Notes – The Snowball, By Alice Schroeder: Part IV, Chap. 34-42

The following are reading notes for The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, by Alice Schroeder. This post covers Part IV: Susie Sings, Chap. 34-42

Buffett unwinds, but does not relax

In 1970, Buffett decided to unwind his partnerships, partly because he seemed to have plenty of his own capital to manage at this point and no longer needed the headaches that came with fiduciary leverage, partly because the labyrinthine holdings of the partnership were becoming a regulatory compliance headache and partly, no doubt, because of Buffett’s ill mood toward future return potential offered by the market at that point in time.

In his 1969 letter Buffett made another of his unusual market forecasts which, as infrequently as they’ve appeared over the course of his career, nonetheless seem to mark intermediate tops and frothy market conditions. In it, Buffett said,

I now believe there is little choice for the average investor between professionally managed money in stocks and passive investment in bonds

As his partners were left with the choice of holding onto their stock or selling, Buffett, the most sophisticated of the partners, left them with one clue as to what he recommended, announcing that he intended to continue buying the stock of Berkshire Hathaway and others which had become his investment holding vehicles.

The “implacable acquirer”

Buffett’s four main holdings at this time were Berkshire Hathaway, Blue Chip Stamps, National Indemnity (an insurance company) and Diversified Retail Holdings. But it was through these companies that Buffett would eventually come to own and control many others, using the earnings of each to buy even more of the next. The key in each situation was that the holdings were either capable of generating investable float, or else they were generating excellent free cash flows that could be redirected away from the core business into ownership of others.

Buffett learned this “Russian doll” strategy in part from a little-known investor named Gurdon W. Wattles, whose control company, American Manufacturing, was used to take controlling stakes in numerous other companies such as Mergenthaler Linotype, Crane Co., and Electric Auto-Lite, many of which Buffett gladly road the coattails on. Buffett claimed he followed the man for ten or fifteen years and that he saw himself as simply standing on the shoulders of a giant in emulating his acquisition approach.

The beauty of this investment technique is that the cash flows are largely market-agnostic– aside from the impact of a general business recession, they would keep generating new cash to be invested to matter what the larger market was doing, which was excellent because when the market was swooning under the weight of panicky investors, Buffett had ample resources to take deep dives on any number of absurdly cheap, high quality companies he might want.

Combined with the power of compounding, his reinvestable cash flows and float would continually increase over time.

Buffett and Mungers’ sweet teeth

One of Buffett and Mungers’ most famous coups of this era was their purchase of See’s Candies. Demanding $30M for assets worth $5M, the true value of See’s was captured in its goodwill with customers, built on its uncompromising quality standards. Buffett believed this goodwill meant the company had “uncapped pricing power”– with current earnings to acquisition price generating a 9% “yield” on investment, the deal was good, but on top of that earnings were growing 12% per year organically and Buffett was convinced that prices could be steadily raised each year to increase the rate of earnings growth beyond the rate of growth in unit volumes.

If the price increases could be met and earnings growth would continue, Buffett and Munger were looking at something that would earn not $4M on a $25M acquisition price, but $6-7M plus additional growth over time. Because the business required very little ongoing maintenance or growth capex, almost all of the earnings were investable free cash flow that Buffett and Munger could use to make additional investments and acquisitions.

Extra! Extra! Buffett buys the Washington Post and becomes board member for Kay Graham

Whether it was because of his early childhood experiences as a newspaper delivery boy or because of his belief in the pseudo-monopolistic economics of newspapers, Buffett found himself drawn to the Washington Post and other media enterprises as an investment. According to the author, newspapers were the perfect investment for Buffett because they allowed him to play all the roles he so enjoyed at once: relentless collector, preacher and cop.

Prior to his engagement, the WaPo was earning $4M per year on $85M in revenues. Run by a talented but psychologically troubled Kay Graham, Buffett was the beneficiary of temporary troubles at the paper which pushed its stock price from a high of $38/share to a low of $16. Buffett bought in big blocks whenever they were available and aimed all along at taking a seat on the board.

In the meantime, he was investing in other newspaper and media companies, breaking his no-IPO rule and buying stock in Affiliated Publications (publisher of the Boston Globe) at a negotiated discount, as well as Booth Newspapers, Scripps Howard and Harte-Hanks Communications.

By 1973 he had accumulated 5% of the shares of WaPo and he wrote a letter to Kay Graham announcing his ownership and advising her that he planned to increase it substantially, telling her that

Writing a check separates conviction from conversation

But Buffett faced challenges from other board members who were protective of Graham, untrustworthy of Buffett and bent on protecting their own turf, such as the great Lazard banker Andre Meyer. Despite controlling the voting stock A shares, even Graham herself became paranoid and defensive at one point and Buffett, to calm her nerves, agreed not to purchase anymore stock without her permission even though he’d already spent almost $10.7M to acquire 12% of the company.

He also made a play for the Buffalo Evening News, one of two newspapers in the Buffalo market. But this investment quickly became complicated as the BEN suffered not only numerous anti-competitive lawsuits from the other local paper, but massive labor disruptions as well. Buffett’s investment quickly turned into a loser whose cash-consumption multiplied rapidly with each passing year, creating a real moment of truth for Buffett and Munger who had, until this time, constructed a nearly flawless investment record.

In Buffett’s mind, the critical element in the equation was customer habit,

You’re gauging the likelihood of people changing their habits… the question is, at what point does it become more of a habit for them to buy the other paper?

Ultimately, their insight on customer habit was correct and their saving grace. Despite losing tens of millions initially on their investment of $35.5M, after surviving the labor disputes and the eventual bankruptcy of the local rival, Buffett’s Buffalo Evening News earned $19M pretax in 1983, more than all the previous losses combined.

Things get sticky with the SEC

In the mid-1970s, Buffett and Munger found themselves in a compromising position with the SEC. Supposedly tipped off by angry competitors and customers of Blue Chip Stamps, the SEC began a cursory investigation of claims about insider dealings between Buffett, Munger and Wesco Financial which eventually turned into a full-blown investigation of every single part of their combined business operations.

The details are complicated and irrelevant at this point, but at the time it was Buffett and Munger’s first real hair-raising legal experience and despite their good intentions and attempts at sweet-talking and playing innocent, they found the SEC investigators to be fairly ruthless in their inquiries and accusations.

The net result was Buffett and Munger’s decision to clean up their ownership structure and simplify it by merge more of their companies into the umbrella holding company of Berkshire Hathaway.

But one can’t help but wonder about the timing– just as Buffett was making his move on the Washington Post and beginning to enter the world of the Washington power elite, had someone decided to give Buffett a scare, to show him just how delicate his “conservative” investment empire really was, and to compel his obedience to the power elite agenda going forward?

More Buffett investments

Here is a running list of Buffett investments over the period of 1970-1983:

  • Berkshire Hathaway
  • Blue Chip Stamps
  • Diversified Retail Holdings
  • National Indemnity
  • Cornhusker Casualty
  • National Fire & Marine
  • The Washington Post
  • See’s Candies
  • Scripps Howard
  • Harte-Hanks Communications
  • Affiliated Publications
  • Booth Newspapers
  • San Jose Water Works
  • Source Capital
  • Wesco Financial
  • National Presto
  • Vornado Realty Trust
  • Interpublic
  • J. Walter Thompson
  • Oglivy & Mather
  • Studebaker-Worthington
  • Handy & Harman
  • Multimedia, Inc.
  • Coldwell Banker
  • Pinkerton’s, Inc.
  • Detroit International Bridge
  • Buffalo Evening News
  • The Illinois National Bank and Trust Company of Rockford
  • GEICO
  • Munsingwear
  • Data Documents (a private investment)

A collapsing personal life

With regards to Buffett’s personal life, Part IV is so far the saddest of all. It is in this stage of Buffett’s life and investment career that he really begins to lose touch with his children and his spouse, Susie. Though married in name, the couple are de facto separated and living their own independent lives, with Buffett traveling constantly and spending a lot of time “elephant bumping” with Kay Graham in Washington and Susie leaving her now empty nest in Omaha to take up her own apartment in racy San Francisco.

Buffett’s children are distant from him, physically and emotionally and the life choices and dysfunction of each seem to demonstrate quite clearly what an absentee father he was. Sadly, Susie turns to an affair (or two) in her search for companionship and even Buffett eventually caves and shacks up with his caretaker, Astrid Menks, a friend of Susie’s in Omaha.

Buffett expresses deep regret about this part of his life, realizing too late to salvage the situation what damage his indifference had caused.

If there’s a lesson here, it is that life always requires balance for it to be happy and worthwhile. What good is knowing you’re the world’s greatest (and soon to be wealthiest) investor, if it comes at the cost of agonizing sadness when your marriage falls apart and your children no longer seem to know much of you?

Other important investment ideas

In no particular order, below are a few more quotes on important investment ideas, as shared by Buffett and other investors, in Part IV.

Buffett on uncertainty:

The future is never clear, you pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus. Uncertainty actually is the friend of the buyer of long-term values

Buffett on reputation:

Over a lifetime, you’ll get a reputation for either bluffing or not bluffing. And therefore, I want it to be understood that I don’t do it [bluff]

Tom Murphy on the value of stock as a currency:

Warren never gave his stock away; neither did I if I could possibly avoid it. You don’t get rich that way. [Commentary by Alice Schroeder] Giving stock in exchange for TV Guide was saying, in a literal sense, that they thought it would earn more in the future than whatever share of Berkshire Buffett swapped for it. Paying with stock showed a sort of contempt for your own business versus whatever it was that you were buying– that is, unless you were paying with stock that had gotten wildly overpriced

Buffett’s advice to Graham on acquisitions, channeled through Alice Schroeder:

It was always a mistake to pay too much for something you wanted. Impatience was the enemy… [there was] immense value in buying their company’s own stock when it was cheap to reduce the shares outstanding

Bill Ruane on the investment business:

In this business you have the innovators, the imitators, and the swarming incompetents

Buffett on Wattles and coattailing:

There’s nothing wrong with standing on other people’s shoulders