Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules: Do-It-Yourself Investing Guidelines

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Okay, so you probably aren’t reading a book titled Warren Buffett’s Ground Rules: Words of Wisdom from the Partnership Letters of the World’s Greatest Investor if you are perfectly happy owning solely index funds forever. While the shared concepts with low-cost, passive investing still apply, here are things to consider if you want to do some of your own picking and choosing between individual stocks and bonds.

Given how much energy an 86-year-old Buffett seems to have, it must have been very interesting to invest with him as a hungry young man. On the other hand, reading through the partnership letters also shows how mature he was in his late 20s and early 30s.

Be honest with yourself. Pick a yardstick ahead of time. You need to pick a proper benchmark against which to measure your performance, not just having positive or negative years. Back in 1966, it was the Dow over the last 3 years. Note that it wasn’t just an index, but also a timeframe of at least 3-5 years.

If you’re going to invest a portion of your portfolio on your own, always keep track of your performance. You need to be honest about your results and whether they beat the rest of your portfolio, or even a simple target-date fund.

Investing modest amounts is an advantage. Use it. Warren Buffett had a lot more flexibility with a smaller asset base. There are many deals out there that on a percentage basis are attractive, but if you have to deploy billions, it won’t even move the needle. For example, there might a 12-month CD that earns you 8% APY, but only on $10,000. If you only have $20,000 to invest, putting a big chunk of your portfolio in a risk-free 8% would be much smarter than stocks over the next year. However, if you have $100 million to invest, such a deal would be a rounding error. Some other transactions like odd-lot tenders are also ideal for smaller investors.

Worry about risk and return, not about the name of the product. It doesn’t matter if it’s a laundromat, rental unit, shares of a public company, or bonds. When Buffett was winding down his partnership, municipal bonds were yielding 6.5% on a tax-free basis. In his mind, it was a better investment to buy the municipal bonds rather than stocks given the near-term prospects. So that’s what he recommended.

Ignore the crowd. Think rationally and independently. If you’re going to “beat the market”, then you have to think differently than the market. You’re looking for some area where the market price is much lower than the intrinsic value. By definition, that means a lot of people will be disagreeing with your opinion.

Develop your best ideas, and then bet big on it. Buffett is not a big fan of owning 100+ stocks in the name of diversification. If you have your 5-10 best ideas, why also invest in the other 90 that are worse? If you’re going to actively manage your portfolio, you must have the conviction to bet big on your opinions.

Self-confidence is required, as you will have periods of bad performance. For me, keeping my conviction during times of underperformance is the primary reason most of my portfolio is indexed. Here a stat from the book credited to Joel Greenblatt: Of the top 25% of managers who had outperformed the market over the decade: 97% spent at least 3 years in the bottom half of performance and 47% spent at least 3 years in the bottom 10%.

If you are hiring an outside manager, look at integrity first. Buffett on the types of managers he seeks for Berkshire:

We look for three things: intelligence, energy, and integrity. If they don’t have the latter, then you should hope they don’t have the first two either. If someone doesn’t have integrity, then you want them to be dumb and lazy.

As a side example, here is how Buffett organized his own fee structure for the partnership. If the fund did not accumulate anything past a 6% annual gain every year, he would not take any fees at all. Above the 6% annual rate, he would take 25% of gains as his fee. While some hedge funds also employ a “high water mark” system, they usually still have some form of flat fee that they take, no matter way. If Buffett didn’t reach his 6%, he got nothing. In addition, he had nearly all his own net worth in the partnership as well. He “ate his own cooking”.

Comments

  1. Having a yardstick is key but I’ve yet to find a good tool to help keep me honest. Does anyone know of a good tool where I could put any investment or portfolio of investments and see how they fared against the SPY? I’m interested in “real” returns – stock growth, dividends and subtract the taxes. Am I missing anything else to consider there? I understand the complexity with varying tax rates but think it’s doable.

    If one doesn’t exist I’m going to work on one the next couple of weeks and would love advice/feedback on it if anyone is interested!

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