Sunday, March 26, 2006

Thinking Like Buffett

I just finished reading my favorite continuing story….the year in review of Berkshire Hathaway by Warren Buffett more commonly identified as the first 25 pages or so of their annual report. For those who haven’t seen one you can get to it online at but I recommend you consider investing in Berkshire even minimally (about $3,000 for a B share) to get your own copy of the report to better appreciate its straight forward clarity of vision and to learn the real principals of value investing.

I am a bit of a numbers nerd having interests in finance and economics which I feel are the What and the Why of business, economies in general and even down to the micro level of how individuals react. So I take great pleasure in hearing Buffett’s description of how the Berkshire businesses performed and his strategies for long term value building. Buffett is a genius in applying the basic principals of finance to complex businesses and financial arrangements. And like a true genius he also has the ability to bring it down to our level with clear explanations and common folk examples.

Buffett is worth listening to. He rails against executive compensation that is excessive or not tied to the best interests of the owners. He highlights his own failures and trumpets those of his top performers. He preaches and practices pragmatic long term thinking in all of his business dealings including the detailed planning for his own replacement some day. He decries deficits and debt particularly the national debt and the trade deficit of which he says “at some point [this] problem will likely address us in an unpleasant way”.

Buffett’s thinking seems to be in the vast minority in today’s business world and non-existent in Washington. There are too many MBAs and not enough masters of business. Not so much at the entrepreneurial level where survival and success are still driven by committed people making the kind of hard nosed financial and economic decisions needed to build value. Rather it is most lacking in what we might call Big Business and the overall trend to globalization. I am not against Big Business. My pension too is largely tied to the efforts of Big Business and the overall economy. But the short term thinking that rules due to pressure to produce short term profits threatens to undermine our entire system.

As a nation, our long term security can’t be best served by losing our industrial base in a race to be the low cost provider of everything to the consumers. Already we don’t produce hundreds of items in this country – from the mundane such as socks, TVs and typewriters, to ball bearings and high-strength epoxies used to manufacture aircraft and computer components. More importantly our machine tool industry is all but gone (in some cases literally sold, packed up and shipped to the Far East for reassembly) and with it we lose the ability to produce the actual means of production. We can’t become a nation of service based industries selling to each other and have nothing to produce to sell to the rest of the world. If so, the value of our dollar won’t hold up in the long term with very unpleasant results to follow. Continued deficit financing by individuals and most importantly the government will only paper over the problem for so long. It’s time to get real with solutions instead of politics, corruption and pork-barrel spending as usual.

I won’t pretend to know what the answers are but my guess is that they involve all of the following – education, investment, cost control, sacrifice, patience and hard work. And I can’t forget breaking our dependence on imported oil, the single largest leak in our national fiscal bucket. These are some of the “old school” values that have kept this country competitive during the past century of world trade. Buffet would probably say to also forget about – flipping the property, buying into the bubble, simple protectionism, new paradigms, deficit financing and every other quick to riches but unsustainable idea.

And the sooner we get started the better.

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