Mike Kueber's Blog

February 28, 2012

Buffett’s wisdom – continued

Filed under: Investing — Mike Kueber @ 6:49 pm
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Yesterday I blogged about Warren Buffett’s most recent letter to the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders.  Compared to other editions of the shareholder letter, I thought this edition was relatively skimpy, and in my blog I noted only three significant Buffett insights – (1) a replacement CEO for Berkshire had been selected, (2) the economy in America would rebound vigorously as soon as the housing overstock was sold off, and (3) Berkshire Hathaway would continue buying back its stock because it was underpriced.

But no sooner had I posted the entry to my blog than I had a conversation on investing with an old USAA friend.  This friend has a seven-figure 401k, a beautiful house with no debt, and a sizable inheritance, yet he is concerned that his current cash flow will be stressed as his kids get to college.  Talk about looking far and wide to find something to be unnecessarily worried about.

My friend went on to express concern for preserving his estate for his kids.  Ever since the crash of 2008-2009, he has been too skittish to invest in the stock market.  He has inherited a sizable amount of agricultural real estate, but he is planning to sell that because he suspects that its current pricing is a bubble that is ready to burst.  The only safe investments probably would not keep up with inflation.  He was perplexed because he seemed to have no good choices. 

Following our conversation, I recalled that Warren Buffett’s most recent shareholder letter directly addressed my friend’s concerns.  In the letter, Buffett described three broad categories of investment – (1) currency-based investments, such as bonds and money-market funds (2) non-productive assets, such as gold, and (3) productive assets, such as businesses and real estate.

Buffett’s letter contained devastating critiques of currency-based investments and non-productive assets:

  • Currency-based investments.  Most of these currency-based investments are thought of as “safe.” In truth they are among the most dangerous of assets. Their beta may be zero, but their risk is huge. Over the past century these instruments have destroyed the purchasing power of investors in many countries, even as the holders continued to receive timely payments of interest and principal. This ugly result, moreover, will forever recur. Governments determine the ultimate value of money, and systemic forces will sometimes cause them to gravitate to policies that produce inflation. From time to time such policies spin out of control.  Even in the U.S., where the wish for a stable currency is strong, the dollar has fallen a staggering 86% in value since 1965, when I took over management of Berkshire. It takes no less than $7 today to buy what $1 did at that time. Consequently, a tax-free institution would have needed 4.3% interest annually from bond investments over that period to simply maintain its purchasing power. Its managers would have been kidding themselves if they thought of any portion of that interest as “income.”  Today, a wry comment that Wall Streeter Shelby Cullom Davis made long ago seems apt: “Bonds promoted as offering risk-free returns are now priced to deliver return-free risk.”

 

  • Non-productive assets.  Today the world’s gold stock is about 170,000 metric tons. If all of this gold were melded together, it would form a cube of about 68 feet per side. (Picture it fitting comfortably within a baseball infield.) At $1,750 per ounce – gold’s price as I write this – its value would be $9.6 trillion. Call this cube pile A. Let’s now create a pile B costing an equal amount. For that, we could buy all U.S. cropland (400 million acres with output of about $200 billion annually), plus 16 Exxon Mobils (the world’s most profitable company, one earning more than $40 billion annually). After these purchases, we would have about $1 trillion left over for walking-around money (no sense feeling strapped after this buying binge). Can you imagine an investor with $9.6 trillion selecting pile A over pile B? Beyond the staggering valuation given the existing stock of gold, current prices make today’s annual production of gold command about $160 billion. Buyers – whether jewelry and industrial users, frightened individuals, or speculators – must continually absorb this additional supply to merely maintain an equilibrium at present prices. A century from now the 400 million acres of farmland will have produced staggering amounts of corn, wheat, cotton, and other crops – and will continue to produce that valuable bounty, whatever the currency may be. Exxon Mobil will probably have delivered trillions of dollars in dividends to its owners and will also hold assets worth many more trillions (and, remember, you get 16 Exxons). The 170,000 tons of gold will be unchanged in size and still incapable of producing anything. You can fondle the cube, but it will not respond. Admittedly, when people a century from now are fearful, it’s likely many will still rush to gold. I’m confident, however, that the $9.6 trillion current valuation of pile A will compound over the century at a rate far inferior to that achieved by pile B.

 

Ultimately, Buffett concludes that the ownership of productive assets is not only the most profitable, but also “by far the safest”:

  • Our country’s businesses will continue to efficiently deliver goods and services wanted by our citizens. Metaphorically, these commercial “cows” will live for centuries and give ever greater quantities of “milk” to boot. Their value will be determined not by the medium of exchange but rather by their capacity to deliver milk. Proceeds from the sale of the milk will compound for the owners of the cows, just as they did during the 20th century when the Dow increased from 66 to 11,497 (and paid loads of dividends as well). Berkshire’s goal will be to increase its ownership of first-class businesses. Our first choice will be to own them in their entirety – but we will also be owners by way of holding sizable amounts of marketable stocks. I believe that over any extended period of time this category of investing will prove to be the runaway winner among the three we’ve examined. More important, it will be by far the safest.

Buffett concedes that Berkshire keeps between $10 and $20 billion in currency-based investments for business-purchasing purposes, and my USAA friend obviously has liquidity needs related to his kids’ college education.  But if I were in my friend’s financial position, I would put my assets to work and stop being concerned.

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