2019 Berkshire Hathaway Meeting – Top advice for Investors

It is that time of the year again when investors, big and small, descend in Omaha, Nebraska for the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Shareholders meeting. Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have been fielding questions regarding diverse topics including business, the economy, Brexit, investing and life.

Here are the gems and insights I have managed to pick up from this year’s meeting.

Tech in focus – it is never to late to invest

In the past Warren Buffett has been reluctant to invest in Technology companies as he did not understand them fully. However, Berkshire has invested heavily in Apple during the past few years. Buffett says that the company has a “sticky” product.

In a surprise move, Berkshire has revealed that they have now invested in Amazon. Buffett admits that it was stupid for him to not buy Amazon stock sooner and it was one of his deputies who had actually initiated the purchase. He emphasised to not look too much into metrics when considering an investment and that Value Investing principles were still applied in the Amazon purchase regardless of the company’s very high Price to Earnings ratio.

This shows that it is never too late to start investing even if you feel like you may have missed the boat. To emphasise the importance of Tech, Apple’s Tim Cook and Microsoft’s Bill Gates were also in attendance at the meeting.

Global thinking

What initially strikes me as I watch the meeting is the global appeal of Buffett and Berkshire. The 40,000 plus attendees of all ages and from all walks of life come from many places, even as far as Australia, France, India, South Africa and China.

It makes sense to invest with a globally diversified portfolio as this will help to shield from any shocks in a particular region and should enable capturing gains from as many angles as possible. Responding to a question regarding the best approach to 5G, Munger said that Berkshire has bought in China before and is highly likely to keep investing there.

Unrealised gains can be misleading

$21.661 Billion! The first slide presented by Buffett was a summary of the 2019 first quarter after-tax earnings for Berkshire Hathaway. Accounting rule changes now require companies to include unrealised gains in quartely financial statements. As such gains are drastically impacted by share prices of investments owned, this can result in wild variations in results presented.

For personal investors working to Finance Independence the lesson is to not get too elated when the market surges or to feel down when there is a crash. It is best to stay the course while maintaining a high savings rate until goals are achieved.

Keep it simple

Referring to a question about alternative investments, private equity and using leverage when investing, Buffett warned that this is not something he would do. A lot of fund managers with “higher IQs” than him and Charlie got into trouble in 1998 when they employed such methods. It is a lot safer to invest in the simple index fund. Speaking of “alternative investments”, Charlie joked about being invited to a Bitcoin meetup.

Lay the ground rules and stick to them

This was an interesting one. A 27 year old aspiring fund manager had a question about knowing the right time to set up an investment fund. Buffett said that it is important to set expectations and rules when planning investments while not promising too much. This may result in having fewer clients but the expectations will be clear. A good way to keep focus on goals is to create an Investment Policy Statement (IPS). Figure out what works and do it.

Teamwork and Patience Works

Another top theme repeated over and over during the session was how Berkshire is operated so well by an excellent team of managers. Charlie and Warren are figureheads while there are several names including Ajit Jain, Greg Abel, Todd Combs and Ted Weschler who are also involved. I am certain that the future of the company is in good hands. Also worth mentioning is how patient Warren and Charlie are; moves are well planned and executed without any panic.

Asset Allocation and Opportunity Cost

Berkshire currently holds in excess of $100 Billion in cash or equivalents. There was a comment which outlined how this would have generated an additional $50 Billion if it had been invested in an S&P 500 Index Fund. Buffett acknowledged that this would have been the case given the recent stock market performance.

However, the cash pile is maintained for the benefit of Shareholders and as firepower to be deployed for “Elephant” sized acquisitions in times when it is raining gold such as 2008; times when no-one else is capable of making such investments. This can also apply in personal finance for example by holding a large proportion of a portfolio as cash or bonds when the intention is to deploy it within a short timeframe.

That’s it for this year. There will be more interesting tips and advice from the next meeting in May 2020.

Thanks to Yahoo Finance a webcast of the meeting (4 May 2019) can be watched here.

The benefits of investing in Index Funds

The demise of Debenhams is a stark illustration of the pitfalls of investing in a single company’s stock. Investing is good but it has to be done in a way which avoids high fees, minimises taking unnecessary risks or simply making non sensible choices. Index funds offer wide diversification and low fees which make them an excellent choice for most investors.

Pitfalls of investing in a single stock

Sometimes people can get emotionally attached to a particular company for one reason or the other. It is also common to hear some regret that they did not invest in a hot stock like Amazon, Facebook or Microsoft a gazillion years ago when its stock was still only worth a millionth of its present value. Everyone seems to have a story of an old colleague who made such an investment and is now rolling big.

However, there are thousands of such potential companies but you do not know or have the capacity to pick the right one unless if you possess a working crystal ball. To me, this kind of activity is akin to gambling on the horses. Debenhams, the British multinational retailer, was once a household name, particularly known for its huge department stores housing a wide array of goods and services. Any mom and pop investor would have chosen or advised others to invest in such a company. However the demise of this kind of business has been a long time coming.

Let us have a look at how the company’s share price has performed.

Debenhams share price

It is clear that any long term investors in this company would have been burned badly. Even worse if you owned a lot of stock and also worked for the company which is never an advisable thing to do.

The Indexer’s perspective

Now let us see how the stock has fared against the benchmark UK Index, the FTSE 100.

The differences are clear on this visual. Due to its composition of a wide array of companies in diverse sectors the index has steadily risen to outperform Debenhams and it certainly did not go anywhere near zero of the original value. When reinvestment of the FTSE dividend of nearly 5% is considered, returns would be way bigger than shown on the graph. Simply buying and holding while regularly topping up is the best strategy.

An index fund simply aims to track and closely match the actual index. It does not try to beat the market therefore costs are kept to a bare minimum compared to active funds which try to be fancy. Costs matter and along with maintaining a high savings rate are a major factor in determining portfolio gains over the long term.

To me this is compelling evidence that the sure way to building wealth is to regularly invest into a globally diversified portfolio of low cost index funds using methods outlined in this book. Progress will seem slow initially but the snowball will soon take shape and propel you to greater heights.

Interesting reading:

Investor lessons from Warren Buffett’s 2018 letter to Shareholders

The 2018 version of the eagerly awaited annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders by Warren Buffett has come out on Saturday 23rd February 2019. Here is a review of the letter from a long term investor’s perspective, along with a selection of top quotes within it.

As usual I expected the letter to contain valuable tips and advice to all dilligent investors, big and small. Reading through all the previous letters has provided an insight into the mind of the greatest investor of all time along with timeless strategies to apply along the journey to Financial Independence.

Starting on page 1, Buffett continues to show a comparison of the annual and compounded gains of Berkshire stock against those of the S&P 500. While 2018 presented negative returns for most investors, Berkshire managed to eke out a 2.2% percent gain compared to -4.3% for the S&P. This resulted in a long term annualised average of 20.5% for Berkshire versus 9.7% for the S&P.

Focus on the fundamentals of business is important

An important lesson outlined by Buffett is that it is important to focus only on the fundamentals of business rather than the wild swings in the stock market prices. This is evidenced by the wildly volatile markets of 2018.

My own portfolio suffered huge losses in the final quarter of the year as did Berkshire in contrast to good gains in the second and third quarters. New accounting rules made it appear that Berkshire generated less cash than in reality mostly due to the factoring in of unrealised gains.

When investing for the long term one should view the investments as actual businesses which generate real profits; profits which will eventually be reflected in the share price. No need to panic and act when share prices move up or down substantially over a short period.

With a large percentage of net worth comprised of stocks and shares one can expect their worth to vary substantially. Substantial gains will come, albeit at irregular intervals. As Berkshire investors should focus on operating profits, the individual investor should focus on the fundamentals of business and most of all maintaining a high savings rate.

Focus on the big picture

In personal finance and Financial Independence planning it is crucial to consider the overall picture rather than the miniature details. This means implementing changes which will make a real impact rather than the superficial. For example sometimes little expenses in life such as lattes bring the most joy so it does not make much sense to cut these out while spending a lot more on the big three line item: housing, transportation and food. Buffett refers to this by saying “Focus on the Forest – Forget the Trees”.

Another example is to consider your overall asset allocation rather than the make up of your emergency fund. No point stressing whether to hold a substantial amount of the funds in stocks when your overall asset allocation is not set up appropriately.

Also keep mindful that the returns from stock investments will eventually come close to or become larger than their purchase cost. This is evidenced by Buffett’s $1.3 Billion original investment in American Express; in 2018 the company provided earnings worth $1.2 Billion or 96% of the investment. Berkshire did not increase the the number of the company’s shares it owns but upped its share of ownership (from 12.6% to 17.9%) due to American Express repurchasing its own shares. Buy and hold works.

Long term investing is best

A commentary of the earnings of Berkshire’s World leading non-insurance operations including BNSF and Precision Castparts shows that they have increased year on year. Overall there was a 24% increase on 2017. This logic also applies with personal investing as I outlined regarding dividend growth here. Additionally you can view these gains as earning you a perpetual pay rise. With a diversified portfolio of many holdings, over time the combined earnings will be huge.

Top Quotes from the letter

Warren Buffett, with reference to investors selling Berkshire shares:

“In addition, certain shareholders will simply decide it’s time for them or their families to become net consumers rather than continuing to build capital. Charlie and I have no current interest in joining that group. Perhaps we will become big spenders in our old age.”

On being truthful about financial reporting:

Abraham Lincoln once posed the question: “If you call a dog’s tail a leg, how many legs does it have?” and then answered his own query: “Four, because calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.” Abe would have felt lonely on Wall Street.

In relation to dividend payments:

“Our level of equity capital is a different story: Berkshire’s $349 billion is unmatched in corporate America. By retaining all earnings for a very long time, and allowing compound interest to work its magic, we have amassed funds that have enabled us to purchase and develop the valuable groves earlier described. Had we instead followed a 100% payout policy, we would still be working with the $22 million with which we began fiscal 1965.”

On equity investments:

“Charlie and I do not view the $172.8 billion detailed above as a collection of ticker symbols – a financial dalliance to be terminated because of downgrades by “the Street,” expected Federal Reserve actions, possible political developments, forecasts by economists or whatever else might be the subject du jour.”

The American Tailwind:

On March 11th, it will be 77 years since I first invested in an American business. The year was 1942, I was 11, and I went all in, investing $114.75 I had begun accumulating at age six. What I bought was three shares of Cities Service preferred stock. I had become a capitalist, and it felt good.

Let’s put numbers to that claim: If my $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, my stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019 (the latest data available before the printing of this letter). That is a gain of 5,288 for 1. Meanwhile, a $1 million investment by a tax-free institution of that time – say, a pension fund or college endowment – would have grown to about $5.3billion.

Charlie and I happily acknowledge that much of Berkshire’s success has simply been a product of what I think should be called The American Tailwind. It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have “done it alone.” The tidy rows of simple white crosses at Normandy should shame those who make such claims.

There are also many other countries around the world that have bright futures. About that, we should rejoice: Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive. At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders.

You can access the 2018 letter here.


How to give yourself a perpetual pay rise through index investing

Getting a pay rise is the ultimate dream for many workers. How can you get a pay rise without following the usual frustrating processes in the workplace. By taking a different perspective at building and maintaining an investment portfolio it is possible to take the initiative give yourself a pay rise. Even better this can be set up so that it happens perpetually, regardless of what your employer does.

Taking a personal initiative and interest are imperative. This realization came to me as I was sat in a work webinar Q&A session between management and employees.

The general theme was that employees were not happy, and to be honest they are completely powerless about most of the issues raised such as new graduates starting on higher pay than older ones, why pay rises are 2% when profit margins are far larger, who and how one gets a bonus etc.

All this on top of external factors which may affect the company due to the wider economy and a recent corporate takeover of the organisation by a larger competitor which has an unsavoury past. Hence it is important to have control of the situation.

Taking control

The process is not simple as all the traits of pursuing financial independence should be applied, mainly; patience, discipline, frugality and the appreciation that simple arithmetic works.

Like many, I used to wait around to get the bog-standard 2% or so annual pay rise which, at the whim of management, is often distributed with little regard to the employee’s performance. Depending on the industry, some will also get a bonus if they are lucky. This seems to be standard practice for a lot of companies.

At an early stage I realised that this was going to be the likely scenario in the workplace so I decided to take action. Having control over the growth of my net worth meant taking control of my finances, rather than relying on a manager at work using some esoteric means to determine my future.

Taking control meant living within my means, cutting back on unnecessary expenses like motoring, self-educating on business and finance, achieving a 50%+ savings rate and investing in the stock market. Obviously, this approach has not been easy – spending big always seems more attractive than saving.

Dividend growth and investment returns

With the annual growth of Global dividends currently running at 8.5% according to Janus Henderson, it is clear that by holding a sizeable investment portfolio you can grow your income substantially. I would rather have 8.5% than a paltry 2% any day. Coincidentally, this 8.5% growth is not too far off from the long term return of the stock market so we can use it to run a few scenarios:

Suppose you have two workers at the same company who make £40,000 each. Worker A has zero interest in investing or perceives it as “risky” while Worker B is well on their way to financial independence and has been diligently saving and investing for a number of years. Worker A assumes that their pension is secure and someone else’s problem to manage. Their company does not offer bonuses and Worker A is always complaining about how little his pay rises every year therefore feels powerless to do anything about it.

Worker B, however, is not worried at all as his personal financial hacks have unlocked additional income which is unrelated to his employment. Instead of frivolous spending and accumulation of liabilities, Worker B has built a diversified portfolio of stocks and shares, real assets. As an example Worker B has a portfolio of £250,000. Using the typical 8.5% return this means that the portfolio earns an additional £21,250 a year for Worker B, which would be tax-free when invested in an ISA account. As this figure is equivalent to net pay, the worker would need to earn a gross salary of about £26,500 to take home the same amount.

Impact of investment returns on salary

Adding this to their pay we find that Worker B theoretically earns £66,500; substantially more than Worker A and an impressive 66% on top of the standard salary (see above). This would occur at an ever increasing rate every year depending on savings rate. Now that is what I call a pay rise. It is also interesting to note that the investor would easily stealthily grow their income to such a state that they would be better off than other people above their pay grade or other higher paid professions.

These gains would actually be bigger if higher tax rates were considered but that calculation would be a bit complex to do for our example. Gains would vary and may be bigger or smaller depending on yearly market fluctuations but it is important to focus in the long term. When not withdrawn, the gains are unrealized and therefore reinvested to form an ever larger snowball.

Financial Independence – the journey is as important as the goal

This perspective shows that there are multiple benefits to striving for financial independence, even way before the goal is achieved. The greater the savings you have, the more the opportunities which appear to you. It is time to say no to zero or below inflation pay rises. I honestly no longer worry about pay rises or bonuses like I used to when considering the perpetual (and growing) impact an investment portfolio has.

Interesting reading: