Berkshire Hathaway 2009 Annual Meeting Audience Question # 48

The cheaper things get, the better Warren liked buying them

Warren Buffett:

OK, area 12.

Audience Member:

Good afternoon, Mr. Buffett, Mr. Munger. Jimmy Chong here from Dayton, Ohio.

Mr. Buffett, in October of last year, you wrote, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that you were moving your personal portfolio to a hundred percent U.S. equities.

My question is, is that move complete? If not, are you still buying? And in addition to that, how would you rank the recent market downturn in terms of investing opportunities in stocks during your investment careers?

Warren Buffett:

Well, it’s certainly not as dramatic as the 1974 period was. Stocks got much cheaper in 1974 than they are now.

But you were also facing a different interest rate scenario. So you could say they really weren’t that much cheaper.

You could buy very good companies at four times earnings or thereabouts with good prospects. But interest rates were far higher then.

That was the best period I’ve ever seen for buying common equities. The country may not have been in as much trouble then as we were back in September. I don’t think it was. But stocks were somewhat cheaper then.

In the recent period, I… you know, I bought some equities. And then corporate bonds looked extraordinarily cheap. The spreads were very, very wide. So I bought some of those, too.

But the cheaper things get, the better I like buying them. I mean, if I was buying hamburgers at McDonald’s, you know, the other day for X, and they reduced the price to 90 percent of X tomorrow… not likely… but if they did, I’m happy.

I don’t think about what I paid yesterday for the hamburger. I think I’m going to be buying hamburgers the rest of my life, you know? The cheaper they get, the better I like it.

I’m going to be buying investments the rest of my life. And I would much rather pay half of X than X.

And, the fact that I paid X yesterday doesn’t bother me, if I get… as long as I know the values in the business.

So on a personal basis, I like lower prices. I realize that that is not the way all of you feel when you wake up in the morning and look at quotes.

But, it just makes sense that when things are on sale, that you should be more excited about buying them than otherwise.

And lately… when I wrote that article in the Times, I did not predict what stocks were going to do. Because I never know what they’re going to do.

But I do know when you’re starting to get a lot for your money. And that’s when I believe in buying.

Charlie?

Charlie Munger:

Well, if stocks go off 40 percent on average, they’re obviously closer to an attractive price than they were before.

And, of course, interest rates have gone down a lot recently, at least short-term interest rates.

It’s nothing like ’73-4. I knew when that happened that that was my time and my only time. I knew I was never going to get another trip to the buy counter like that one.

Unfortunately, I had practically no money available, which is…

Warren Buffett:

That’s why it happened.

Charlie Munger:

That’s why those times occur.

Warren Buffett:

Yeah.

Charlie Munger:

So, if I were you, I wouldn’t wait for 1973-4.

Warren Buffett:

No, we don’t try to pick bottoms or you know…

We don’t have an opinion about where the stock market’s going to go tomorrow or next week or next month.

So to sit around and not do something that’s sensible because you think there will be something even more attractive, that’s just not our approach to it.

Anytime we get a chance to do something that makes sense, we do it. And if it makes even more sense the next day, and if we’ve got money, we may do more. And if we don’t, you know, that… what can we do about it?

So picking bottoms is basically not our game. Pricing is our game. And that’s not so difficult. Picking bottoms, I think, is probably impossible, but…

When you get… when you start getting a lot for your money, you buy it. And as I say, after I wrote that, stocks did get cheaper.

Corporate bonds… the corporate bond market got very, very, very disorganized. And we bought some fairly good-sized pieces of bonds for Berkshire. And I also bought a few little things for myself.

But I spend 99 percent of my time thinking about Berkshire. That’s…

Charlie Munger:

Warren, by now, don’t we have our small life insurance companies pretty well full of desirable debt instruments at 10 percent?

Warren Buffett:

We certainly have got a lot more of it than we had, yeah.

No, we’ve… we got a chance to buy some corporate bonds very, very cheaply… at least in my view… a few months back.

And we had money in life companies that can’t be used in certain other areas and for which this was an ideal time to just barrel in.

And anytime we like to do something, we really like to do it. I mean, our idea is not to tiptoe into anything. So we buy them as fast as we can, when prices are right.

Charlie Munger:

Yeah, that bond thing didn’t last very long, but…

Warren Buffett:

Nope.

Charlie Munger:

… there were perfectly safe bonds that yielded 9 percent or more with very fancy call protection.

Warren Buffett:

Yep.

Charlie Munger:

And some of those bonds are up 20, 25 percent. So the opportunities are frequently under shell A, when you’re looking at shell B.

Warren Buffett:

Yeah. We try to look at all the shells.

Charlie Munger:

Yeah, we look at all the shells.

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