Wednesday, August 30, is Warren Buffett’s 87th birthday. Each year, I celebrate the Babe Ruth of Investing’s birthday by adding another reason we love our hero.
1. Intricate, occasionally contradictory complexity hides beneath the “Aw, shucks” folksy charm. As a Forbes writer once put it, “Buffett is not a simple person, but he has simple tastes.”
2. Many people talk about avoiding the madding crowd, but Buffett actually does it by living 1,250 miles away from Wall Street.
3. He has a fortress-like internal scorecard on all things investing, yet a vulnerable, endearing external scorecard on many aspects of his personal life. See his penchant for seeking mother figures.
4. His perspective: “In the 20th century, the United States endured two world wars and other traumatic and expensive military conflicts; the Depression; a dozen or so recessions and financial panics; oil shocks; a flu epidemic; and the resignation of a disgraced president. Yet the Dow rose from 66 to 11,497.”
5. His perspective, part two: “All families in my upper middle-class neighborhood regularly enjoy a living standard better than that achieved by John D. Rockefeller Sr. at the time of my birth. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted…”
6. He is that guy in school who tells you he may have failed the test — only to bust the top of the curve.
7. His time frame for the long run consistently exceeds his life span.
8. He says it better: “Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
9. He’s human. He fears nuclear war and his own mortality. He’s frequently more adept at business relationships than personal ones. He can hold a grudge. His hero is his daddy.
10. Classic line: “Rule No. 1: Never lose money. Rule No. 2: Never forget rule No. 1.”
11. Once branded a stingy miser (rightly or wrongly), Buffett has evolved (assuming it wasn’t his intention from the start) into one of the most effective philanthropists I know. After growing his potential givings at a 20% compounded rate per year, he set a plan to give most of it away.
12. Perhaps as importantly, he put ego aside and outsourced his charitable decision-making to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Circle of competence at its finest.
13. “I never attempt to make money on the stock market. I buy on the assumption that they could close the market the next day and not reopen it for five years.” Contrast that with computer algorithm-based trading, day trading, and some of the moves you’ve made in your own account.
14. Buffett’s smarter than you and I, but he’s kind enough to let us feel otherwise.
15. David Sokol was once an heir apparent and arguably Buffett’s most trusted operations guy. But when Sokolgate emerged, Buffett stayed true to his word: “We can afford to lose money — even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation — even a shred of reputation.”
16. “Derivatives are financial weapons of mass destruction.” He said it early, and we are reminded of it often.
17. In a glimpse of the nuance that some commentators call hypocrisy, Buffett uses derivatives himself. But he does so in a way that doesn’t threaten the entire financial system and explains exactly why in his annual shareholder letters.
18. He doomed himself from ever holding public office: “A public-opinion poll is no substitute for thought.”
19. I like juxtaposing these two quotes: 1) “It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.” 2) “Wall Street is the only place that people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from those who take the subway.”
20. “You only have to do a very few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”
21. He has the ability to resist the allure of the quick fix or quick buck when longer-term dynamics are at play.
22. Not sure if this quote came before or after the Internet: “Let blockheads read what blockheads wrote.”
23. For those hoping to become famous and respected, he’s a testament that the challenges and doubts keep coming regardless of the length of the track record. He has publicly prevailed so far.
24. An investing truism: “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.”
25. The business side of that investing truism: “Your premium brand had better be delivering something special, or it’s not going to get the business.”
26. He uses colorful language and analogies when drab jargon could do the trick.
27. Boring example: moat vs. competitive advantage.
28. Not-so-boring example: sex.
29. “Look at market fluctuations as your friend rather than your enemy; profit from folly rather than participate in it.”
30. Classic line: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked.”
31. He backs up his saying, “Our favorite holding period is forever,” by keeping past-their-prime subsidiaries that others would “spin off to unlock value.”
32. His Robin (Charlie Munger) can kick your Batman’s butt.
33. He makes loophole-free handshake deals.
34. “Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing.”
35. Quote No. 1 on keeping it simple, stupid: “The business schools reward difficult complex behavior more than simple behavior, but simple behavior is more effective.”
36. Quote No. 2 on keeping it simple, stupid: “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.”
37. The Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-A) (NYSE:BRK-B) annual meeting is an unrivaled spectacle in investing, truly living up to its billing as the Woodstock for Capitalists.
38. One of the most concise summations of why America is great: “There are 309 million people out there that are trying to improve their lot in life. And we’ve got a system that allows them to do it.”
39. Speaking of systems, he harnesses the power of some of the most well-conceived ones around.
40. Trash-bin-diving caution No. 1: “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price.”
41. Trash-bin-diving caution No. 2: “Time is the friend of the wonderful company, the enemy of the mediocre.”
42. He’s an eternal optimist in a sound-bite culture that often rewards pessimists.
43. His shareholder letters reveal an artisan-like craftsmanship only seen when the proprietor cares deeply about his creation.
44. The contrarian credo: “We simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.”
45. He recognizes that genius can fail: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”
46. Like so many great thinkers, Buffett is able to ignore noise and whittle a decision down to its core variables. After he explains those variables, the decision sounds elementary.
47. Why banking can be dangerous: “When you combine ignorance and leverage, you get some pretty interesting results.”
48. He allows me to see the name Buffett without thinking of Jimmy.
49. Buffett maintains a high thought-to-speech ratio.
50. Buffett’s librarian fantasy: “If past history was all there was to the game, the richest people would be librarians.”
51. He converts a deadly sin into a virtue: “You do things when the opportunities come along. I’ve had periods in my life when I’ve had a bundle of ideas come along, and I’ve had long dry spells. If I get an idea next week, I’ll do something. If not, I won’t do a damn thing.”
52. Averaging 20% returns for half a century results in beating the S&P 500 155-to-1!
53. Even though he has fewer and fewer meaningful investing options because of the size of Berkshire Hathaway, he continues to wow us.
54. On a chili-dog-and-onion-ring-flavored note, Berkshire Hathaway owns Dairy Queen, my favorite fast-food chain.
55. Many of Buffett’s managers were wildly successful entrepreneurs before selling out to Berkshire. Convincing successful, headstrong, boss-less superstars to subjugate themselves, and keeping those people motivated and happy, is quite a feat.
56. On a related note, Buffett doesn’t micromanage — good thing, with an empire this large.
57. He gets doubted again and again and again and proves the doubters wrong most of the time. Yet you never hear him say, “I told you so.”
58. Well, maybe sometimes he gloats. Harvard Business School rejected him, which led him to study under his mentors Benjamin Graham and David Dodd at Columbia. His “How do you like me now?” statement: “Harvard did me a big favor by turning me down. But I haven’t made any contributions to them in thanks for that.”
59. He has become America’s de facto investing teacher. And he has done so willingly.
60. Perhaps my favorite Buffett line: “We like things that you don’t have to carry out to three decimal places. If you have to carry them out to three decimal places, they’re not good ideas.”
61. Not that he can’t be ruthless, but Buffett tends to look for win-win situations where possible. Contrast that with the Wall Street art of “ripping the face off” of clients.
62. He’s often described as a “learning machine,” extending his natural abilities and allowing him to make behemoth investing decisions over the span of just hours.
63. He added to Ben Graham’s teachings with the help of that learning ability and Munger’s counsel.
64. Now is a good time to point out that companies’ annual reports, which are available to all, are the primary fuel in his learning machine. He reads them voraciously to compare and contrast companies and build his business knowledge base. See the next point.
65. When asked what the most important key to his success was, Buffett answered, “Focus.” His biographer Alice Schroeder elaborates: He has “focus like you have never seen on anybody else.” For good or ill, Buffett’s entire life has been dedicated to investing. It’s much harder than he lets on.
66. There are plenty of business fish in the sea: “There are all kinds of businesses that I don’t understand, but that doesn’t cause me to stay up at night. It just means I go on to the next one, and that’s what the individual investor should do.”
67. How many people can pull off being a contrarian by buying shares of Coca-Cola?
68. Even in an investing world full of Buffett students and imitators, he manages to surprise.
69. He takes every legal, ethical advantage available in the current system, but he lobbies for a better system. For example, he supports higher taxes for the rich, more severe estate taxes, and a level playing field. As he puts it, “I don’t like anything where the bottom 20% keep getting a poorer and poorer deal.”
70. He is cognizant of and grateful for the advantages he has had in life — like many of us, he won the “ovarian lottery.”
71. When he talks, E. F. Hutton listens.
72. Like many geniuses, he is frequently the confounding exception to the rule. For example, Berkshire Hathaway has never paid a dividend and only started share repurchases recently. It also doesn’t split the chairman and CEO roles. And we shareholders thank him for it.
73. Buffett buys what he knows (and frequently loves), but he doesn’t overpay out of affection. He has the discipline to wait decades for the right opportunity.
74. He gives credit to his direct reports.
75. Not only is Buffett a great investor and manager, but he’s one hell of a writer. My jealousy grows.
76. He once picked up a date in a hearse he co-owned.
77. Before making his money work for him, he worked for his money via a series of jobs, schemes, and ventures. These included a paper route, selling chewing gum door to door, a pinball business, a sales job at J.C. Penney’s, caddying, marking up refurbished golf balls, and founding a horse-racing tip sheet.
78. He’s a permabull — on women.
79. It’s very possible that the house you live in is worth more than the house Buffett lives in — the house in Omaha he bought in 1958.
80. Over the years, he has relied on a similar set of answers to oft-asked questions. That his philosophy has stayed stable throughout that time is remarkable.
81. He’s only tweeted nine times, but has over a million followers on Twitter!
82. His wealth has bought him the ultimate trophy: He does whatever he wants to do just about every single day.
83. Despite being the most famous stock-picker ever, he acknowledges the awesome power of index funds. He advised his wife to invest in index funds vs. Berkshire Hathaway stock after his death, and he said this about Vanguard’s founder: “If a statue is ever erected to honor the person who has done the most for American investors, the hands-down choice should be Jack Bogle. For decades, Jack has urged investors to invest in ultra-low-cost index funds.”
84. He’s the outsized calming influence a lot of us need. From his biography Snowball: “If a tornado were barreling straight toward Kiewit Plaza [where his office is located], Buffett would say that things were ‘never better’ before mentioning the twister.”
85. Anyone who can make the hyper-opinionated Charlie Munger regularly utter, “I have nothing to add” must be saying something impressive.
86. When his time to step down finally comes, it will take a village (a CEO, a chairman, and multiple portfolio investors) to perform his current responsibilities.
87. That said, he fully expects this list to one day reach well into the triple digits. And I look forward to adding those lines. Happy birthday, Mr. Buffett!