Book Review: Even Buffett Isn't Perfect, Part 1

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Includes: BRK.A, BRK.B
by: Saj Karsan

A review of Vahan Janjigian's book, Even Buffett Isn't Perfect: What You Can-- and Can't-- Learn from the World's Greatest Investor:

Chapter 1:

The chapter starts with two seemingly contradictory quotes from Buffett. In one he asserts that his company does not follow standard diversification dogma, and in the other he suggests that 99 percent of investors should diversify extensively.

The chapter goes on to discuss that these statements are not in fact contradictory. Diversification is used to reduce risk for investors who have neither the time nor the inclination to study the companies they are buying. In Buffett's case, he knows his companies (and their industries) well. As such, he reduces his risk in this regard, and therefore does not require as much diversification.

The chapter continues by discussing some of the finance theory regarding diversification, defining and explaining terms such as variance, correlation and standard deviation. It then discusses why Warren Buffett is not a big fan of this theory: It is impossible to know the above parameters with certainty. For example, you might think airlines and oil prices have a certain negative correlation, but in a market panic you can basically throw that correlation out the window.

The chapter also discusses Berkshire's apparent move to diversify over the years. However, the conclusion of the author appears to be that as Berkshire has increased in size, it has had no choice but to do so. It is very difficult to find amazing deals in the tens of billion dollar ranges since the population size of this group is so low. Nevertheless, the majority of Berkshire's investments are concentrated in only a few companies, meaning Buffett is not as diversified as finance theory would suggest.

Chapter 2:

In this chapter, the author discusses the finance industry's tendency to label fund managers as either growth or value. Value stocks tend to have low P/E and P/B ratios, while growth stocks can be said to be in favour due to their high P/E and P/B values. But Janjigian disputes that such a distinction can be made in the case of Buffett. Although most of Buffett's purchases would fall in the value category, he will buy companies that appear expensive but exhibit tremendous growth.

To illustrate the difference between growth and value, the author takes the reader through an investment in the Washington Post versus an investment in Google. It is clear from the data that Google is the more expensive stock (higher P/E, P/CF, P/B and P/S), but the difference is explained by the appeal of Google's growth potential.

Where Buffett sees an issue with the way the finance industry treats growth is that expectations get out of hand. Investors almost always pay too much for growth, as expectations are rarely matched by the actual results over the long term. The author also discusses the fact that growth always invariably slows down, even for the best companies.

Indeed, despite the fact that Buffett would probably agree that Google is a fantastic company, he would still rather own (and does) The Washington Post than Google, as the author argues it's the price of the stock relative to the value of the firm that counts, not simply how great the firm's prospects are.

The author concludes the chapter by discussing how Buffett determines whether a company is cheap: The discounted cash flow valuation. To Buffett (and indeed most of the finance world), an investment is worth the discounted future stream of cash flows that accrue to the investor. This estimate of the value of a company can fluctuate wildly with tiny changes in assumptions. This is why Buffett prefers companies that are easy to understand, as the future cash flows can be predicted with more certainty.

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