Warren Buffett, Aesop’s Fables, and the Dot-Com Bubble

I recently went back and re-read the Berkshire Hathaway letters from during the dot-com bubble. Buffett and Charlie Munger mostly sat out the mania, then used Aesop’s Fables to explain it all when it was done. Investors can learn  from their ability to maintain equanimity amidst the madness of crowds.  However its also important to note that they made errors of omission as technology altered industries.  Investors do themselves a disservice if they automatically reject tech investments, just because those are not areas that Berkshire Hathaway invested.   Buffett’s letters to investors are a pretty good vantage point from which to understand repeating historical patterns.

 

 

1997: Maintain discipline in the mania

As the dotcom bubble started gathering momentum, Warren Buffett reaffirmed commitment to discipline:

Though we are delighted with what we own, we are not pleased with our prospects for committing incoming funds. Prices are high for both businesses and stocks. That does not mean that the prices of either will fall — we have absolutely no view on that matter — but it does mean that we get relatively little in prospective earnings when we commit fresh money.

Under these circumstances, we try to exert a Ted Williams kind of discipline. In his book The Science of Hitting, Ted explains that he carved the strike zone into 77 cells, each the size of a baseball. Swinging only at balls in his “best” cell, he knew, would allow him to bat .400; reaching for balls in his “worst” spot, the low outside corner of the strike zone, would reduce him to .230. In other words, waiting for the fat pitch would mean a trip to the Hall of Fame; swinging indiscriminately would mean a ticket to the minors.

If they are in the strike zone at all, the business “pitches” we now see are just catching the lower outside corner. If we swing, we will be locked into low returns. But if we let all of today’s balls go by, there can be no assurance that the next ones we see will be more to our liking. Perhaps the attractive prices of the past were the aberrations, not the full prices of today. Unlike Ted, we can’t be called out if we resist three pitches that are barely in the strike zone; nevertheless, just standing there, day after day, with my bat on my shoulder is not my idea of fun.

Although way too early, he started lamenting high prices:

In the summer of 1979, when equities looked cheap to me, I wrote a Forbes article entitled “You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.” At that time skepticism and disappointment prevailed, and my point was that investors should be glad of the fact, since pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels. Now, however, we have a very cheery consensus. That does not necessarily mean this is the wrong time to buy stocks: Corporate America is now earning far more money than it was just a few years ago, and in the presence of lower interest rates, every dollar of earnings becomes more valuable. Today’s price levels, though, have materially eroded the “margin of safety” that Ben Graham identified as the cornerstone of intelligent investing.

Notable Actions in 1997:

Net sales of 5% of the stock portfolio

increasing emphasis on “unconventional commitments”, including oil derivatives, and direct investments in silver.

1998: Trimming positions too early

During the year, we slightly increased our holdings in American Express, one of our three largest commitments, and left the other two unchanged. However, we trimmed or substantially cut many of our smaller positions. Here, I need to make a confession (ugh): The portfolio actions I took in 1998 actually decreased our gain for the year. In particular, my decision to sell McDonald’s was a very big mistake. Overall, you would have been better off last year if I had regularly snuck off to the movies during market hours.

1999:Circle of competence +staying invested although concerned

As an increasing portion of the public is investing in things they don’t understand, Buffett and Munger emphasize staying in their circle of competence:

If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. Predicting the long-term economics of companies that operate in fast-changing industries is simply far beyond our perimeter. If others claim predictive skill in those industries — and seem to have their claims validated by the behavior of the stock market — we neither envy nor emulate them. Instead, we just stick with what we understand. If we stray, we will have done so inadvertently, not because we got restless and substituted hope for rationality. Fortunately, it’s almost certain there will be opportunities from time to time for Berkshire to do well within the circle we’ve staked out.

It should be noted that Buffett and Munger later acknowledge that missing certain changes in the dot-com error, notably the rise of Amazon, was a mistake. Investors should stay within their circle of competence, but also aggressively work to expand that circle of confidence. The reality is speed of change is very fast in most industries, so investor’s can’t avoid technology. They can, however, avoid investing thoughtlessly in “next new things” they don’t understand.

Prices continued to rise in 1999. Buffett didn’t try to market time by running to cash. He just stayed in the good businesses he understood.

Right now, the prices of the fine businesses we already own are just not that attractive. In other words, we feel much better about the businesses than their stocks. That’s why we haven’t added to our present holdings. Nevertheless, we haven’t yet scaled back our portfolio in a major way: If the choice is between a questionable business at a comfortable price or a comfortable business at a questionable price, we much prefer the latter. What really gets our attention, however, is a comfortable business at a comfortable price.

Our reservations about the prices of securities we own apply also to the general level of equity prices. We have never attempted to forecast what the stock market is going to do in the next month or the next year, and we are not trying to do that now… equity investors currently seem wildly optimistic in their expectations about future returns

Berkshire will someday have opportunities to deploy major amounts of cash in equity markets — we are confident of that. But, as the song goes, “Who knows where or when?” Meanwhile, if anyone starts explaining to you what is going on in the truly-manic portions of this “enchanted” market, you might remember still another line of song: “Fools give you reasons, wise men never try.”

2000: Beware of bird-less bushes

NASDAQ peaked in early 2000, and declined throughout the entire year(but it still had a long way to fall. Berkshire Hathaway was in a good position.  Buffett used Aesop’s fable to explain it all:

 

Leaving aside tax factors, the formula we use for evaluating stocks and businesses is identical. Indeed, the formula for valuing all assets that are purchased for financial gain has been unchanged since it was first laid out by a very smart man in about 600 B.C. (though he wasn’t smart enough to know it was 600 B.C.).

The oracle was Aesop and his enduring, though somewhat incomplete, investment insight was “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” To flesh out this principle, you must answer only three questions. How certain are you that there are indeed birds in the bush? When will they emerge and how many will there be? What is the risk-free interest rate (which we consider to be the yield on long-term U.S. bonds)? If you can answer these three questions, you will know the maximum value of the bush and the maximum number of the birds you now possess that should be offered for it. And, of course, don’t literally think birds. Think dollars.
Aesop’s investment axiom, thus expanded and converted into dollars, is immutable. It applies to outlays for farms, oilroyalties, bonds, stocks, lottery tickets, and manufacturing plants. And neither the advent of the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity nor the creation of the automobile changed the formula one iota — nor will the Internet. Just insert the correct numbers, and you can rank the attractiveness of all possible uses of capital throughout the universe.
Common yardsticks such as dividend yield, the ratio of price to earnings or to book value, and even growth rates have nothing to do with valuation except to the extent they provide clues to the amount and timing of cash flows into and from the business. Indeed, growth can destroy value if it requires cash inputs in the early years of a project or enterprise that exceed the discounted value of the cash that those assets will generate in later years. Market commentators and investment managers who glibly refer to “growth” and “value” styles as contrasting approaches to investment are displaying their ignorance, not their sophistication. Growth is simply a component usually a plus, sometimes a minus in the value equation.
Alas, though Aesop’s proposition and the third variable that is, interest rates are simple, plugging in numbers for the other two variables is a difficult task. Using precise numbers is, in fact, foolish; working with a range of possibilities is the better approach.
Usually, the range must be so wide that no useful conclusion can be reached. Occasionally, though, even very conservative estimates about the future emergence of birds reveal that the price quoted is startlingly low in relation to value. (Let’s call this phenomenon the IBT Inefficient Bush Theory.) To be sure, an investor needs some general understanding of business economics as well as the ability to think independently to reach a well founded positive conclusion. But the investor does not need brilliance nor blinding insights.
At the other extreme, there are many times when the most brilliant of investors can’t muster a conviction about the birds to emerge, not even when a very broad range of estimates is employed. This kind of uncertainty frequently occurs when new businesses and rapidly changing industries are under examination. In cases of this sort, any capital commitment must be labeled speculative.

Now, speculation — in which the focus is not on what an asset will produce but rather on what the next fellow will pay for it — is neither illegal, immoral nor un-American. But it is not a game in which Charlie and I wish to play. We bring nothing to the party, so why should we expect to take anything home?

The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.
Last year, we commented on the exuberance and, yes, it was irrational that prevailed, noting that investor expectations had grown to be several multiples of probable returns. One piece of evidence came from a Paine Webber-Gallup survey of investors conducted in December 1999, in which the participants were asked their opinion about the annual returns investors could expect to realize over the decade ahead. Their answers averaged 19%. That, for sure, was an irrational expectation: For American business as a whole, there couldn’t possibly be enough birds in the 2009 bush to deliver such a return.
Far more irrational still were the huge valuations that market participants were then putting on businesses almost certain to end up being of modest or no value. Yet investors, mesmerized by soaring stock prices and ignoring all else, piled into these enterprises. It was as if some virus, racing wildly among investment professionals as well as amateurs, induced hallucinations in which the values of stocks in certain sectors became decoupled from the values of the businesses that underlay them.
This surreal scene was accompanied by much loose talk about “value creation.” We readily acknowledge that there has been a huge amount of true value created in the past decade by new or young businesses, and that there is much more to come. But value is destroyed, not created, by any business that loses money over its lifetime, no matter how high its interim valuation may get.
What actually occurs in these cases is wealth transfer, often on a massive scale. By shamelessly merchandising birdless bushes, promoters have in recent years moved billions of dollars from the pockets of the public to their own purses (and to those of their friends and associates). The fact is that a bubble market has allowed the creation of bubble companies, entities designed more with an eye to making money off investors rather than for them. Too often, an IPO, not profits, was the primary goal of a company’s promoters. At bottom, the “business model” for these companies has been the old-fashioned chain letter, for which many fee-hungry investment bankers acted as eager postmen.
But a pin lies in wait for every bubble. And when the two eventually meet, a new wave of investors learns some very old lessons: First, many in Wall Street a community in which quality control is not prized will sell investors anything they will buy. Second, speculation is most dangerous when it looks easiest.
At Berkshire, we make no attempt to pick the few winners that will emerge from an ocean of unproven enterprises. We’re not smart enough to do that, and we know it. Instead, we try to apply Aesop’s 2,600-year-old equation to opportunities in which we have reasonable confidence as to how many birds are in the bush and when they will emerge (a formulation that my grandsons would probably update to “A girl in a convertible is worth five in the phonebook.”). Obviously, we can never precisely predict the timing of cash flows in and out of a business or their exact amount. We try, therefore, to keep our estimates conservative and to focus on industries where business surprises are unlikely to wreak havoc on owners. Even so, we make many mistakes: I’m the fellow, remember, who thought he understood the future economics of trading stamps, textiles, shoes and second-tier department stores.
Lately, the most promising “bushes” have been negotiated transactions for entire businesses, and that pleases us. You should clearly understand, however, that these acquisitions will at best provide us only reasonable returns. Really juicy results from negotiated deals can be anticipated only when capital markets are severely constrained and the whole business world is pessimistic. We are 180 degrees from that point.
Warren Buffett, Aesop's Fables, Dot-Com Bubble

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