The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville

Warren E. Buffett


Reprinted from Hermes, the Columbia Business School Magazine.
Copyright © 1984 by The Trustees of Columbia University. All Rights Reserved.

"Superinvestor" Warren E. Buffett, who got an A+ from Ben Graham at Columbia in 1951, never stopped making the grade. He made his fortune using the principles of Graham & Dodd's Security Analysis. Here, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of that classic text, he tracks the records of investors who stick to the "value approach" and have gotten rich going by the book.

Is the Graham and Dodd "look for values with a significant margin of safety relative to prices" approach to security analysis out of date? Many of the professors who write textbooks today say "yes." They argue that the stock market is efficient; that is, that stock prices reflect everything that is known about a company's prospects and about the state of the economy. There are no undervalued stocks, these theorists argue, because there are smart security analysts who utilize all available information to insure unfailingly appropriate prices. Investors who seem to "beat the market" year after year are just lucky. "If prices fully reflect available information, this sort of investment adeptness is ruled out," writes one of today's textbook authors.

Well, maybe. But I want to present to you a group of investors who have, year in and year out, beaten the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. The hypothesis that they do this by pure chance is at least worth examining. Crucial to this examination is the fact that these winners were all well known to me and pre-identified as superior investors, the most recent identification occurring over 15 years ago. Absent this condition--that is, if I had just recently searched among thousands of records to select a few names for you this morning--I would advise you to stop reading right here. I should add that all of these records have been audited. And I should further add that I have known many of those who have invested with these managers, and the checks received by those participants over the years have matched the stated records.

Before we begin this examination, I would like you to imagine a national coin-flipping contest. Let's assume we get 225 million Americans up tomorrow morning and we ask them all to wager a dollar. They go out in the morning at sunrise, and they all call the flip of a coin. If they call correctly, they win a dollar from those who called wrong. Each day the losers drop out, and on the subsequent day the stakes build as all previous winnings are put on the line. After ten flips on ten mornings, there will be approximately 220,000 people in the United States who have correctly called ten flips in a row. They each will have won a little over $1,000.

Now this group will probably start getting a little puffed up about this, human nature being what it is. They may try to be modest, but at cocktail parties they will occasionally admit to attractive members of the opposite sex what their technique is, and what marvelous insights they bring to the field of flipping.

Assuming that the winners are getting the appropriate rewards from the losers, in another ten days we will have 215 people who have successfully called their coin flips 20 times in a row and who, by this exercise, each have turned one dollar into a little over $1 million. $225 million would have been lost, $225 million would have been won.

By then, this group will really lose their heads. They will probably write books on "How I Turned a Dollar into a Million in Twenty Days Working Thirty Seconds a Morning." Worse yet, they'll probably start jetting around the country attending seminars on efficient coin-flipping and tackling skeptical professors with, "If it can't be done, why are there 215 of us?"

But then some business school professor will probably be rude enough to bring up the fact that if 225 million orangutans had engaged in a similar exercise, the results would be much the same--215 egotistical orangutans with 20 straight winning flips.

I would argue, however, that there are some important differences in the examples I am going to present. For one thing, if (a) you had taken 225 million orangutans distributed roughly as the U.S. population is; if (b) 215 winners were left after 20 days; and if (c) you found that 40 came from a particular zoo in Omaha, you would be pretty sure you were on to something. So you would probably go out and ask the zookeeper about what he's feeding them, whether they had special exercises, what books they read, and who knows what else. That is, if you found any really extraordinary concentrations of success, you might want to see if you could identify concentrations of unusual characteristics that might be causal factors.

Scientific inquiry naturally follows such a pattern. If you were trying to analyze possible causes of a rare type of cancer--with, say, 1,500 cases a year in the United States--and you found that 400 of them occurred in some little mining town in Montana, you would get very interested in the water there, or the occupation of those afflicted, or other variables. You know that it's not random chance that 400 come from a small area. You would not necessarily know the causal factors, but you would know where to search.

I submit to you that there are ways of defining an origin other than geography. In addition to geographical origins, there can be what I call an intellectual origin. I think you will find that a disproportionate number of successful coin-flippers in the investment world came from a very small intellectual village that could be called Graham-and-Doddsville. A concentration of winners that simply cannot be explained by chance can be traced to this particular intellectual village.

Conditions could exist that would make even that concentration unimportant. Perhaps 100 people were simply imitating the coin-flipping call of some terribly persuasive personality. When he called heads, 100 folowers automatically called that coin the same way. If the leader was part of the 215 left at the end, the fact that 100 came from the same intellectual origin would mean nothing. You would simply be identifying one case as a hundred cases. Similarly, let's assume that you lived in a strongly patriarchal society and every family in the United States conveniently consisted of ten members. Further assume that the patriarchal culture was so strong that, when the 225 million people went out the first day, every member of the family identified with the father's call. Now, at the end of the 20-day period, you would have 215 winners, and you would find that they came from only 21.5 families. Some naive types might say that this indicates an enormous hereditary factor as an explanation of successful coin-flipping. But, of course, it would have no significance at all because it would simply mean that you didn't have 215 individual winners, but rather 21.5 randomly-distributed families who were winners.

In this group of successful investors that I want to consider, there has been a common intellectual patriarch, Ben Graham. But the children who left the house of this intellectual patriarch have called their "flips" in very different ways. They have gone to different places and bought and sold different stocks and companies, yet they have had a combined record that simply can't be explained by random chance. It certainly cannot be explained by the fact that they are all calling flips identically because a leader is signaling the calls to make. The patriarch has merely set forth the intellectual theory for making coin-calling decisions, but each student has decided on his own manner of applying the theory.

The common intellectual theme of the investors from Graham-and-Doddsville is this: they search for discrepancies between the value of a business and the price of small pieces of that business in the market. Essentially, they exploit those discrepancies without the efficient market theorist's concern as to whether the stocks are bought on Monday or Thursday, or whether it is January or July, etc. Incidentally, when businessmen buy businesses--which is just what our Graham & Dodd investors are doing through the medium of marketable stocks--I doubt that many are cranking into their purchase decision the day of the week or the month in which the transaction is going to occur. If it doesn't make any difference whether all of a business is being bought on a Monday or a Friday, I am baffled why academicians invest extensive time and effort to see whether it makes a difference when buying small pieces of those same businesses. Our Graham & Dodd investors, needless to say, do not discuss beta, the capital asset pricing model or covariance in returns among securities. These are not subjects of any interest to them. In fact, most of them would have difficulty defining those terms. The investors simply focus on two variables: price and value.

I always find it extraordinary that so many studies are made of price and volume behavior, the stuff of chartists. Can you imagine buying an entire business simply because the price of the business had been marked up substantially last week and the week before? Of course, the reason a lot of studies are made of these price and volume variables is that now, in the age of computers, there are almost endless data available about them. It isn't necessarily because such studies have any utility; it's simply that the data are there and academicians have worked hard to learn the mathematical skills needed to manipulate them. Once these skills are acquired, it seems sinful not to use them, even if the usage has no utility or negative utility. As a friend said, to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I think the group that we have identified by a common intellectual home is worthy of study. Incidentally, despite all the academic studies of the influence of such variables as price, volume, seasonality, capitalization size, etc., upon stock performance, no interest has been evidenced in studying the methods of this unusual concentration of value-oriented winners.

I begin this study of results by going back to a group of four of us who worked at Graham-Newman Corporation from 1954 through 1956. There were only four--I have not selected these names from among thousands. I offered to go to work at Graham-Newman for nothing after I took Ben Graham's class, but he turned me down as overvalued. He took this value stuff very seriously! After much pestering he finally hired me. There were three partners and four of us at the "peasant" level. All four left between 1955 and 1957 when the firm was wound up, and it's possible to trace the record of three.

Walter Schloss

The first example (Table 1) is that of Walter Schloss. Walter never went to college, but took a course from Ben Graham at night at the New York Institute of Finance. Walter left Graham-Newman in 1955 and achieved the record shown here over 28 years.

Here is what 'Adam Smith'--after I told him about Walter--wrote about him in Supermoney (1972):

He has no connections or access to useful information. Practically no one in Wall Street knows him and he is not fed any ideas. He looks up the numbers in the manuals and sends for the annual reports, and that's about it.

In introducing me to [Schloss] Warren had also, to my mind, described himself. He never forgets that he is handling other people's money and this reinforces his normal strong aversion to loss. He has total integrity and a realistic picture of himself. Money is real to him and stocks are real--and from this flows an attraction to the 'margin of safety' principle.

Walter has diversified enormously, owning well over 100 stocks currently. He knows how to identify securities that sell at considerably less than their value to a private owner. And that's all he does. He doesn't worry about whether it's January, he doesn't worry about whether it's Monday, he doesn't worry about whether it's an election year. He simply says, if a business is worth a dollar and I can buy it for 40 cents, something good may happen to me. And he does it over and over and over again. He owns many more stocks than I do--and is far less interested in the underlying nature of the business; I don't seem to have very much influence on Walter. That's one of his strengths; no one has much influence on him.

Table 1. Walter J. Schloss
Year S&P Overall Gain. Including Dividends (%) WJS Ltd Partners Overall Gain per year (%) WJS Partnership Overall Gain per year (%)
1956 7.5 5.1 6.8
1957 -10.5 -4.7 -4.7
1958 42.1 42.1 54.6
1959 12.7 17.5 23.3
1960 -1.6 7.0 9.3
1961 26.4 21.6 28.8
1962 -10.2 8.3 11.1
1963 23.3 15.1 20.1
1964 16.5 17.1 22.8
1965 13.1 26.8 35.7
1966 -10.4 0.5 0.7
1967 26.8 25.8 34.4
1968 10.6 26.6 35.5
1969 -7.5 -9.0 -9.0
1970 2.4 -8.2 -8.2
1971 14.9 25.5 28.3
1972 19.8 11.6 15.5
1973 -14.8 -8.0 -8.0
1974 -26.6 -6.2 -6.2
1975 36.9 42.7 52.2
1976 22.4 29.4 39.2
1977 -8.6 25.8 34.4
1978 7.0 36.6 48.8
1979 17.6 29.8 39.7
1980 32.1 23.3 31.1
1981 -6.7 18.4 24.5
1982 20.2 24.1 32.1
1983 22.8 38.4 51.2
1984 1st Qtr. -2.3 0.8 1.1

Standard & Poor's 28 1/4 year compounded gain 887.2%
WJS Limited Partners 28 1/4 year compounded gain 6,678.8%
WJS Partnership 28 1/4 year compounded gain 23,104.7%
Standard & Poor's 28 1/4 year annual compounded rate 8.40%
WJS Partnership 28 1/4 year annual compounded rate 21.3%

During the history of the Partnership it has owned over 800 issues and, at most times, has had at least 100 positions. Present assets under management approximate $45 million.

Tweedy, Browne Inc.

The second case is Tom Knapp who also worked at Graham-Newman with me. Tom was a chemistry major at Princeton before the war; when he came back from the war, he was a beach bum. And then one day he read that Dave Dodd was giving a night course in investments at Columbia. Tom took it on a non-credit basis, and he got so interested in the subject from taking that course that he came up and enrolled at Columbia Business School where he got the MBA degree. He took Dodd's course again, and took Ben Graham's course. Incidentally, 35 years later I called Tom to ascertain some of the facts involved here and I found him on the beach again. The only difference is that now he owns the beach!

In 1968 Tom Knapp and Ed Anderson, also a Graham disciple, along with one or two other fellows of similar persuasion, formed Tweedy, Browne Partners, and their investment results appear in Table 2. Tweedy, Browne built that record with very wide diversification. They occasionally bought control of businesses, but the record of the passive investments is equal to the record of the control investments.

Table 2. Tweedy, Browne Inc.
Period Ended (September 30) Dow Jones1 (%) S&P 5002 (%) TBK Overall (%) TBK Limited Partners (%)
1968 (9 mos.) 6.0 8.8 27.6 22.0
1969 -9.5 -6.2 12.7 10.0
1970 -2.5 -6.1 -1.3 -1.9
1971 20.7 20.4 20.9 16.1
1972 11.0 15.5 14.6 11.8
1973 2.9 1.0 8.3 7.5
1974 -31.8 -38.1 1.5 1.5
1975 36.9 37.8 28.8 22.0
1976 29.6 30.1 40.2 32.8
1977 -9.9 -4.0 23.4 18.7
1978 8.3 11.9 41.0 32.1
1979 7.9 12.7 25.5 20.5
1980 13.0 21.1 21.4 17.3
1981 -3.3 -2.7 14.4 11.6
1982 12.5 10.1 10.2 8.2
1983 44.5 44.3 35.0 28.2
Total Return 15 3/4 years 191.8% 348.5% 1,661.2% 936.4%

Standard & Poor's 28 1/4 year annual compounded rate 7.0%
TBK Limited Partners 15 3/4 year annual compound rate 16.0%
TBK Overall 15 3/4 year annual compound rate 20.0%

Buffett Partnership

Table 3 describes the third member of the group who formed Buffett Partnership in 1957. The best thing he did was to quit in 1969. Since then, in a sense, Berkshire Hathaway has been a continuation of the partnership in some respects. There is no single index I can give you that I would feel would be a fair test of investment management at Berkshire. But I think that any way you figure it, it has been satisfactory.

Table 3. Buffett Partnership, Ltd.
Year Overall Results From Dow (%) Partnership Results (%) Limited Partners' Results (%)
1957 -8.4 10.4 9.3
1958 38.5 40.9 32.2
1959 20.0 25.9 20.9
1960 -6.2 22.8 18.6
1961 22.4 45.9 35.9
1962 -7.6 13.9 11.9
1963 20.6 38.7 30.5
1964 18.7 27.8 22.3
1965 14.2 47.2 36.9
1966 -15.6 20.4 16.8
1967 19.0 35.9 28.4
1968 7.7 58.8 45.6
1969 -11.6 6.8 6.6
On a cumulative or compounded basis, the results are:
1957 -8.4 10.4 9.3
1957-58 26.9 55.6 44.5
1957-59 52.3 95.9 74.7
1957-60 42.9 140.6 107.2
1957-61 74.9 251.0 181.6
1957-62 61.6 299.8 215.1
1957-63 94.9 454.5 311.2
1957-64 131.3 608.7 402.9
1957-65 164.1 943.2 588.5
1957-66 122.9 1156.0 704.2
1957-67 165.3 1606.9 932.6
1957-68 185.7 2610.6 1403.5
1957-69 152.6 2794.9 1502.7
Annual Compounded Rate 7.4 29.5 23.8

Sequoia Fund

Table 4 shows the record of the Sequoia Fund, which is managed by a man whom I met in 1951 in Ben Graham's class. Bill Ruane. After getting out of Harvard Business School, he went to Wall Street. Then he realized that he needed to get a real business education so he came up to take Ben's course at Columbia, where we met in early 1951. Bill's record from 1951 to 1970, working with relatively small sums, was far better than average. When I wound up Buffett Partnership I asked Bill if he would set up a fund to handle all of our partners so he set up the Sequoia Fund. He set it up at a terrible time, just when I was quitting. He went right into the two-tier market and all the difficulties that made for comparative performance for value-oriented investors. I am happy to say that my partners, to an amazing degree, not only stayed with him but added money, with the happy result shown.

Table 4. Sequoia Fund, Inc.
Year Sequoia Fund (Annual % Change3) S&P 5004 (Annual % Change)
1970 (from July 15) 12.1 20.6
1971 13.5 14.3
1972 3.7 18.9
1973 -24.0 -14.8
1974 -15.7 -26.4
1975 60.5 37.2
1976 72.3 23.6
1977 19.9 -7.4
1978 23.9 6.4
1979 12.1 18.2
1980 12.6 32.3
1981 21.5 -5.0
1982 31.2 21.4
1983 27.3 22.4
1984 (first quarter) -1.6 -2.4
Entire Period 775.3% 270.0%
Compound Annual Return 17.2% 10.0%
Plus 1% Management Fee 1.0%
Gross Investment Return 18.2% 10.0%

There's no hindsight involved here. Bill was the only person I recommended to my partners, and I said at the time that if he achieved a four point per annum advantage over the Standard & Poor's, that would be solid performance. Bill has achieved well over that, working with progressively larger sums of money. That makes things much more difficult. Size is the anchor of performance. There is no question about it. It doesn't mean you can't do better than average when you get larger, but the margin shrinks. And if you ever get so you're managing two trillion dollars, and that happens to be the amount of the total equity evaluation in the economy, don't think that you'll do better than average!