Howard Marks: The Top-Ten Qualities that Make Warren Buffett Different from Most Investors

The following are bullet points reproduced (and numbered by order of appearance) from Howard Marks’s Forward to the third edition of The Warren Buffett Way, by Robert G. Hagstrom. Marks writes a couple of paragraphs to elaborate on each bullet point, and you should read them (TWBW 3 Ed. has been added to the value investing bookstore above), but the comments below are my mostly take.

1. He’s super-smart;

Yet, as Buffett himself has said, if you have more than 130 IQ points you should sell the excess because you won’t need it to be a great investor. In fact, that extra IQ may be detrimental if it leads to behavioral flaws such as overconfidence or lack of discipline.

2. He’s guided by an overarching philosophy;

That philosophy is value investing, which can be executed in several forms.

3. He’s mentally flexible;

It may seem as if Buffett had a change in philosophy when he transitioned from Ben Graham’s “Net Net” and “Cigar Butt” approaches to investing to Charlie Munger’s “wide-moat” approach. However, all three approaches are guided by the value-investing tenet that requires a Margin of Safety.

Graham’s margin of safety was found in businesses trading at less than the net value of their assets. Munger’s approach of investing in under-appreciated companies with wide moats found a margin of safety in well-run business with pricing power and even growth. The key is in the qualifier “under-appreciated.”  Value investors love growth, but tend to be more skeptical of growth projections than glamour investors, and are usually better at maintaining discipline when pricing growth, and rightly so.

Hence, value investors usually buy fast-growing, wide-moat companies only when the market does not fully appreciate their wide moats as much as it should. One example: Buffett paid $1.02 billion for shares of Coca Cola by the end of 1989 after the 1987 crash had damaged Coke’s shares. By 1999, that investment was worth $11.6 billion according to Hagstrom.

4. He’s unemotional;

Marks: “Many of the obstacles to investment success relate to human emotion…perhaps worst of all, (most investors) have a tendency to judge how they’re doing based on how others are doing, and to let envy of others’ success force them to take additional risk… (Warren) doesn’t care whether others think he’s right or whether his investment decisions promptly (my emphasis) make him look right.”

My Take: Warren is disciplined, which can make a person appear unemotional. I would be willing to bet that on more than one occasion in his career he lost sleep over a decision, but that his discipline allowed logic to triumph.

5. He’s contrarian and iconoclastic;

As Charlie Munger likes to say, I have nothing more to add.

6. He’s counter-cyclical;

Marks: “Many of the best investors accept that they can’t predict what the macro future holds in terms of economic developments, interest rates and market fluctuations…the greatest bargains are accessed by buying when the economy and companies are suffering…how many acted as boldly (as Buffett) when fear of financial collapse was rampant (in 2009)?”

7. He has a long-term focus and is unconcerned with volatility;

One should only invest in the equity or long-term debt of businesses to cover long term liabilities such as college tuition that is due in twenty years, retirement liabilities, and bequests, so volatility is the friend of the long-term value investor. Volatility gives the long-term value investor the chance to buy low and eventually sell high, in contrast to what most investors do; that is, buying when rising prices make them feel good and selling when plummeting prices are too painful to bear.

This is where a good wealth advisor comes in for an individual investor or family office. He or she will help such investors identify their goals and estimate when the invoices for those goals need to be paid. Then, a good advisor will allocate assets to broad asset categories that “immunize” those liabilities and help make the euphoria of rising prices and pain of plummeting ones easier to ignore and bear because short-term goals are covered in cash or high-quality short-term debt, and opportunities to cover long-term goals will arise over a multi-decade run.

This is known in High Net-Worth Investor (HNWI) Wealth Management circles as Goals-Based Investing (GBI).  The underlying assumption is that all investors would be happy to simply meet their goals and avoid their nightmares so that they can focus on their careers and the things that make them happy.

In GBI, capital for near-term goals is held mostly in cash and short-term bills, and capital for long-term goals is invested in less liquid or more volatile (in the short run) investments such as equities, long-term debt, real estate, and alternatives in order to exploit the return premiums that are available there.

Within asset categories a good advisor will help clients find investment managers who understand each asset’s risks and who can manage those risks well. He will also find managers who can exploit specific premiums in those asset classes such as the value premium in equity investments.

8. He’s unafraid to bet big on his best ideas;

So many active investors have capital spread thinly, and almost all of it is allocated to S&P 500 companies. They have low “active share,” so they are essentially closet indexers who charge higher fees than indexers.

9. He’s willing to be inactive;

According to a speech that Seth Klarman delivered at a Grant’s conference in the fall of 2013, Baupost Group has about 50% in cash. Klarman is fearful of returning cash to his investors because he believes that they may go out and invest it with a hot-hand manager and will suffer during an inevitable shakeout.

PAR views cash as an investment in an option on every asset, an option that has no expiration date. That option is worth quite a lot right now.

10. Finally, he’s not worried about losing his job;

Professional portfolio managers who work for large firms lose their jobs if they underperform. That is why many make the rational decision to become closet indexers in order to hug their benchmark and avoid underperformance.

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