Day traders often seek out stories of people who have had amazing success in the markets for guidance. They flock to biographies of financial celebrities hoping to gain insight and tips to get an edge on their own careers. One such celebrity, Warren Buffet, is often seen as a role model, and a recently released book on him, The Snowball: Warren Buffet and the Business of Life, will no doubt increase his influence. But while Buffet has plenty to teach us about investing, his lessons are less applicable to day traders because of the kind of investing strategies that he uses. I’m not at all discounting Buffet’s success, but I do want to stress that traders need to understand the difference between the strategies that will work for them and Buffet’s kind of investing.
Warren Buffet is, of course, a legend. Before he gave almost his entire fortune to charity, he was the richest man in the entire world. In 1962, when he began buying stock in Berkshire Hathaway, a single share cost $7.50. Today, Buffet is Berkshire’ chairman and CEO, and one “Class A” stock is worth more than $118,000.
Buffet is doubtless a financial genius, and many try to follow his advice to become rich. But you need to understand that he is not a stock trader. His investments are not in stocks. Instead he invests in companies.
Buffet has tried to make this clear himself. As he once said, “If, when making a stock investment, you’re not considering holding it at least ten years, don’t waste more than ten minutes considering it.” He has also said, “[s]hares are not mere pieces of paper. They represent part ownership of a business. So, when contemplating an investment, think like a prospective owner.” Based on these principles, he developed what he calls the Inner Scorecard, according to which he invests in “wonderful businesses” that fulfill, amongst others, the following criteria:
· They have a good return on capital without a lot of debt.
· They are understandable.
· They see their profits in cash flow.
· They have strong franchises and, therefore, freedom to price.
· They don’t take a genius to run.
· Their earnings are predictable.
· The management is owner-oriented.
But Buffet goes even further, looking for “subjective” clues to a company’s long term profitability. For example, it is said that once he purchased a company whose owner counted the sheets on the rolls of 500-sheet toilet paper to see if he was being cheated. (It turns out that he was.) Or, in another case, Buffet considered investing in a company whose owner painted only the side of the building facing the street in order to save money. And, in 1983, Buffet acquired the Nebraska Furniture Mart because he liked the way its founder, Rose Blumkin, did business: as a Russian immigrant, her strategy was to undersell the big shots, and she was a merciless negotiator.
There’s a clear pattern here. Before Buffet invests in a company, his team analyzes everything: the financial data, the management (including their biographies and sometimes even their personal spending habits), the company’s vision, mission and principles, the human resource policy, and much more. Then he buys enough shares to actively influence and change the company’s strategies and policies. As he said “Shares represent part ownership of a business,” and he acts on that idea once he is invested in a business.
Warren Buffet may well be the world’s greatest investor. He buys and sells businesses, and he uses the company’s shares to buy himself part ownership of a business. But Buffet is not a trader, and his strategies for success are completely different from those that make money for day traders. He does not analyze market trends, looking for movements. Instead, he looks at a company’s fundamentals and decides whether he thinks that company can grow over the long term. It’s important to keep this distinction in mind if you want to make money in the market. A day trader may well admire Warren Buffet, but he will have to look elsewhere for a model.