April 23, 2014 Comments

The S&P 500 was and Toronto were both down 0.2% on Wednesday.

Alimentation Couche-Tard has split its stock 3 for 1 and was up 3.6% today. I had called it only a (lower) Buy in December and it up quite a bit since then. I have to admit to being a bit choked that I sold it way (way) too early. I have long said that it one of the best managed companies in Canada. It goes to show that sometimes sticking with a great company even when it seems quite expensive (at times) can be a good strategy. Dollarama would be another example. Also Stantec and Canadian Western Bank and Constellation Software.

Toll Brothers was down 1.8%. It’s a stock that I am comfortable holding although I long said it was a more speculative pick.

I was reading yesterday that Warren Buffett’s first purchases of Berkshire Hathaway consisted of a measly 200 shares at $7.50 in 1962. ($7.60 counting a 10 cent commission paid). Buffett took control of the company in 1965 with the shares trading around $15. His average cost was $14.86. These are the exact same shares that today trade for $190,800. $200,000 would seem to be within sight before too awfully long.

As much as Buffett’s genius is recognized, I am not sure that the stunning magnitude of this accomplished is widely appreciated. The share price is up 12,720 fold since the $15 of 1965. That’s 1.22 million percent. What is perhaps equally stunning is that this is “only” a compounded annual return of 21.3% per year for 49 years. There are venture capitalists who will tell you that they expect to make 20% per year. Really?, if they can keep that up they can be the next Buffett.

Berkshire Hathaway is perhaps the greatest real life example of the power of compounded returns. I don’t believe Berkshire ever had a year when it soared 200% much less 500%. It never discovered a cure for cancer or anything of the like. I’ve never heard Buffett mention it having any patents. It had some highly profitable business but perhaps nothing in the league of Microsoft or Google or Apple. Returns on equity most years were excellent but only once exceeded 50%. A steady compounding at high but not outlandishly high levels over a period of 49 years has compounded up to a truly outlandish result.

Value investors sometimes talk of finding businesses that are “compounding machines”. If we could find one that would return something in the order of 20% for a very long time, the results would be truly spectacular. Anything that would compound in the double digits would be more than enough to get quite rich over a period of decades assuming reasonable annual investments. of new money.

It’s interesting to note that any early Berkshire shareholder following conventional diversification advice would have had to keep selling down their position to “prevent” it from becoming too large a part of their portfolio. Also Berkshire’s stock price has fallen at least 50% from peak to trough on four occasions sconce 1965. Anyone using stop losses would been sold out and it doubtful that they would ever have gotten back in. And there would have been countless declines of 10% to shake loose anyone trading on any sort of a technical basis.

It’s also interesting to contemplate what a horrible disservice to its long-term investors it would have been if Berkshire had started paying a dividend years ago. Consider, if you had a bank account compounding at 20%, the last thing you would want to do would be to pull money out of such an account. Berkshire has in effect been a somewhat lumpy version of such an account.

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