Warren Buffett, one of the most successful investors of the 20th century

The important tenets of his investment philosophy and mythology

Warren Buffett is considered by many as the most successful investor of the 20th century and named “one of the most influential people in the world” by Time magazine in 2012. In this article we look at Buffett’s investment mythology and analyse some of the most important tenets of his investment philosophy.

Finding low-priced value
While evaluating the relationship between a stock’s level of excellence and its price, Buffett asks himself several questions to find low-priced value:

Has the company consistently performed well? 
He looks at a company’s return on equity (ROE) and determines whether or not they have consistently performed successfully, compared with others in the same industry. However, looking at the ROE of a company over the last year alone isn’t enough. To get a better perspective of historic performance, investors should view the ROE from the past 5-10 years.

Has the company avoided excess debt? 
Buffett also considers the debt/equity ratio of a company, as he would prefer to see minimal amounts of debt, meaning that earnings growth is being generated from shareholders’ equity and not from borrowed money. A high level of debt compared to equity will result in volatile earnings and large interest expenses.

Are profit margins high? Are they increasing? 
Not only does the profitability of a company depend on a good profit margin but also their margins consistently increasing. A high profit margin means that the company is not only executing its business well, but increasing margins means management has been efficient and successful at controlling expenses. Investors should look back at least five years to get a clear indication of a company’s historical margins.

How long has the company been public? 
One of Buffett’s criteria is longevity: value investing means looking at companies that have stood the test of time but are currently undervalued. He will usually consider companies that have been around for at least 10 years, meaning that he would not consider most of the technology companies that have had their initial public offerings (IPOs) in the past decade. Historical performance is also crucial – determining if a company can perform as well going forward as it has done in the past is tricky, but Buffett is very good at it.

Do the company’s products rely on a commodity? 
He will usually steer clear from investing in companies whose products are indistinguishable from those of their competitors; if they don’t offer anything different than another firm within the same industry, Buffett sees little that sets them apart. He uses the term ‘economic moat’ as a way of describing any characteristic that is hard to replicate; the wider the moat, the harder it is for a competitor to gain market share.

Is the stock selling at a 25 per cent discount to
its real value? 

The most difficult part of value investing is determining whether a company is undervalued, and is Buffett’s most important skill. Investors must analyse a number of business fundamentals, including earnings, revenues and assets, to determine a company’s intrinsic value, which is usually higher than its liquidation value.
Buffett will then compare it to its current market capitalisation. If his measurement of intrinsic value is at least 25 per cent, he sees the company as one that has value – the key to this depends on his unmatched skill in accurately determining this intrinsic value.

The proof is in the pudding
As you can see from the above examples, Buffett’s investing style reflects a practical, down-to-earth attitude. This value-investing style is not without its critics, but nobody can question the success it has brought. The thing to remember is that the most difficult thing for any value investor is in accurately determining a company’s intrinsic value.

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