A lot of people with high IQs are terrible investors because they've got terrible temperaments. And that is why we say that having a certain kind of temperament is more important than brains. You need to keep raw irrational emotion under control. You need patience and discipline and an ability to take losses and adversity without going crazy. You need an ability to not be driven crazy by extreme success
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I have what I call an iron prescription that helps me keep sane when I naturally drift toward preferring one ideology over another and that is: I say that I'm not entitled to have an opinion on this subject unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who support it. I think only when I've reached that state am I qualified to speak. This business of not drifting into extreme ideology is a very, very important thing in life
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Personally, I've gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically conclusions in various ways "" which, by and large, are useful "" but which often malfunction? One approach is rationality... And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions "" many of which are wrong.
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Of course I'm troubled by huge consumer debt levels - we've pushed consumer credit very hard in the US. Eventually, if it keeps growing, it will stop growing. As Herb Stein said, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." When it stops, it may be unpleasant. Other than Herb Stein's quote, I have no comment. But the things that trouble you are troubling me.
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As I talk about strengths and weaknesses in academic economics, one interesting fact you are entitled to know is that I never took a course in economics. And with this striking lack of credentials, you may wonder why I have the chutzpah to be up here giving this talk. The answer is I have a black belt in chutzpah. I was born with it.
A few public hangings will really change behavior. One of our Presidents said if he could execute three people each year for no cause, it would make it a lot easier to govern. When someone said that's not enough, he said, "Oh yes it is, because I'd publish the list of people under consideration."
If you turn on the television, you'll find the mothers of the most obvious criminals that man could ever diagnose, and they all think their sons are innocent. That's simple psychological denial. The reality is too painful to bear, so you just distort it until it's bearable. We all do that to some extent, and it's a common psychological misjudgment that causes terrible problems.
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...If you take sales presentations and brokers of commercial real estate and businesses... I'm 70 years old, I've never seen one I thought was even within hailing distance of objective truth.... 'incentive-caused bias,' causes this terrible abuse. And many of the people who are doing it you would be glad to have married into your family compared to what you're otherwise going to get....
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...in terms of business mistakes that I've seen over a long lifetime, I would say that trying to minimize taxes too much is one of the great standard causes of really dumb mistakes. I see terrible mistakes from people being overly motivated by tax considerations. Warren and I personally don't drill oil wells. We pay our taxes. And we've done pretty well, so far. Anytime somebody offers you a tax shelter from here on in life, my advice would be don't buy it.
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In investment management today, everybody wants not only to win, but to have a yearly outcome path that never diverges very much from a standard path except on the upside. Well, that is a very artificial, crazy construct. That's the equivalent in investment management to the custom of binding the feet of Chinese women
So you can get very remarkable investment results if you think more like a winning pari-mutuel player. Just think of it as a heavy odds against game full of craziness with an occasional mispriced something or other. And you're probably not going to be smart enough to find thousands in a lifetime. And when you get a few, you really load up. It's just that simple.
...People need to ask, "How do I play the hand that has been dealt me?" The world is not going to give you extra return just because you want it. You have to be very shrewd and hard working to get a little extra. It's so much easier to reduce your wants. There are a lot of smart people and a lot of them cheat, so it's not easy to win.
To us, investing is the equivalent of going out and betting against the pari-mutuel system. We look for a horse with one chance in two of winning, and that pays three to one. In other words, we're looking for a mispriced gamble. That's what investing is, and you have to know enough to know whether the gamble is mispriced.
Every business tries to turn this year's success into next year's greater success. It's hard for me to see why Microsoft is sinful to do this. If it's a sin, then I hope all of Berkshire Hathaway's subsidiaries are sinners. Someone whose salary is paid by U.S.taxpayers is happy to dramatically weaken the one place where we're winning big?!
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there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that's still going to be lousy. The money still won't come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.
I'd say 3/4 of advertising works on pure Pavlov. Think how association, pure association, works. Take Coca-Cola company (we're the biggest share-holder). They want to be associated with every wonderful image: heroics in the Olympics, wonderful music, you name it. They don't want to be associated with presidents' funerals and so-forth.
It is way less certain to be a wonderful business in the future. The threat is alternative mediums of information. Every newspaper is scrambling to parlay their existing advantage into dominance on the Internet. But it is way less sure [that this will occur] than the certainty 20 years ago that the basic business would grow steadily, so there's more downside risk. The perfectly fabulous economics of this business could become grievously impaired."
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For society, the Internet is wonderful, but for capitalists, it will be a net negative. It will increase efficiency, but lots of things increase efficiency without increasing profits. It is way more likely to make American businesses less profitable than more profitable. This is perfectly obvious, but very little understood.
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...Over the long term, the eclipse rate of great civilizations being overtaken is 100%. So you know how it's going to end. (Laughter) I'm more optimistic about the staying power of what's good in this country. But just because you have a wonderful spouse doesn't mean you should treat her badly. You have the feeling that some of the old virtues [that made this country great] are lessening. But there's so much good and so much strength left that I would not expect this country to suddenly founder...
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People like the robber barons assumed that the doctrine of the survival of the fittest authenticated them as deserving power. You know, "I'm the richest. Therefore, I'm the best. God's in his heaven, etc." And that reaction of the robber barons was so irritating to people that it made it unfashionable to think of an economy as an ecosystem. But the truth is that it is a lot like an ecosystem. And you get many of the same results.
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If you have only a little capital and are young today, there are fewer opportunities than when I was young. Back then, we had just come out of a depression. Capitalism was a bad word. There had been abuses in the 1920s. A joke going around then was the guy who said, 'I bought stock for my old age and it worked - in six months, I feel like an old man!' "It's tougher for you, but that doesn't mean you won't do well - it just may take more time. But what the heck, you may live longer."
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Tthe first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.... You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life.
All the equity investors, in total, will surely bear a performance disadvantage per annum equal to the total croupiers' costs they have jointly elected to bear. This is an inescapable fact of life. And it is also inescapable that exactly half of the investors will get a result below the median result after the croupiers' take, which median result may well be somewhere between unexciting and lousy.
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"[Lawyers who file class-action securities suits] is not a group you would want to marry into your family. "That said, more than half the time the people being sued by the Lerach firm are guilty of outrageous conduct. The problem is, they don't mind (suing) the other half. They are an equal opportunity litigator."
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Practically everybody (1) overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they're taught in academia, and (2) doesn't mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important. That is a mistake I've tried all my life to avoid, and I have no regrets for having done that.
Our approach has worked for us. Look at the fun we, our managers, and our shareholders are having. More people should copy us. It's not difficult, but it looks difficult because it's unconventional - it isn't the way things are normally done. We have low overhead, don't have quarterly goals and budgets or a standard personnel system, and our investing is much more concentrated than average. It's simple and common sense.
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With Congress and the S.E.C. so heavily peopled by lawyers, and with lawyers having been so heavily involved in drafting financial disclosure documents now seen as bogus, there was a new "lawyer" joke every week. One such was: "The butcher says 'the reputation of lawyers has fallen dramatically', and the check-out clerk replies: "How do you fall dramatically off a pancake?
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I get flack for saying [when I visit a college and give a speech], "This is a nice college, but the really great educator is McDonald's." They hate me for saying this and think I'm a slimy creature. But McDonald's hires people with bad work habits, trains them, and teaches them to come to work on time and have good work habits. I think a lot of what goes on there is better than at Harvard.
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There are two kinds of businesses: The first earns 12%, and you can take it out at the end of the year. The second earns 12%, but all the excess cash must be reinvested - there's never any cash. It reminds me of the guy who looks at all of his equipment and says, 'There's all of my profit.' We hate that kind of business.
Over the long term, it's hard for a stock to earn a much better return that the business which underlies it earns. If the business earns six percent on capital over forty years and you hold it for that forty years, you're not going to make much different than a six percent return - even if you originally buy it at a huge discount. Conversely, if a business earns eighteen percent on capital over twenty or thirty years, even if you pay an expensive looking price, you'll end up with one hell of a result.
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One metric catches people. We prefer businesses that drown in cash. An example of a different business is construction equipment. You work hard all year and there is your profit sitting in the yard. We avoid businesses like that. We prefer those that can write us a check at the end of the year.
Some years ago one oil company bought a fertilizer company, and every other major oil company practically ran out and bought a fertilizer company. And there was no more damned reason for all these oil companies to buy fertilizer companies, but they didn't know exactly what to do, and if Exxon was doing it, it was good enough for Mobil and vice versa.
The general culture of investment banking has deteriorated over the years. We did a $6 million deal years ago for Diversified Retailing and we were rigorously and intelligently screened. They bankers cared and wanted to protect their clients. The culture now is that anything that can be sold for a profit will be. 'Can you sell it?' is the moral test, and that's not an adequate test.
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Mutual funds charge 2% per year and then brokers switch people between funds, costing another 3-4 percentage points. The poor guy in the general public is getting a terrible product from the professionals. I think it's disgusting. It's much better to be part of a system that delivers value to the people who buy the product. But if it makes money, we tend to do it in this country.
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Finding a single investment that will return 20% per year for 40 years tends to happen only in dreamland. In the real world, you uncover an opportunity, and then you compare other opportunities with that. And you only invest in the most attractive opportunities. That's your opportunity cost. That's what you learn in freshman economics. The game hasn't changed at all. That's why Modern Portfolio Theory is so asinine.
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Using [a stock's] volatility as a measure of risk is nuts. Risk to us is 1) the risk of permanent loss of capital, or 2) the risk of inadequate return. Some great businesses have very volatile returns - for example, See's [a candy company owned by Berkshire] usually loses money in two quarters of each year - and some terrible businesses can have steady results.
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If you're going to buy something which compounds for 30 years at 15% per annum and you pay one 35% tax at the very end, the way that works out is that after taxes, you keep 13.3% per annum. In contrast, if you bought the same investment, but had to pay taxes every year of 35% out of the 15% that you earned, then your return would be 15% minus 35% of 15%-or only 9.75% per year compounded. So the difference there is over 3.5%. And what 3.5% does to the numbers over long holding periods like 30 years is truly eye-opening....
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It's natural that you'd have more brains going into money management. There are so many huge incomes in money management and investment banking - it's like ants to sugar. There are huge incentives for a man to take up money management as opposed to, say, physics, and it's a lot easier.
A different set of incentives from rising in an economic establishment where the rewards system, again, the reinforcement, comes from being a truffle hound. That's what Jacob Viner, the great economist called it: the truffle hound - an animal so bred and trained for one narrow purpose that he wasn't much good at anything else, and that is the reward system in a lot of academic departments.
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Well the open-outcry auction is just made to turn the brain into mush: you've got social proof, the other guy is bidding, you get reciprocation tendency, you get deprival super-reaction syndrome, the thing is going away... I mean it just absolutely is designed to manipulate people into idiotic behavior.
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And your brain doesn't naturally know how to think the way Zeckhauser knows how to play bridge. "for example," people do not react symmetrically to loss and gain. Well maybe a great bridge player like Zeckhauser does, but that's a trained response. Ordinary people, subconsciously affected by their inborn tendencies...