Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part III, Chap. 20-33

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part III: The Racetrack, Chap. 20-33

Racing On

The third part of The Snowball opens with Warren Buffett on the verge of starting his infamous partnerships, the precursor to his Berkshire Hathaway holding company conglomerate. On the way, he took a few short detours and learned lessons all over the place, some of them completely unrelated to the art of investing. For example, witnessing the implosion of his father’s political career and campaign, Warren realized:

  • allies are essential
  • commitments are so sacred that by nature they should be rare
  • grandstanding rarely gets anything done

And from his father-in-law, Doc Thompson, the young Buffett learned

always surround yourself with women. They’re more loyal and they work harder

Meanwhile, Buffett’s young wife and mother-to-be, Susie Thompson, was learning just how deep the rabbit hole went when it came to Warren’s insecurities:

Leila [Buffett’s emotionally unbalanced mother] convinced both Warren and Doris that deep down they were worthless… [Buffett] was riddled with self-doubt. He had never felt loved, and she saw that he did not feel lovable

The depth of Buffett’s personal insecurities not only explain a lot about his later behavior and public persona, but they also provide a couple of startling questions to ponder, namely:

  • how did a person with such fundamental self-confidence issues nevertheless summon the self-confidence necessary to trust his own investment thinking?
  • being as insecure as he appeared to be, how much better of an investor might Warren Buffett have been had he not been carrying around such a handicap?

Who is Charlie Munger?

In Part III, we begin to get a more detailed picture of Buffett’s soon-to-be-infamous partner, Charlie Munger, as well as the subtle but fundamental ways in which his own thinking about investing and business analysis came to influence and then dominate Buffett’s own style. A mathematics major at the University of Michigan at age 17, following the incident at Pearl Harbor, the young Munger enlisted in the military and found himself as an Army meteorologist in Nome, Alaska. He took up poker where he learned to bet big when he had the odds and fold fast when he did not. He later attended Harvard Law School where he claims he graduated “without learning anything.”

After law school, he was obsessed with the idea of achieving social prominence, choosing Los Angeles as a place that was growing and full of opportunity but not so big and developed that he’d never be noticed. Munger’s life, like Buffett’s, was not without personal tragedy. His first marriage fell apart right around the time his 8-year-old son came down with a terminal illness. Munger had to watch these two pillars of his life dissolve simultaneously.

He later became obsessed with children and raised eight of them with his second wife. Munger was a compulsive reader and thinker, known to his family as a “book with legs” and was constantly found reading books on science and the achievements of great figures. Munger was interested in making money early on. When he was a young lawyer and earning about $20/hr he realized his most valuable client was himself so, in the style of The Richest Man In Babylon, Munger decided to “sell himself an hour each day”, which he used to pursue real estate and construction projects as well as other investment opportunities. Munger had

a considerable passion to get rich, not because I wanted Ferraris– I wanted the independence

Buffett was patient with Munger. Even though Munger was his senior by several years, Munger pleadingly inquired about whether he could do what Buffett was doing in Los Angeles. Not only did Buffett tell him he could and should, he proceeded to build a relationship with him that involved hours of phone conversations everyday as the two came up with different business ideas together. As Munger described Buffett, and his fascination with him,

That is no ordinary human being

In other words, they seemed to be soulmates, a truly odd couple.

The Munger Effect

Charlie Munger entered Buffett’s life and investment world at a critical juncture in Buffett’s development as a capital allocator.

Until 1958, his straightforward route was to buy a stock and wait for the cigar butt to light. Then he usually sold the stock, sometimes with regret, to buy another he wanted more, his ambitions limited by his partnerships’ capital

But as his total AUM approached $1M with his partnerships and personal money, Buffett had a new scale that let him branch out into new styles of investing. His investments began to become concentrated, elaborate and time-consuming, such as the Sanborn Maps episode. Munger himself started his own partnership in 1962 with his poker buddy Jack Wheeler  who was a trader on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange and $300,000 in capital he had accumulated through real estate investments. He eventually gave up his law practice at age 41 and decided to pursue investing full-time. He also used Wheeler’s membership on the exchange to lever up (at a ratio of 95/100) when he felt sure about his investments, something Buffett was not willing to do early on.

Munger’s early investment style involved net-nets, arbitrage and even the acquisition of small businesses. But his real interest lay in buying “great businesses”, which he identified by:

  • strength of management
  • durability of brand
  • cost to compete/replicate the firm
  • did not require continual investment
  • created more cash than it consumed

To find these businesses, Munger asked everyone he met, “What is the greatest business you’ve ever heard of?”

As the market for net-nets dried up in the mid-60s and Buffett’s capital swelled, he found more and more he had to look at the kinds of great businesses that Charlie Munger favored, changing his focus from statistical cheapness (quantitative investing) to competitive advantage (qualitative investing).

With his capital ballooning, Buffett began looking at the acquisition of entire businesses as a more attractive option. In 1966, this twinkle in Buffett’s eye became Diversified Retailing Company, Inc., an 80/10/10-ownership holding company owned by Buffett, Munger and Sandy Gottesman, whose first acquistion was a $12M Baltimore department store called Hochschild-Kohn, financed 50% with bank borrowings, a “second-class department store” at a “third-class price”. However, the store had no competitive advantage, as the partners soon learned, and was continually caught up in a game of “standing tiptoe at a parade” as every innovation by a competitor had to be quickly imitated (at additional capital expense) lest customers shop elsewhere. It was here that Buffett and Munger learned that the essential skill of retailing was merchandising, not finance, and that retailing, like restaurants, is

a wearing marathon in which, every mile, fresh, aggressive competition could leap in and race ahead of you

Having learned their lesson, their next foray into Associated Cotton Shops, “a set of third-class stores for a fourth-class price” 80 in number led by Benjamin Rosner, a “true merchandiser” found them with a retail operation generating $44M in sales and approximately $2M/yr in earnings. Buffett made a deal to buy the stores for $6M, a sale which was ultimately made by Rosner in part to screw over his female business partner who drove him nuts, causing him to purposefully sell the business for less than it was worth just to get back at her. Buffett and Munger also insisted that Rosner stay on the manage the company for them.

In 1967, Buffett increased his control of the Buffett Partnerships while simultaneously weeding out 32,000 shares worth of investors who preferred a 7.5% debenture to Berkshire stock, ensuring that those who remained were in for growth and the risks that came with it.

Miscellany of the markets

As Buffett’s investment strategy changed over the 1950s and 1960s and his level of sophistication rose, he picked up a number of useful techniques for gaining informational edges in the market and making successful investments:

  • coat-tail riding – Buffett became a notorious borrower of good ideas and was not too proud to keep an eye on people who demonstrated deal-making intelligence in the past, such as Ben Graham and Jay Pritzker, assuming they’d continue to make good judgments in the future
  • detective-work/sleuthing – Buffett was the only person digging through the Moody’s Manuals at their company headquarters, or going to the shareholder meetings of small companies, or even meeting with executives of small companies to get an idea of who was running these companies
  • no self-imposed market cap restrictions – Buffett looked at EVERY company he came across, no matter how small, looking for opportunities others weren’t focused on; he was particularly fond of the “Pink Sheets” publications
  • consulting lists of registered shareholders – Buffett would buy blocks of companies he was interested in by hunting down individual shareholders and convincing them to unload the shares to him
  • collecting scarce things – Buffett’s National American Fire Insurance investment taught him “the value of gathering as much as possible of something scarce”, both undervalued stocks and information related to said stocks
  • proxy-investing – Buffett would often have his friends buy stocks he was interested in to hide his identity as the main buyer accumulating a position
  • benefit from sentiment – when the market hit a fever pitch in the 1960s, Buffett went into fundraising overdrive and raised as much capital as he could while people were eager to invest
  • use psychology to your advantage – as Buffett’s success unfolded, he forced would-be partners to ask him to allow them to invest with him, which put him psychologically in control
  • preservation of capital – Buffett would willingly forgo the chance of profit to avoid too much risk, viewing it as a “holy imperative”; his partner Munger believed unless you were already wealthy you could afford to take risk if the odds were right
  • haystack of gold – a concept imparted to him by friend Herb Wolf, the idea was if you’re looking for a gold needle in a haystack of gold it is not better to find the gold needle; obscurity was not virtue
  • expense control – Buffett only took on overhead as needed, and in ways that could be easily turned back off or were free to begin with; he made extensive use of “soft-dollars” in his brokerage commissions to buy research from his favorite sleuth brokers
  • profile visibility – when he was buying small companies early in his career, Buffett valued secrecy and anonymity, but as he began to target bigger companies he saw the value of a public profile and cultivated a relationship with Carol Loomis, a financial markets journalist

Buffett’s partnerships

Buffett had a total of 9 official partnerships that later became the infamous Berkshire Hathaway. However, he also set up an early partnership with his father, Howard, called Buffett & Buffett, which

formalized the way they had occassionally bought stocks together. Howard contributed some capital, and Warren’s contribution was a token amount of money, but mostly ideas and labor

Why was Buffett interested in managing money? Two reasons. One, Buffett had a strong aversion to working for others and he understood that

The overseer of capital was not an employee

Two, Buffett was obsessed with becoming a millionaire. Managing money for others and collecting a fee on profits generated would allow him to grow his own capital faster than if he were earning a return on just the money that was actually his. In other words, agreeing to manage money for others was a way to leverage his own investment returns.

Buffett started with 7 official partnerships, which were essentially all mini-hedge funds under his exclusive control, and which he viewed as “compounding machines”, meaning once the money went in it should not come out, which is why he managed most of his own wealth separately (as he would be living off his trading gains). And Buffett was so obsessed with compounding he decided to rent rather than own his own home, to free more capital for compounding.

The seven initial partnerships and several follow-on partnerships were as follows:

  1. May 1, 1956, Buffett Associates Ltd., starting capital of $105,100, seven partners: Doc Thompson, Doris Buffett, Truman Wood, Chuck Peterson, Elizabeth Peterson, Dan Monen and Warren Buffett; Buffett charged 50% performance fee on returns over 4% (4% returns being guaranteed as a minimum by Buffett); added $8,000 in capital in 1960 from Buffett’s aunt and uncle
  2. September 1, 1956, Buffett Fund, Ltd., starting capital of $120,000, partnered with Homer Dodge, a former Graham-Newman investor
  3. Late 1956, B-C, Ltd., starting capital of $55,000, partnered with John Cleary, Howard Buffett’s secretary in Congress
  4. June 1957, Underwood, starting capital of $85,000, partnered with Elizabeth Peterson; 1960, another $51,000 from connections of Chuck Peterson’s
  5. August 5, 1957, Dacee, starting capital of $100,000, partnered with the Davis Family
  6. May 5, 1958, Mo-Buff, starting capital of $70,000, partnered with Dan Monen (who had withdrawn his capital from partnership #1 to do a special investment with Buffett on National American), later joined by the Sarnats and Estey Graham with another $25,000 in capital
  7. February 1959, Glenoff, starting capital of $50,000, partnered with Casper Offutt, Jr., John Offutt and William Glenn
  8. August 15, 1960, Emdee, starting capital of $110,000, partnered with  11 local doctors
  9. 1960, Ann Investments, starting capital of ??, partnered with a prominent member of a local Omaha family
  10. 1960, Buffett-TD, starting capital of $250,000, partnered with Mattie Topp and two daughters plus son-in-law (MT owned the fanciest dress shop in town)
  11. May 16, 1961, Buffett-Holland, starting capital of ??, partnered with Dick and Mary Holland, friends he had met through his lawyer Dan Monen
  12. May 1, 1962, Buffett dissolves all partnerships into Buffett Partnership, Ltd. (BPL), beginning the year with $7.2M in net assets

His total starting capital across all of his partnerships was $580,000 and he

never deviated from the principles of Ben Graham. Everything he bought was extraordinarily cheap, cigar butts all, soggy stogies containing one free puff

Truly, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure.

Buffett’s investments

The “racetrack” period of Buffett’s life marked Buffett’s gradual transformation from a Grahamian “cigar butt” (Net-Net) investor to the well-known “growing franchise” investor of today. As Buffett’s assets under management (AUM) grew and the general market conditions of the era changed, so, too, did Buffett’s idea of a good investment. Below is a list of some of Buffett’s investments for his partnerships, as well as his personal and peripheral portfolios:

  • Greif Bros. Cooperage; originally purchased for the B&B partnership in the early 1950s
  • Western Insurance; purchased for Buffett’s personal portfolio in the early 1950s, Buffett actually sold his GEICO position to raise money to invest in this company earning $29/share and selling for $3/share, “He bought as much as he could”
  • Philadelphia and Reading Coal & Iron Company; controlled by Graham-Newman, Buffett has discovered it on his own and had invested $35,000 by the end of 1954; it was not worth much as a business but was throwing off a lot of excess cash; Buffett learned about the value of capital allocation with this company
  • Rockwood & Co.; controlled by Jay Pritzker, the company was offering to exchange $36 of chocolate beans for shares trading at $34, a classic arbitrage opportunity; unlike Graham, Buffett didn’t arbitrage but instead bought 222 shares and held them, figuring Pritzker had a reason he was buying the stock, “inverting” the scenario; the stock ended up being worth $85/share, earning Buffett $13,000 vs. the $444 he would’ve received from the arbitrage
  • Union Street Railway; a net-net he discovered through Ben Graham, had about $60/share in net current assets against a selling price of $30-35/share, Buffett ultimately made $20,000 on this investment through sleuthing and speaking to the CEO in person
  • Jeddo-Highland Coal Company (mentioned as an idea Buffett investigated on a road trip)
  • Kalamazoo Stove and Furnace Company (mentioned as an idea Buffett investigated on a road trip)
  • National American Fire Insurance, earning $29/share, selling for around $30/share, Buffett first bought five shares for $35/share, and later realized that paying $100/share would bring out the sellers because it would make them whole (financially and psychologically) after being sold the stock years earlier
  • Blue Eagle Stamps, a failed investment scheme between Buffett and Tom Knapp, they eventually spent $25,000 accumulating these “rare” stamps that weren’t worth more than their face value ultimately
  • Hidden Splendor, Stanrock, Northspan, uranium plays that Buffett described as “shooting fish in a barrel”
  • United States & International Securities and Selected Industries, two “cigar butt” mutual funds recommended to him by Arthur Wisenberger, a well known money manager of the era; in 1950, represented 2/3 of Buffett’s assets
  • Davenport Hosiery, Meadow River Coal & Land, Westpan Hydrocarbon, Maracaibo Oil Exploration, all stocks Buffett found through the Moody’s Manuals
  • Sanborn Maps, in 1958 represented 1/3 of his partnerships’ capital; the stock was trading at $45/share but had an investment portfolio worth $65/share; Buffett acquired control of the board in part through proxy leverage; ultimately he prevailed over management and had part of the investment portfolio exchanged for the 24,000 shares he controlled
  • Dempster Mill Manufacturing, sold for $18/share with growing BV of $72/share, Buffett’s strategy as with many net-nets was to buy the stock as long as it was below BV and sell anytime it rose above it and if it remained cheap, keep buying it until you owned enough to control it and then liquidate at a profit; he and his proxies gained control of 11% of the stock and got Warren on the board, then bought out the controlling Dempster family, creating a position worth 21% of the partnership’s assets; the business was sliding and at one point he was months away from losing $1M on the investment, but was ultimately rescued by Harry Bottle, a new manager brought in on Charlie Munger’s recommendation; the business eventually recovered through strict working capital controls and began producing cash, which Buffett augmented by borrowing about $20/share worth of additional money and used it to purchase an investment portfolio for the company; he later sold the company for a $2M profit
  • Merchants National Property, Vermont Marble, Genesee & Wyoming Railroad, all net-nets he later sold to Walter Schloss to free up capital
  • British Columbia Power, selling for $19/share and being taken over by the Canadian government at $22/share, this merger arb was recommended by Munger and Munger borrowed $3M to lever up his returns on this “sure thing”
  • American Express, one of Buffett’s first “great company at a good price” investments, the firm’s reputation was temporarily tarnished in the aftermath of the soybean oil scandal; Buffett did scuttlebutt research and realized the public still believed in American Express, and as trust was the value of its brand, the company still had value; Buffett eventually invested $3M in the company and it represented the largest investment in the partnership in 1964, 1/3 of the partnership by 1965 and a $13M position in 1966
  • Texas Gulf Producing, a net-net Buffett put $4.6M into in 1964
  • Pure Oil, a net-net Buffett put $3.5M into in 1964
  • Berkshire Hathaway, the company was selling at a discount to the value of its assets ($22M BV or $19.46/share) and Buffett’s original intent was to buy it and liquidate it, which he started accumulating 2000 shares for $7.50/share; the owner, Seabury Stanton had been tendering shares with the company’s cash flow, so Buffett tried to time his transactions, buying when it was cheap and tendering when it was dear; he continued purchasing stock assuming Seabury would buy him out via tender offers, the two eventually agreed to a $11.50 tender but Seabury reneged at the last moment, changing the bid to $11 and 3/8, sending Buffett into a rage and causing him to abandon his original strategy in favor of acquiring the entire company; he eventually bought out Otis Stanton’s two thousand shares and had acquired enough to gain control with 49% of Berkshire
  • Employers Reinsurance, F.W. Woolworth, First Lincoln Financial, undervalued stocks he found in Standard & Poor’s weekly reports
  • Disney, which he bought after meeting Walt Disney and being impressed by his singular focus, love of work and the priceless entertainment catalog
  • A portfolio of shorts to hedge against a potential market collapse in the mid 60s, totally $7M and consisting of Alcoa, Montgomery Ward, Travelers Insurance and Caterpiller Tractor
  • Near the end of 1968, as the market became more and more overvalued, Buffett relented and bought some of the “blandest, most popular stocks that remained reasonably priced” such as AT&T ($18M), BF Goodrich ($9.6M), United Brands ($8.4M) and Jones & Laughlin Steel ($8.7M)
  • Blue Chip Stamps, a “classic monopoly” Buffett and Munger discovered in 1968, the company was involved in a lawsuit that the pair thought would be resolved in the company’s favor, and it also possessed “float” which could be invested in more securities, Munger and his friend Guerin each purchased 20,000 shares while Buffett acquired 70,000 for the partnership, in part through share swaps with other companies that owned Blue Chip stock for their own stock; the lawsuit was eventually resolved and the $2M investment produced a $7M profit
  • Illinois National Bank & Trust, a highly profitable bank that still issued its own bank notes, it was managed by Eugene Abegg, an able steward of the company whose retainer was one condition for Buffett’s investment in the company
  • The Omaha Sun and other local newspapers, which Buffett figured he’d make an 8% yield on, his motivation for buying seemed to be primarily connected to his desire to be a newspaper publisher
  • The Washington Monthly, a startup newsmagazine that Buffett lost at least $50,000 on, again, as a vanity project

Buffett’s AUM

Below is a record of the growth of Buffett’s personal wealth, partnership AUM and performance fees accrued:

  • 1954, Buffett’s total personal capital stood at approximately $100,000
  • 1956, Buffett was 26 years old and had $174,000 of personal capital, growing his money by more than 61% per year for six years since he entered Columbia with $9,800 in capital
  • 1959, partnership returns beat the market by 6%
  • 1960, partnership assets stood at $1.9M and returns beat the market by 29%, and Buffett’s reinvested partnership fees had earned him $243,494 (13% of partnership assets belonged to him)
  • 1962, Buffett was a millionaire and his outside investments totalled over $500,000, which he added with the rest of his money into the BPL partnership; he had acquired more than a million dollars in six years and owned 14% of the partnership
  • 1964, $5M in new capital for the partnerships, and $3M in investment earnings, Buffett’s personal net worth was $1.8M and BPL had $17.5M in capital
  • 1965, ended the year with assets of $37M, including $3.5M in profit on American Express, Buffett had earned more than $2.5M in fees, bringing his total stake to $6.8M
  • 1966, $6.8M in additional capital investments in the partnerships, with total capital amounting to $44M, some of which was set aside as cash for the first time in Buffett’s career
  • 1967, Buffett’s personal net worth was $9M and he had generated $1.5M in fees in 1966
  • 1968, the partnership was worth $105M thanks to additional capital infusions and investment returns
  • 1969, Buffett’s net worth was $26M

The Desert Island Challenge

Buffett and his investor friends came up with the following challenge that is a helpful mental tool for thinking about the investment problem:

If you were stranded on a desert island for ten years, he asked, in what stock would you invest? The trick was to find a company with the strongest franchise, one least subject to the corroding forces of competition and time: Munger’s idea of a great business.