Warren Buffett is one of my investing heroes. He assumed control of Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK.B) in 1965 and still remains at the helm. Through astute acquisitions and stock-picking, he has grown Berkshire into one of the most valuable companies in the world today. US$1,000 invested in Berkshire at the time Buffett came into the picture would have grown to US$37.9 million by the end of 2022.
Despite this tremendous record, it would have still been easy for an investor to lose money while investing with Buffett. It all has to do with our very human emotions.
Table 1 shows the five highest annualised growth rates in book value per share Berkshire has produced over rolling 10-year calendar-year periods from 1965 to 2022.
Table 1; Source: Berkshire annual shareholder letters
In the 1974-1983 period, Berkshire produced one of its highest annualised book value per share growth rates at 29.4%. The destination was brilliant, but the journey was anything but smooth. US$1,000 invested in Berkshire shares at the end of 1973 would be worth just US$526 (a decline of 47.4%) by the end of 1975. Over the same years, the S&P 500 was up by 1.0% including dividends. And it wasn’t the case where Berkshire’s book value per share experienced a traumatic decline – in fact, the company’s book value per share increased by a total of 28.6% in that period. Moreover, prior to the decline in Berkshire’s stock price, its book value per share was up by a healthy 16.0% per year from 1965 to 1973.
So in the first two years of one of the best decades of value-building Buffett has led Berkshire in, after a long period of excellent business growth, the company’s stock price fell by nearly half and also dramatically underperformed the US stock market. It is at this juncture – the end of 1975 – where it would have been easy for an investor who bought Berkshire shares before or at the end of 1973 to throw in the towel. Seeing your investment cut in half while the market barely budged is painful, even if you know that the underlying business was growing in value. It’s only human to wave the white flag.
But as an apt reflection of Ben Graham’s timeless analogy of the stock market being a voting machine in the short run but a weighing machine in the long run, Berkshire’s book value per share and stock price compounded at highly similar annual rates of 29.4% and 32.6% over the 1974-1983 timeframe (the S&P 500’s annualised return was just 10.5%). This is the unfortunate reality confronting investors who are focused on the long-term business destinations of the companies they’re invested in: The end point has the potential to be incredibly well-rewarding, but the journey can also be blisteringly painful. Bear this in mind when you invest in stocks, for you can easily lose money – even if you’re investing with Buffett – if you’re not focused on the right numbers (the business’s value) and if you do not have the right temperament.
Note: An earlier version of this article was published at The Good Investors, a personal blog run by our friends.
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Disclosure: Ser Jing does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned.