Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A 0.47%) (BRK.B 0.24%) has achieved incredible returns over time. A key part of the company’s success comes from Buffett and his team’s choice of investments in both public and private companies. If you want a taste of this success for your own portfolio, you need to make great investing decisions as well.
One potentially great decision is to not try to reinvent the wheel on investing and just listen to what people like Buffett say, incorporating that knowledge into your own approach. Luckily, Buffett likes to talk about what he does and explain why he does it that way.
Here are three Buffett quotes you might want to ponder. I’ve also noted how they inspire my investment strategy.
1. Keep it simple stupid (that means me!)
I have a bad habit of trying to make things more complicated than they need to be. That is where this Buffett quote comes in:
There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.
That hits home in more ways than one, but it certainly makes me think about my investing approach.
To be fair, nothing seems to stop me from getting bogged down in details and minutiae when I’m investing. I simply enjoy listening to quarterly conference calls, reading earnings releases, watching corporate presentations, and digging into 10-K and 10-Q filings. But just because I enjoy the activity of investing doesn’t mean I’m going to buy the stock I’m looking into. I look at far more companies than I end up buying, as most people should.
What I take away from Buffett here is that I need to simplify the story of the company I’m looking at. If I can’t do that in a way that makes sense from an investment point of view, I don’t want to hit the buy button. For example, I bought Nucor (NUE 0.76%) when it was out of favor because a rush of steel imports was depressing U.S. steel prices. Nucor is a low-cost producer with a broad portfolio and strong employee relations (and no union). At the time, the financially strong company had increased its dividend for over four decades (it is now a Dividend King). If any U.S. steel maker could handle the stress from imported steel, it was Nucor. It has not only survived, but has thrived. And it is among my best-performing investments.
2. Winning the loser’s game
This is a complicated bit of wisdom. Buffett explains that:
You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.
The wrong way to look at this quote is to focus all of your effort on getting everything right, which is impossible. Trying to avoid mistakes is just as important, if not more so, when it comes to investing. The key here is that there are a lot of really bad mistakes that are fairly easy to avoid.
To point out some obvious ones, don’t trade penny stocks, avoid companies with an outsized amount of leverage, use margin very sparingly (or just don’t use it at all), and don’t put all of your eggs in one basket (diversify!). We all make investing mistakes, so don’t expect perfection. However, it isn’t hard to read about some of the big mistakes that lead to terrible outcomes — avoid those things as best you can. And when you do make a mistake, as we all do, try to learn from it.
My most recent success on this front was a choice to avoid clothing maker VF Corp (VFC 12.59%). A few years ago the company spun off its basics business, creating Kontoor Brands (KTB 3.63%). Basics are boring, but they provide a reliable business foundation. After spinning Kontoor off, VF was left with a collection of fashion brands. Fashion brands can grow fairly quickly, but they can also fall out of style and turn into dogs. So VF went from a balanced business to a risky one.
Now add a heavily leveraged balance sheet, and VF looked like a poor risk/reward trade-off to me. As the chart above shows, the company hasn’t done very well, succumbing to a dividend cut (two actually!) after years of regular dividend increases.
3. I have a list and I try to stick to it
The next Buffett quote could be about a lot of things, but it applies very well to investing.
Games are won by players who focus on the playing field –- not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard.
A simple way to see this is that you don’t want to examine a company’s stock price to see if it is a good investment, you want to examine its business. The best example here would be the meme stock frenzy, when stocks of even bankrupt companies rose to shocking heights. (On a related note to point No. 2, never buy stock in a bankrupt company.)
For me, I tie this into a book called The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. In the book, Gawande explains how a simple checklist helps surgeons avoid things like forgetting tools inside of their patients (yes, this actually happens). And how pilots facing in-flight troubles often forget to keep flying the plane, so “Fly the plane” is often the first item on the regulator-created checklists pilots have to help them. None of the items on my list are that important — my list has things like “focus on companies with long histories of annual dividend increases, low leverage, and strong industry positions.” Basically, I’m trying to keep myself focused on getting the investment process correct (that’s the playing field, not the scoreboard).
My list doesn’t stop me from making mistakes, and it doesn’t mean I won’t buy something and find the story has changed. But it does help me limit the unforced errors I make (See point No. 2). My most recent example here is probably Kellanova (K 0.45%), which spun off WK Kellogg (KLG 1.02%).
One of the items on my list is to avoid companies involved in financial engineering. I don’t think Kellogg and Kellanova are doing anything nefarious, but Kellogg operates a cereal business in North America, and Kellanova runs those same brands internationally. There’s a complex relationship between these two businesses that just doesn’t sit well with me, and I’m not convinced the spin-off was really in the best interests of shareholders. I still have a small position to force myself to keep tabs on the spin-off transaction, but I’ve basically moved on to less complicated ideas.
Your approach is what’s most important
You can’t do what Warren Buffett does because you aren’t Warren Buffett. You can only do what you can do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from what other investors do and say.
Warren Buffett is just one of many investors you can look to for inspiration, but Buffett has a rare ability to make complex issues simpler to understand. He’s a great starting point if you want to get some pointers to fine-tune your own approach to investing. I know his folksy wisdom has helped inspire me more than once.