Performance Perspectives Blog

Far be it for ME to “rain on Warren Buffett’s parade,” but …

by | Oct 7, 2013

I was struck by a front page story in today’s Wall Street Journal titled “Buffett’s Crisis-Lending Haul Reaches $10 Billion.” But it was actually the summary under “What’s News” that initially got my attention: “Buffett’s investments during the financial crisis have brought in $10 billion, a pre-tax return of nearly 40%.”

Now, to read “40%” would get anyone’s attention, except for one thing: there’s something missing! And what’s that?

TIME! Over what time period was this return realized? The past day, week, month, year, five years?

A return without time
is worthless.

I became suspicious when I read that a loan of $4.4 billion “is expected to net Berkshire a profit of at least $680 million.” Sorry, but I’m not really that impressed with these numbers.

We find the following chart included in the article

which highlights six of the companies Mr. Buffett invested in during the crisis. We see the amount invested as well as the profit (from dividends and appreciation). On the surface, to make $9.95 billion on a $25.20 billion investment seems great, but without the element of time, what’s the point?

And so, I decided to do my own analysis on the statistics provided. I calculated the cumulative and annualized returns for each investment, and compared them with the S&P 500 for the same period; and what do we see?

With all due respect to the Sage of Omaha, these returns are not terribly impressive. Unless I am missing something, for each investment the S&P 500 did better; in some cases, MUCH better.

An important point regarding my numbers: they start with the month end value for the S&P prior to the month of the initial investment and end at the end of September 2013. If profits were realized much sooner, then these returns would have to be altered. But not knowing this information, I carried it through the end of last month. Are my numbers perfect? Of course not, as I am missing some key information, but they at least do something that is critically important: include the element of time.

We can never lose sight of the fact that with returns we need the associated time to be included, too, otherwise, it’s a meaningless statistic. Just as to hear that some baseball player has a certain number of home runs, without knowing the length of time it means zip!

p.s., in addition to time, a benchmark is also critically important, to fully gauge the success of one’s investing.

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