the couple and the frat engage in an escalating series of pranks meant to make one another’s lives unbearable. Don’t want to end up like the Radners? Make sure you follow these steps when shopping for a home, and find a good real estate agent who is extremely knowledgeable about the neighborhood where you’re looking.

  • Best Sales Pitch

    A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, from left: Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks, 2014.
    Atsushi Nishijima—Courtesy Everett Collection

    A Most Violent Year

    In this movie from Margin Call director J. C. Chandor, beleaguered heating-oil company owner Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) coaches his sales force on how to close a deal. The key, he says, is projecting an aura of quality in even the subtlest of gestures—if a customer offers coffee or tea, for example, take tea because it’s the “fancy” choice. “We’re never going to be the cheapest option, so we have to be the best,” he says. “When you look them in the eye you have to believe that we are better—and we are—but you will never do anything as hard as staring a person straight in the eye and telling the truth.” Of course, sending a message about quality—whether or not it’s true—does something else: it gets people to spend more. That’s why we pull back the curtain on all the subliminal tricks that salespeople use to loosen your purse strings.

  • Best Argument for Having a Nest Egg

    THE GAMBLER, from left: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, 2014.
    Claire Folger—Paramount/Courtesy Everett Colle

    The Gambler

    You’ve probably heard of the importance of building up an emergency fund in order to cope when disaster strikes in the form of a job loss, or perhaps a costly family health issue. The necessity of having a nest egg to fall back on takes quite a different level of importance in this film, in which a literature professor and severe gambling addict named Jim Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) winds up owing several hundred thousand dollars to various underworld characters. At one point, Bennett turns for help to another loanshark named Frank (John Goodman), who offers a brilliant lecture on why an emergency fund is so critical—only with a lot more expletives than the typical personal finance expert. “Somebody wants you to do something, f*** you. Boss p***** you off, f*** you! Own your house. Have a couple bucks in the bank,” Frank explains. “A wise man’s life is based around f*** you. The United States of America is based on f*** you.”

    It’s worth noting that there are also better ways to pay off debt than turning to loansharks. Assuming, of course, your life isn’t on the line in the matter of a few days.

MONEY Warren Buffett

What Warren Buffett Asks of His All-Star Employees

Warren Buffett, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.
Carlo Allegri—REUTERS Warren Buffett, Chairman of the Board and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway.

Insights from Buffett's latest biennial memo to Berkshire operating company managers

I’m told the first step in overcoming addiction is admitting you are powerless over the object of your addiction. Last month, I read yet another biography of Warren Buffett (and his company, Berkshire Hathaway ). Thankfully, this addiction to his writing is beneficial, so I embrace following Buffett’s writings closely. In December, Buffett issued his latest biennial memo to Berkshire operating company managers (whom he refers to as his “All-Stars”). The Berkshire chairman and CEO requested three things from this select group of businesspeople.

Protect Berkshire’s reputation

Buffett’s concern with Berkshire’s reputation is paramount. The conglomerate is his life’s work; its reputation is its most important asset, and he will not have it sullied:

The top priority — trumping everything else, including profits — is that all of us continue to guard Berkshire’s reputation… As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: “We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation.”

In particular, he warned against pointing to the herd as justification for a course of action:

Sometimes your associates will say “Everybody else is doing it.” This rationale is almost always a bad one if it is the main justification for a business action. It is totally unacceptable when evaluating a moral decision.

This is common sense: Did your parents buy it when you said “He/she did it, too!” to explain your bad behavior?

Instead, Buffett offered a different standard for measuring one’s behavior: “We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.”

In 2011, Buffett was stung when one of his top lieutenants and a potential successor, David Sokol, broke the company’s insider trading rules in a share-dealing controversy that most definitely did not pass the “newspaper test.” Sokol resigned from Berkshire Hathaway in the wake of the scandal.

Report bad news — and bad apples — quickly

Berkshire Hathaway ultimately concluded that Sokol had misled the company with regard to his actions — a cardinal sin on the part of an executive who was supposed to be an example and a watchman. Berkshire subsidiary managers are entrusted with the mission of embodying and protecting the company’s culture. Part of top managers’ job is to call attention to bad behavior as early as possible:

… let me know promptly if there’s any significant bad news. I can handle bad news but I don’t like to deal with it after it has festered for a while. … Somebody is doing something today at Berkshire that you and I would be unhappy about if we knew of it. That’s inevitable: We now employ more than 330,000 people and the chances of that number getting through the day without any bad behavior occurring is nil. But we can have a huge effect in minimizing such activities by jumping on anything immediately when there is the slightest odor of impropriety. Your attitude on such matters, expressed by behavior as well as words, will be the most important factor in how the culture of your business develops. Culture, more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves.

Succession: Identify the next “All-Star” roster

Finally, Buffett asked his managers to send him the names of their top candidates to succeed them. Buffett has a succession plan in place for himself, though one he has not disclosed publicly. Similarly, he promises his managers confidentiality with regard to their choices (“These letters will be seen by no one but me unless I’m no longer CEO, in which case my successor will need the information”).

This requirement appears to be more of an exercise in risk management than long-term planning, as it exempts Berkshire subsidiaries that aren’t run by a single individual (“Of course, there are a few operations that are run by two or more of you — such as the Blumkins, the Merschmans, the pair at Applied Underwriters, etc. — and in these cases, just forget about this item.”)

A good reminder to start the new year

Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway are proof that profits — huge profits, as it turns out — don’t need to be earned at the expense of business ethics. However, as with any endeavor of any significance, one cannot accomplish this alone. The heads of Berkshire subsidiaries enjoy exceptional freedom in running their businesses, but their devotion to protecting Berkshire’s corporate reputation must be uniform and absolute. The lesson isn’t new — last month’s memo was nearly identical word-for-word to the 2012 document — but it is worth reviewing at least every other year — for Berkshire’s managers and anyone else.

MONEY Warren Buffett

Warren Buffett and Bill Gates Agree—This Factor Was Most Important for their Success

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett.
Nati Harnik—AP Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett.

Focus is one of the most important traits of successful people.

Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates have all attributed their success to one factor. In fact, this one trait is behind the success of all people that have performed massively better than the average person. Read on to find out what the trait is and how you can put it into practice in your own life and investing.

The most important factor for success

According to Alice Schroeder, in 1991 when Bill Gates’ dad asked Buffett and Gates what the most important factor for their success was, they both gave the same answer, “focus.”

Gates’ focus was illustrated in Walter Isaacson’s new book The Innovators, as well as Gates’ fellow Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen:

One trait that differentiated the two was focus. Allen’s mind would flit between many ideas and passions, but Gates was a serial obsessor.

“Where I was curious to study everything in sight, Bill would focus on one task at a time with total discipline,” said Allen. “You could see it when he programmed. He would sit with a marker clenched in his mouth, tapping his feet and rocking; impervious to distraction.”

Steve Jobs was the same way; he was relentlessly focused on attacking problems searching for the best answer. Apple’s founding marketing philosophy had three main tenets the second of which is focus:

In order to do a good job of those things we decide to do we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.

Focus was key for Buffett as well, Schroeder writes: “He ruled out paying attention to almost anything but business—art, literature, science, travel, architecture—so that he could focus on his passion.”

Why is this so important?

In life and investing, you need to be relentlessly focused on your goals if you want to have better than average results.

Differentiation

To stick out from the crowd, you need to do something better than everyone else. There’s no standard definition of what “better” is though. McDonald’s does low prices and quick drive through service while Chipotle does massive burritos with a great service culture. They both have been wildly successful as they focus on doing one thing well.

What gets companies and people into trouble is when they try and do too much, leading to mediocrity.

McDonalds has been suffering lately as its menu has grown to accommodate so many different items that is has gotten unwieldy, leading to a confusing menu and longer wait times.

Apple was a disaster with 350 different products before Jobs came back in 1998. He refocused the business around the customer experience, simplifying Apple’s focus to just 10 products. Everyone knows the rest of the story.

Successful investing

Like success in life and business, to be successful in investing, you need focus and time if you want to do better than average. As Warren Buffett has explained,

“Successful Investing takes time, discipline and patience. No matter how great the talent or effort, some things just take time: You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

Just getting to average performance is hard enough. While by definition, the average investor cannot do better than average, the average investor would do nearly 80% better if he or she simply earned the average market return. Most investors would be better off in index funds.

The first key part to be successful is to learn the mistakes that hold people back and avoid them. For investors these include being too active, overconfident, loss-averse, taking on debt to invest, and making rash decisions based on daily market movements, among others.

The second part is to know what your goals are and have a process where you constantly learn, think independently, and quickly try and figure out when you are wrong. You need to go put in the effort so that you can evaluate a selection of businesses and build a circle of competence, that is a set of businesses and industries that you can understand and can independently evaluate. Only then will you be able to select businesses whose values are misjudged by the market, providing an opportunity for you to profit. To get to that point, Buffett suggests:

Read 500 pages like this [annual reports, trade journals, etc.] every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.

Most people don’t do this. The key is to realize the limits of your knowledge, you can’t know and be good at everything. For this reason, most people shouldn’t try and invest in stocks to beat the market since they can’t put in the time and focus.

However, by learning about investing and how to evaluate businesses you build knowledge that will help you understand your job better, your industry better, and everyday life better. As Buffett has said,

“I am a better investor because I am a businessman and I am a better businessman because I am an investor.”

Investing is a lifelong journey, not a sprint. If you are willing to put in the time and focus, a commitment to learning how to invest will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

MONEY investing strategy

122 Ideas, Quotes, and Stats That Will Make You a Better Investor in 2015

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on November 21, 2014 in New York City.
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

Start the new year off right with this investing wisdom.

A year ago I started writing what I hoped would be a book called 500 Things you Need to know About Investing. I wanted to outline my favorite quotes, stats, and lessons about investing.

I failed. I quickly realized the idea was long on ambition, short on planning.

But I made it to 122, and figured it would be better in article form. Here it is.

1. Saying “I’ll be greedy when others are fearful” is easier than actually doing it.

2. When most people say they want to be a millionaire, what they really mean is “I want to spend $1 million,” which is literally the opposite of being a millionaire.

3. “Some stuff happened” should replace 99% of references to “it’s a perfect storm.”

4. Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow begins, “The premise of this book is that it is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than your own.” This should be every market commentator’s motto.

5. Blogger Jesse Livermore writes, “My main life lesson from investing: self-interest is the most powerful force on earth, and can get people to embrace and defend almost anything.”

6. As Erik Falkenstein says: “In expert tennis, 80% of the points are won, while in amateur tennis, 80% are lost. The same is true for wrestling, chess, and investing: Beginners should focus on avoiding mistakes, experts on making great moves.”

7. There is a difference between, “He predicted the crash of 2008,” and “He predicted crashes, one of which happened to occur in 2008.” It’s important to know the difference when praising investors.

8. Investor Dean Williams once wrote, “Confidence in a forecast rises with the amount of information that goes into it. But the accuracy of the forecast stays the same.”

9. Wealth is relative. As comedian Chris Rock said, “If Bill Gates woke up with Oprah’s money he’d jump out the window.”

10. Only 7% of Americans know stocks rose 32% last year, according to Gallup. One-third believe the market either fell or stayed the same. Everyone is aware when markets fall; bull markets can go unnoticed.

11. Dean Williams once noted that “Expertise is great, but it has a bad side effect: It tends to create the inability to accept new ideas.” Some of the world’s best investors have no formal backgrounds in finance — which helps them tremendously.

12. The Financial Times wrote, “In 2008 the three most admired personalities in sport were probably Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorius.” The same falls from grace happen in investing. Chose your role models carefully.

13. Investor Ralph Wagoner once explained how markets work, recalled by Bill Bernstein: “He likens the market to an excitable dog on a very long leash in New York City, darting randomly in every direction. The dog’s owner is walking from Columbus Circle, through Central Park, to the Metropolitan Museum. At any one moment, there is no predicting which way the pooch will lurch. But in the long run, you know he’s heading northeast at an average speed of three miles per hour. What is astonishing is that almost all of the market players, big and small, seem to have their eye on the dog, and not the owner.”

14. Investor Nick Murray once said, “Timing the market is a fool’s game, whereas time in the market is your greatest natural advantage.” Remember this the next time you’re compelled to cash out.

15. Bill Seidman once said, “You never know what the American public is going to do, but you know that they will do it all at once.” Change is as rapid as it is unpredictable.

16. Napoleon’s definition of a military genius was, “the man who can do the average thing when all those around him are going crazy.” Same goes in investing.

17. Blogger Jesse Livermore writes,”Most people, whether bull or bear, when they are right, are right for the wrong reason, in my opinion.”

18. Investors anchor to the idea that a fair price for a stock must be more than they paid for it. It’s one of the most common, and dangerous, biases that exists. “People do not get what they want or what they expect from the markets; they get what they deserve,” writes Bill Bonner.

19. Jason Zweig writes, “The advice that sounds the best in the short run is always the most dangerous in the long run.”

20. Billionaire investor Ray Dalio once said, “The more you think you know, the more closed-minded you’ll be.” Repeat this line to yourself the next time you’re certain of something.

21. During recessions, elections, and Federal Reserve policy meetings, people become unshakably certain about things they know very little about.

22. “Buy and hold only works if you do both when markets crash. It’s much easier to both buy and hold when markets are rising,” says Ben Carlson.

23. Several studies have shown that people prefer a pundit who is confident to one who is accurate. Pundits are happy to oblige.

24. According to J.P. Morgan, 40% of stocks have suffered “catastrophic losses” since 1980, meaning they fell at least 70% and never recovered.

25. John Reed once wrote, “When you first start to study a field, it seems like you have to memorize a zillion things. You don’t. What you need is to identify the core principles — generally three to twelve of them — that govern the field. The million things you thought you had to memorize are simply various combinations of the core principles.” Keep that in mind when getting frustrated over complicated financial formulas.

26. James Grant says, “Successful investing is about having people agree with you … later.”

27. Scott Adams writes, “A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule. Step one in your search for happiness is to continually work toward having control of your schedule.”

28. According to Vanguard, 72% of mutual funds benchmarked to the S&P 500 underperformed the index over a 20-year period ending in 2010. The phrase “professional investor” is a loose one.

29. “If your investment horizon is long enough and your position sizing is appropriate, you simply don’t argue with idiocy, you bet against it,” writes Bruce Chadwick.

30. The phrase “double-dip recession” was mentioned 10.8 million times in 2010 and 2011, according to Google. It never came. There were virtually no mentions of “financial collapse” in 2006 and 2007. It did come. A similar story can be told virtually every year.

31. According to Bloomberg, the 50 stocks in the S&P 500 that Wall Street rated the lowest at the end of 2011 outperformed the overall index by 7 percentage points over the following year.

32. “The big money is not in the buying or the selling, but in the sitting,” said Jesse Livermore.

33. Investors want to believe in someone. Forecasters want to earn a living. One of those groups is going to be disappointed. I think you know which.

34. In a poll of 1,000 American adults, asked, “How many millions are in a trillion?” 79% gave an incorrect answer or didn’t know. Keep this in mind when debating large financial problems.

35. As last year’s Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting, Warren Buffett said he has owned 400 to 500 stocks during his career, and made most of his money on 10 of them. This is common: a large portion of investing success often comes from a tiny proportion of investments.

36. Wall Street consistently expects earnings to beat expectations. It also loves oxymorons.

37. The S&P 500 gained 27% in 2009 — a phenomenal year. Yet 66% of investors thought it fell that year, according to a survey by Franklin Templeton. Perception and reality can be miles apart.

38. As Nate Silver writes, “When a possibility is unfamiliar to us, we do not even think about it.” The biggest risk is always something that no one is talking about, thinking about, or preparing for. That’s what makes it risky.

39. The next recession is never like the last one.

40. Since 1871, the market has spent 40% of all years either rising or falling more than 20%. Roaring booms and crushing busts are perfectly normal.

41. As the saying goes, “Save a little bit of money each month, and at the end of the year you’ll be surprised at how little you still have.”

42. John Maynard Keynes once wrote, “It is safer to be a speculator than an investor in the sense that a speculator is one who runs risks of which he is aware and an investor is one who runs risks of which he is unaware.”

43. “History doesn’t crawl; it leaps,” writes Nassim Taleb. Events that change the world — presidential assassinations, terrorist attacks, medical breakthroughs, bankruptcies — can happen overnight.

44. Our memories of financial history seem to extend about a decade back. “Time heals all wounds,” the saying goes. It also erases many important lessons.

45. You are under no obligation to read or watch financial news. If you do, you are under no obligation to take any of it seriously.

46. The most boring companies — toothpaste, food, bolts — can make some of the best long-term investments. The most innovative, some of the worst.

47. In a 2011 Gallup poll, 34% of Americans said gold was the best long-term investment, while 17% said stocks. Since then, stocks are up 87%, gold is down 35%.

48. According to economist Burton Malkiel, 57 equity mutual funds underperformed the S&P 500 from 1970 to 2012. The shocking part of that statistic is that 57 funds could stay in business for four decades while posting poor returns. Hope often triumphs over reality.

49. Most economic news that we think is important doesn’t matter in the long run. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic once wrote, “I’ve written hundreds of articles about the economy in the last two years. But I think I can reduce those thousands of words to one sentence. Things got better, slowly.”

50. A broad index of U.S. stocks increased 2,000-fold between 1928 and 2013, but lost at least 20% of its value 20 times during that period. People would be less scared of volatility if they knew how common it was.

51. The “evidence is unequivocal,” Daniel Kahneman writes, “there’s a great deal more luck than skill in people getting very rich.”

52. There is a strong correlation between knowledge and humility. The best investors realize how little they know.

53. Not a single person in the world knows what the market will do in the short run.

54. Most people would be better off if they stopped obsessing about Congress, the Federal Reserve, and the president, and focused on their own financial mismanagement.

55. In hindsight, everyone saw the financial crisis coming. In reality, it was a fringe view before mid-2007. The next crisis will be the same (they all work like that).

56. There were 272 automobile companies in 1909. Through consolidation and failure, three emerged on top, two of which went bankrupt. Spotting a promising trend and a winning investment are two different things.

57. The more someone is on TV, the less likely his or her predictions are to come true. (University of California, Berkeley psychologist Phil Tetlock has data on this).

58. Maggie Mahar once wrote that “men resist randomness, markets resist prophecy.” Those six words explain most people’s bad experiences in the stock market.

59. “We’re all just guessing, but some of us have fancier math,” writes Josh Brown.

60. When you think you have a great idea, go out of your way to talk with someone who disagrees with it. At worst, you continue to disagree with them. More often, you’ll gain valuable perspective. Fight confirmation bias like the plague.

61. In 1923, nine of the most successful U.S. businessmen met in Chicago. Josh Brown writes:

Within 25 years, all of these great men had met a horrific end to their careers or their lives:

The president of the largest steel company, Charles Schwab, died a bankrupt man; the president of the largest utility company, Samuel Insull, died penniless; the president of the largest gas company, Howard Hobson, suffered a mental breakdown, ending up in an insane asylum; the president of the New York Stock Exchange, Richard Whitney, had just been released from prison; the bank president, Leon Fraser, had taken his own life; the wheat speculator, Arthur Cutten, died penniless; the head of the world’s greatest monopoly, Ivar Krueger the ‘match king’ also had taken his life; and the member of President Harding’s cabinet, Albert Fall, had just been given a pardon from prison so that he could die at home.

62. Try to learn as many investing mistakes as possible vicariously through others. Other people have made every mistake in the book. You can learn more from studying the investing failures than the investing greats.

63. Bill Bonner says there are two ways to think about what money buys. There’s the standard of living, which can be measured in dollars, and there’s the quality of your life, which can’t be measured at all.

64. If you’re going to try to predict the future — whether it’s where the market is heading, or what the economy is going to do, or whether you’ll be promoted — think in terms of probabilities, not certainties. Death and taxes, as they say, are the only exceptions to this rule.

65. Focus on not getting beat by the market before you think about trying to beat it.

66. Polls show Americans for the last 25 years have said the economy is in a state of decline. Pessimism in the face of advancement is the norm.

67. Finance would be better if it was taught by the psychology and history departments at universities.

68. According to economist Tim Duy, “As long as people have babies, capital depreciates, technology evolves, and tastes and preferences change, there is a powerful underlying impetus for growth that is almost certain to reveal itself in any reasonably well-managed economy.”

69. Study successful investors, and you’ll notice a common denominator: they are masters of psychology. They can’t control the market, but they have complete control over the gray matter between their ears.

70. In finance textbooks, “risk” is defined as short-term volatility. In the real world, risk is earning low returns, which is often caused by trying to avoid short-term volatility.

71. Remember what Nassim Taleb says about randomness in markets: “If you roll dice, you know that the odds are one in six that the dice will come up on a particular side. So you can calculate the risk. But, in the stock market, such computations are bull — you don’t even know how many sides the dice have!”

72. The S&P 500 gained 27% in 1998. But just five stocks — Dell, Lucent, Microsoft, Pfizer, and Wal-Mart — accounted for more than half the gain. There can be huge concentration even in a diverse portfolio.

73. The odds that at least one well-known company is insolvent and hiding behind fraudulent accounting are pretty high.

74. The book Where Are the Customers’ Yachts? was written in 1940, and most people still haven’t figured out that brokers don’t have their best interest at heart.

75. Cognitive psychologists have a theory called “backfiring.” When presented with information that goes against your viewpoints, you not only reject challengers, but double down on your view. Voters often view the candidate they support more favorably after the candidate is attacked by the other party. In investing, shareholders of companies facing heavy criticism often become die-hard supporters for reasons totally unrelated to the company’s performance.

76. “In the financial world, good ideas become bad ideas through a competitive process of ‘can you top this?'” Jim Grant once said. A smart investment leveraged up with debt becomes a bad investment very quickly.

77. Remember what Wharton professor Jeremy Siegel says: “You have never lost money in stocks over any 20-year period, but you have wiped out half your portfolio in bonds [after inflation]. So which is the riskier asset?”

78. Warren Buffett’s best returns were achieved when markets were much less competitive. It’s doubtful anyone will ever match his 50-year record.

79. Twenty-five hedge fund managers took home $21.2 billion in 2013 for delivering an average performance of 9.1%, versus the 32.4% you could have made in an index fund. It’s a great business to work in — not so much to invest in.

80. The United States is the only major economy in which the working-age population is growing at a reasonable rate. This might be the most important economic variable of the next half-century.

81. Most investors have no idea how they actually perform. Markus Glaser and Martin Weber of the University of Mannheim asked investors how they thought they did in the market, and then looked at their brokerage statements. “The correlation between self ratings and actual performance is not distinguishable from zero,” they concluded.

82. Harvard professor and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers says that “virtually everything I taught” in economics was called into question by the financial crisis.

83. Asked about the economy’s performance after the financial crisis, Charlie Munger said, “If you’re not confused, I don’t think you understand.”

84. There is virtually no correlation between what the economy is doing and stock market returns. According to Vanguard, rainfall is actually a better predictor of future stock returns than GDP growth. (Both explain slightly more than nothing.)

85. You can control your portfolio allocation, your own education, who you listen to, what you read, what evidence you pay attention to, and how you respond to certain events. You cannot control what the Fed does, laws Congress sets, the next jobs report, or whether a company will beat earnings estimates. Focus on the former; try to ignore the latter.

86. Companies that focus on their stock price will eventually lose their customers. Companies that focus on their customers will eventually boost their stock price. This is simple, but forgotten by countless managers.

87. Investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort looked at analysts’ predictions of interest rates, and compared that with what interest rates actually did in hindsight. It found an almost perfect lag. “Analysts are terribly good at telling us what has just happened but of little use in telling us what is going to happen in the future,” the bank wrote. It’s common to confuse the rearview mirror for the windshield.

88. Success is a lousy teacher,” Bill Gates once said. “It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

89. Investor Seth Klarman says, “Macro worries are like sports talk radio. Everyone has a good opinion which probably means that none of them are good.”

90. Several academic studies have shown that those who trade the most earn the lowest returns. Remember Pascal’s wisdom: “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

91. The best company in the world run by the smartest management can be a terrible investment if purchased at the wrong price.

92. There will be seven to 10 recessions over the next 50 years. Don’t act surprised when they come.

93. No investment points are awarded for difficulty or complexity. Simple strategies can lead to outstanding returns.

94. The president has much less influence over the economy than people think.

95. However much money you think you’ll need for retirement, double it. Now you’re closer to reality.

96. For many, a house is a large liability masquerading as a safe asset.

97. The single best three-year period to own stocks was during the Great Depression. Not far behind was the three-year period starting in 2009, when the economy struggled in utter ruin. The biggest returns begin when most people think the biggest losses are inevitable.

98. Remember what Buffett says about progress: “First come the innovators, then come the imitators, then come the idiots.”

99. And what Mark Twain says about truth: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while truth is putting on its shoes.”

100. And what Marty Whitman says about information: “Rarely do more than three or four variables really count. Everything else is noise.”

101. Among Americans aged 18 to 64, the average number of doctor visits decreased from 4.8 in 2001 to 3.9 in 2010. This is partly because of the weak economy, and partly because of the growing cost of medicine, but it has an important takeaway: You can never extrapolate behavior — even for something as vital as seeing a doctor — indefinitely. Behaviors change.

102. Since last July, elderly Chinese can sue their children who don’t visit often enough, according to Bloomberg. Dealing with an aging population calls for drastic measures.

103. Someone once asked Warren Buffett how to become a better investor. He pointed to a stack of annual reports. “Read 500 pages like this every day,” he said. “That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.”

104. If Americans had as many babies from 2007 to 2014 as they did from 2000 to 2007, there would be 2.3 million more kids today. That will affect the economy for decades to come.

105. The Congressional Budget Office’s 2003 prediction of federal debt in the year 2013 was off by $10 trillion. Forecasting is hard. But we still line up for it.

106. According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2010, “for every 1% decrease in shareholder return, the average CEO was paid 0.02% more.”

107. Since 1994, stock market returns are flat if the three days before the Federal Reserve announces interest rate policy are removed, according to a study by the Federal Reserve.

108. In 1989, the CEOs of the seven largest U.S. banks earned an average of 100 times what a typical household made. By 2007, more than 500 times. By 2008, several of those banks no longer existed.

109. Two things make an economy grow: population growth and productivity growth. Everything else is a function of one of those two drivers.

110. The single most important investment question you need to ask yourself is, “How long am I investing for?” How you answer it can change your perspective on everything.

111. “Do nothing” are the two most powerful — and underused — words in investing. The urge to act has transferred an inconceivable amount of wealth from investors to brokers.

112. Apple increased more than 6,000% from 2002 to 2012, but declined on 48% of all trading days. It is never a straight path up.

113. It’s easy to mistake luck for success. J. Paul Getty said, the key to success is: 1) rise early, 2) work hard, 3) strike oil.

114. Dan Gardner writes, “No one can foresee the consequences of trivia and accident, and for that reason alone, the future will forever be filled with surprises.”

115. I once asked Daniel Kahneman about a key to making better decisions. “You should talk to people who disagree with you and you should talk to people who are not in the same emotional situation you are,” he said. Try this before making your next investment decision.

116. No one on the Forbes 400 list of richest Americans can be described as a “perma-bear.” A natural sense of optimism not only healthy, but vital.

117. Economist Alfred Cowles dug through forecasts a popular analyst who “had gained a reputation for successful forecasting” made in The Wall Street Journal in the early 1900s. Among 90 predictions made over a 30-year period, exactly 45 were right and 45 were wrong. This is more common than you think.

118. Since 1900, the S&P 500 has returned about 6.5% per year, but the average difference between any year’s highest close and lowest close is 23%. Remember this the next time someone tries to explain why the market is up or down by a few percentage points. They are basically trying to explain why summer came after spring.

119. How long you stay invested for will likely be the single most important factor determining how well you do at investing.

120. A money manager’s amount of experience doesn’t tell you much. You can underperform the market for an entire career. Many have.

121. A hedge fund once described its edge by stating, “We don’t own one Apple share. Every hedge fund owns Apple.” This type of simple, contrarian thinking is worth its weight in gold in investing.

122. Take two investors. One is an MIT rocket scientist who aced his SATs and can recite pi out to 50 decimal places. He trades several times a week, tapping his intellect in an attempt to outsmart the market by jumping in and out when he’s determined it’s right. The other is a country bumpkin who didn’t attend college. He saves and invests every month in a low-cost index fund come hell or high water. He doesn’t care about beating the market. He just wants it to be his faithful companion. Who’s going to do better in the long run? I’d bet on the latter all day long. “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with a 130 IQ,” Warren Buffett says. Successful investors know their limitations, keep cool, and act with discipline. You can’t measure that.

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MONEY Warren Buffett

The One Stock Warren Buffett Is Most Likely to Sell in 2015

Warren Buffett
Bill Pugliano—Getty Images

Is Buffett ready to move on from his biggest "mistake" stock?

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett has established himself as one of the greatest investors and capitalists of our time. His every move and every word is noted and analyzed, and for good reason: People can learn a lot about successful long-term investing through him.

However, even the Oracle of Omaha has made his share of mistakes, and we can learn from those, too. According to the company’s most recent 13-F filing, which discloses its positions in public companies at the end of each quarter, Buffett sold more shares of a company that he’s been gradually selling out of since 2009. Let’s take a closer look at this Berkshire holding. Chances are there’s something we can all learn from the story.

Buffett’s big “mistake of commission”

Back in 2008, Buffett invested billions of dollars into major oil company ConocoPhillips CONOCOPHILLIPS INC. COP -1.91% . At the time, oil was at all-time high prices, and the world was at the doorstep of a major economic crisis. Here’s how Buffett himself described his decision in his 2008 letter to shareholders:

Last year I made a major mistake of commission (and maybe more; this one sticks out). Without urging from Charlie [Munger] or anyone else, I bought a large amount of ConocoPhillips stock when oil and gas prices were near their peak. I in no way anticipated the dramatic fall in energy prices that occurred in the last half of the year. I still believe the odds are good that oil sells far higher in the future than the current $40-$50 price. But so far I have been dead wrong. Even if prices should rise, moreover, the terrible timing of my purchase has cost Berkshire several billion dollars.

Here’s what ConocoPhillips’ stock has done since the quarter Buffett made the big buy:

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We are talking about five and a half years to recover, and at this stage, Berkshire’s holding in ConocoPhillips has fallen to only 472,000 shares from nearly 85 million at the peak in 2008. In all, Buffett invested more than $7 billion in the company, and he had sold almost half of that stake at a major loss by 2010.

Today’s ConocoPhillips is a different company

Berkshire did get some additional value from Buffett’s investment. In 2012, ConocoPhillips spun Phillips 66 PHILLIPS 66 PSX -1.55% out in a tax-free spinoff, and Berkshire ended up with more than 27 million shares of the midstream and petrochemicals giant.

Just last year, Buffett was able to work some more of his magic with those shares, trading around $1.4 billion worth of them back to Phillips 66 in exchange for Phillips Specialty Products, which Berkshire could then pair with its own chemical business, Lubrizol. The beauty of this transaction? Because it was an asset swap, it was tax-free for Berkshire, which would have paid hefty capital gains had it sold those Phillips 66 shares on the open market.

As for ConocoPhillips, Buffett invested in a fully integrated major oil company, while the spinoff turned it into an exploration and production company. Frankly, this major transition of the business is likely one of the major reasons behind Buffett’s years-long process of reducing Berkshire’s holdings in the company. It’s no longer the company he bought.

The bigger picture

Probably the most important lesson here? Even though the ConocoPhillips investment turned out to be a disaster for Berkshire, and I think Buffett will fully exit the investment in 2015, it’s just a drop in the bucket that is the Berkshire portfolio. As of the most recent 13F, the company held more than $107 billion in stocks, and the largest holdings are diversified across the financial, consumer goods, and tech sectors.

The company’s largest exposure to an oil company is ExxonMobil EXXONMOBIL CORPORATION XOM -0.91% , the largest of the integrated majors and, by most accounts, the best-run and most conservative with its capital. ExxonMobil makes up about 3.5% of the Berkshire stock portfolio.

The point? Billion-dollar mistakes sound big, but it’s all about the percentages. Berkshire’s portfolio is fairly concentrated, with about 83% invested in the 10 largest holdings, but it’s also a portfolio that gets new money on a regular basis.

Lessons learned

The first lesson is that no investor is infallible — we all make mistakes. There are two things that separate the best investors from the average:

  1. Do you learn from your mistakes and those of others?
  2. Do you focus on a workable investing process or get caught up in the short-term results?

Buffett didn’t let a billion-dollar mistake cause him to change a process that has proved effective for decades of market-crushing returns. If you’re going to follow Buffett, don’t mimic his moves. Develop a long-term process that’s focused on finding great companies. You’ll buy your share of flubs like ConocoPhillips in 2008, but getting a 10-bagger, like American Express AMERICAN EXPRESS COMPANY AXP -4.44% has been for Berkshire, will cover up plenty of mistakes.

Jason Hall owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway and American Express. The Motley Fool recommends American Express and Berkshire Hathaway and owns shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don’t all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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MONEY investing strategy

Warren Buffett Does Things That You Shouldn’t Try at Home

Berkshire Hathaway Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett talks to television journalists
Nati Harnik—AP

Not everything Buffett does can be easily replicated by ordinary investors.

Warren Buffett’s annual letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway are the single best road map for success in the stock market that have ever been written. But it’s important to appreciate that Buffett’s personal road to success has included some detours that aren’t suitable for the average investor.

The origins of Buffett’s philosophy

Generally speaking, Buffett’s core philosophy is to buy great companies at reasonable prices. To use his words, “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”

Take one glance at Berkshire’s portfolio of common stocks, and it’s clear Buffett means what he says. Among banks, for instance, he has common stock positions in the three best lenders in the country: Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, and M&T Bank. These companies are in no way mediocre. They are the best of the best, the cream of the crop.

However, Buffett doesn’t always abide by his advice to only invest in top-shelf stocks. This isn’t because he’s intellectually inconsistent — a flip-flopper, if you will — but rather because he uses different strategies at different times.

By his own admission, Buffett’s approach to investing has been influenced most heavily by three people, each of whom approach the discipline from a slightly different angle. Benjamin Graham stood for buying cheap stocks somewhat irrespective of quality. Philip Fisher believed in buying great companies somewhat irrespective of price. And Charlie Munger adopted the hybrid approach of buying wonderful companies at reasonable prices.

Buffett’s decision to invest in a company could be grounded in any one of these philosophies, or in all of them combined. To complicate things further, he has also been known on occasion to enter into a variety of sophisticated transactions that only someone with his resources, knowledge, and expertise should contemplate.

Parsing Buffett’s bet on Bank of America

I say all of this because it’s easy to misconstrue the rationale behind Buffett’s decision to invest in a specific company. Take Berkshire’s position in Bank of America BANK OF AMERICA CORP. BAC -1.46% as an example. When Buffett wrote his latest letter to shareholders, the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank was Berkshire’s fifth-largest equity investment. You’d be excused for interpreting that as a ringing endorsement.

But Buffett’s decision to invest in Bank of America was not grounded in the philosophies of either Fisher or Munger, both of whom only condone investments in great companies. It was grounded instead in the philosophy of Graham, Buffett’s original mentor — who, it’s worth recalling, emphasized price over quality.

I would argue that the evidence for this is irrefutable. In the first case, Bank of America has proven time and again over the last few decades that it is not an elite bank. It has a bloated expense base — something Buffett despises. It overpays for acquisitions, some of which turned out to be complete disasters. And it’s horrible at the core competency of banking — namely, managing credit risk.

In the second case, the structure of Berkshire’s investment in Bank of America hardly suggests that Buffett holds it in the same high regard as he does, say, Wells Fargo. Keep in mind that Buffett did not buy common stock in Bank of America; he bought preferred stock, which carries significantly less risk but also offers little upside. To make up for this, Buffett demanded that Bank of America gratuitously include warrants to purchase 700 million shares of common stock at $7.14 per share — a total value of $5 billion — at any time before the middle of 2021.

To the uninitiated, it might seem like I’m splitting hairs here. After all, $5 billion is $5 billion. What difference does it make that Berkshire’s position consisted of $5 billion of preferred stock plus warrants, rather than a commensurate amount of common stock?

This is a rhetorical question, of course, because it matters a lot. Consider that Buffett will ultimately emerge with the same roughly 6.5% stake in Bank of America, regardless of how the deal was structured. But by structuring it in the manner that he did, the 84-year-old financier shifted all of the risk onto Bank of America’s shareholders. If its shares failed to recover, then so be it; Berkshire would still get its 6% interest payment on its $5 billion preferred stake. But if the share price improved, as it indeed has, then Berkshire would exercise its warrants, make a fortune, and markedly dilute the bank’s shareholders.

And in the third case, all you have to do is compare Buffett’s effusiveness regarding his initial position in Wells Fargo to his much more restrained remarks about his sizable investment in Bank of America.

Here’s Buffett in his 1990 shareholder letter talking about Wells Fargo:

With Wells Fargo, we think we have obtained the best managers in the business, Carl Reichardt and Paul Hazen. In many ways the combination of Carl and Paul reminds me of another — Tom Murphy and Dan Burke at Capital Cities/ABC. First, each pair is stronger than the sum of its parts because each partner understands, trusts, and admires the other. Second, both managerial teams pay able people well, but abhor having a bigger head count than is needed. Third, both attack costs as vigorously when profits are at record levels as when they are under pressure. Finally, both stick with what they understand and let their abilities, not their egos, determine what they attempt.

And here’s the extent of Buffett’s substantive comments about Bank of America in his 2011 letter:

At Bank of America, some huge mistakes were made by prior management. [CEO] Brian Moynihan has made excellent progress in cleaning these up, though the completion of that process will take a number of years. Concurrently, he is nurturing a huge and attractive underlying business that will endure long after today’s problems are forgotten.

If this were an awards presentation at a high school track meet, Bank of America would have earned a participation ribbon while Wells Fargo took home a 5-foot-tall, bedazzled trophy for first place. The point is that Buffett didn’t invest in Bank of America because he thought it was a great company along the lines of Wells Fargo. He invested in it because it was weak and vulnerable and he could write the terms of the deal in such a way that, short of financial Armageddon, Berkshire simply could not lose.

If you follow in Buffett’s wake, proceed with caution

The lesson here is that if you’re going to follow Buffett into a stock, or if you’re going to cite his investment in a specific company to confirm or counter your opinion of it, then it would be well worth your time to investigate why he likely bought it in the first place. If he was under the influence of Graham’s philosophy, then you might not want to follow in his wake. But if Buffett was applying the philosophies of Fisher or Munger, then the company might indeed be worth a look.

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