Buffett Record is One Thing, Outlook Quite Another

Before you go out and buy a stock simply because Warren Buffett either has owned it for a long time or recently purchased it, consider the following quote from his letter to shareholders, released yesterday.

“Expect no miracles from our equity portfolio. Though we own major interests of a number of strong, highly-profitable businesses, they are not selling at anything like bargain prices. As a group, they may double in value in ten years. The likelihood is that their per-share earnings, in aggregate, will grow 6-8% per year over the decade and that their stock prices will more or less match that growth.”

What should investors gleam from this statement? Should they take it at face value, or just assume Buffett is being modest and trying to keep expectations low so he can exceed them more easily? If you are one of the many people who have asked me about my views on some of his larger holdings in recent months, you already know where I stand on this issue. Take what Buffett says as the truth. His days of drastic outperformance are long over.

Consider Berkshire Hathaway’s performance in 2005; up 6 percent using the metric Buffett prefers. That compares with 5% for the S&P 500 with dividends reinvested. A solid year, but hardly something that one should bend over backwards to mimic. It also is right around the 7% estimated growth rate he offered in his letter.

Consider Berkshire’s largest holding as of December 31st; more than $8 billion dollars of Coca Cola (KO). Coke stock has been dead money for 10 years, even as the S&P 500 has nearly doubled, as the chart below shows.

I will repeat here what I have told those who have asked. I would not expect shares of Berkshire, or Coca Cola, or Anheuser-Busch, or Wal-Mart, or Proctor & Gamble, or Washington Post, or any of Buffet’s other large holdings to make you rich from here on out. They were all great buys at some point in time, say 15 or 20 years ago, but now they are richly priced, even as growth prospects have diminished greatly as they have grown into industry behemoths.

Why then does Buffett continue to hold these stocks, even if he only expects them to return 7% per year? The answer lies in the fact that he has said his ideal holding period for a stock is “forever.” If I was to argue with Buffett on one aspect of his investment philosophy, that would most likely be the one I would choose. Holding a stock “forever” will ensure you own it during both the good times and the bad times. The latter is something investors should strive to avoid.