Great Investors: The Warren Buffett Approach

Published in Investing on 16 May 2012

An introduction to the Oracle of Omaha.

Each day this week, I'm looking at a master investor, introducing you to their approach and running a stock screen to unearth examples of the type of company their approach produces.

So far, I've looked at Ben Graham, the pioneer of value investing, and Phil Fisher, an early growth guru. Today, it's the turn of the world's greatest living investor, Warren Buffett -- the Oracle of Omaha -- who has been influenced by both Graham and Fisher.

Reading the oracle

Millions of words have been written about Warren Buffett's approach to investing, including books by his former daughter-in-law Mary, old colleague David Clark and fund manager Robert Hagstrom.

Buffett himself has never written a book, but his annual shareholder letters to investors in his Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-B.US) group are essential reading, providing many insights into his approach, even if they don't amount to a step-by-step guide to identifying a Buffett stock.

In addition, Buffett has commended The Essays of Warren Buffett by Larry Cunningham as "a coherent rearrangement of ideas from my annual report letters".

Buffett's roots

Many years ago, Buffett said: "I'm 15% Fisher and 85% Benjamin Graham." What did he mean by that?

In common with Graham, Buffett is a big believer in having a "margin of safety" -- buying shares when they're trading below their true value, typically when they're out of favour with Graham's fickle and impatient "Mr Market". Buffett believes the margin-of-safety principle, so strongly emphasised by Graham, to be "the cornerstone of investment success".

From Fisher, Buffett learned an appreciation of the importance of strong management in a company, and of what Fisher referred to as "management of unquestionable integrity".

Also like Fisher, Buffett advocates investing with a long-term horizon: "If you aren't willing to own a stock for 10 years, don't even think about owning it for 10 minutes."

Finally, Buffett is in accord with Fisher on portfolio concentration, going as far as to say:

"If you are a know-something investor, able to understand business economics and to find five to 10 sensibly priced companies that possess important long-term competitive advantages, conventional diversification makes no sense for you. It is apt simply to hurt your results and increase your risk."

Moats and cash

The idea of investing in companies with "important long-term competitive advantages" is quintessential Buffett. Companies with a big "economic moat", such as those with strong consumer brands -- Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO.US) is a Buffett stock par excellence -- have good pricing power and give shareholders a high return on equity.

Buffett avoids industries he doesn't understand -- that are outside his "circle of competence" -- sticking to businesses that are "relatively simple and stable in character", not least because: "If a business is complex or subject to constant change we're not smart enough to predict future cash flows."

Buffett is dismissive of common valuation yardsticks, such as price-to-earnings and price-to-book ratios, and dividend yield, "except to the extent they provide clues to the amount and timing of cash flows into and from the business". Cash is king for Buffett, especially a cash-flow measure he calls "owner earnings".

A Buffett screen

Buffett aficionados and apostles have come up with innumerable stock screens, using sophisticated combinations of financial statement numbers and valuation metrics, to try to capture the universe of stocks Buffett might consider investing in.

The futility of this is amply illustrated by the fact that Tesco (LSE: TSCO), which Buffett recently purchased -- described in full in this free Motley Fool report, "One UK Share Warren Buffett Loves" -- didn't get flagged up by any of the screens I looked at!

For a manageable list of companies for this article, I took the industries represented among Buffett's top holdings (excluding financials) as a starting point. I then screened the FTSE 350 for companies in these industries using just two criteria: an average annual return on equity of 15% plus over five years and average annual earnings growth of 10% plus over ten years – the latter in the absence of an owner-earnings facility on the screener.

CompanyMarket cap (£bn)Share priceReturn on equity (%)Earnings growth (%)
AG Barr (LSE: BAG)0.41,122p2114
BG Group (LSE: BG)43.31,275p2018
BP (LSE: BP)76.2400p1717
Cranswick (LSE: CWK)0.4826p1615
Reckitt Benckiser (LSE: RB)25.03,443p3718
Smith & Nephew (LSE: SN)5.4595p2112
Unilever (LSE: ULVR)58.42,069p3417

The FTSE 100 companies or their brands will certainly be very familiar to many of you -- which is how it should be with a classic Buffett stock -- and at least my simple screen has flagged up Tesco!

Of the two smaller companies, I don't know too much about free-range/organic sausage-maker Cranswick, having only once looked at the firm, briefly, a year ago; but I do have AG Barr, the maker of IRN Bru, penned as a Buffett business.

Foolish bottom line

Buffett's approach to investing has perhaps been most succinctly summed up by the Oracle himself:

"Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, 10 and 20 years from now."

The master investor we'll be looking at tomorrow shares that view, having said "a share in a stock is not a lottery ticket, it's part ownership of a business", but he has his own distinctive approach to investing.

David Kuo challenged his Motley Fool analysts to pinpoint the attractive sectors of 2012 -- and they delivered! Discover the industries they selected in this new Motley Fool guide -- "Top Sectors Of 2012" -- while it's still free!

Further investment opportunities:

> G A Chester owns shares in Reckitt Benckiser. The Motley Fool owns shares in Tesco and Smith & Nephew, while Unilever has been recommended by The Motley Fool's Share Advisor.

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The opinions expressed here are those of the individual writers and are not representative of The Motley Fool. If you spot any comments that are unsuitable hit the flag to alert our moderators.

longpod 16 May 2012 , 6:23pm

"An introduction to the Oracle of Omaha."

Hardly necessary. Regular readers of this site must know how often he changes his underpants!

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