I'm going to play a minor trick on you today because the subject of my talk is the art of stock picking as a subdivision of the art of worldly wisdom. That enables me to start talking about worldly wisdom a much broader topic that interests me because I think all too little of it is delivered by modern educational systems, at least in an effective way.
And therefore, the talk is sort of along the lines that some behaviorist psychologists call Grandma's rule after the wisdom of Grandma when she said that you have to eat the carrots before you get the dessert.
The carrot part of this talk is about the general subject of worldly wisdom which is a pretty good way to start. After all, the theory of modern education is that you need a general education before you specialize. And I think to some extent, before you're going to be a great stock picker, you need some general education.
So, emphasizing what I sometimes waggishly call remedial worldly wisdom, I'm going to start by waltzing you through a few basic notions.
What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.
You've got to have models in your head. And you've got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered.
Well, they fail in school and in life. You've got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.
What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you've got to have multiple models because if you just have one or two that you're using, the nature of human psychology is such that you'll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you'll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.
It's like the old saying, "To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. "And of course, that's the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that's a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you've got to have multiple models.
And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That's why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don't have enough models in their heads. So you've got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.
You may say, "My God, this is already getting way too tough. "But, fortunately, it isn't that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.
So let's briefly review what kind of models and techniques constitute this basic knowledge that everybody has to have before they proceed to being really good at a narrow art like stock picking.
First there's mathematics. Obviously, you've got to be able to handle numbers and quantities basic arithmetic. And the great useful model, after compound interest, is the elementary math of permutations and combinations. And that was taught in my day in the sophomore year in high school. I suppose by now in great private schools, it's probably down to the eighth grade or so.
It's very simple algebra. It was all worked out in the course of about one year between Pascal and Fermat. They worked it out casually in a series of letters.
It's not that hard to learn. What is hard is to get so you use it routinely almost everyday of your life. The Fermat/Pascal system is dramatically consonant with the way that the world works. And it's fundamental truth. So you simply have to have the technique.
Many educational institutions -although not nearly enough have realized this. At Harvard Business School, the great quantitative thing that bonds the first year class together is what they call decision tree theory. All they do is take high school algebra and apply it to real life problems. And the students love it. They're amazed to find that high school algebra works in life....
By and large, as it works out, people can't naturally and automatically do this. If you understand elementary psychology, the reason they can't is really quite simple: The basic neural network of the brain is there through broad genetic and cultural evolution. And it's not Fermat / Pascal. It uses a very crude, shortcut type of approximation. It's got elements of Fermat / Pascal in it. However, it's not good.
So you have to learn in a very usable way this very elementary math and use it routinely in life -just the way if you want to become a golfer, you can't use the natural swing that broad evolution gave you. You have to learnto have a certain grip and swing in a different way to realize your full potential as a golfer.
If you don't get this elementary, but mildly unnatural, mathematics of elementary probability into your repertoire, then you go through a long life like a one‑legged man in an ass‑kicking contest. You're giving a huge advantage to everybody else.
One of the advantages of a fellow like Buffett, whom I've worked with all these years, is that he automatically thinks in terms of decision trees and the elementary math of permutations and combinations....
Obviously, you have to know accounting. It's the language of practical business life. It was a very useful thing to deliver to civilization. I've heard it came to civilization through Venice which of course was once the great commercial power in the Mediterranean. However, double-entry bookkeeping was a hell of an invention.
And it's not that hard to understand.
But you have to know enough about it to understand its limitations -because although accounting is the starting place, it's only a crude approximation. And it's not very hard to understand its limitations. For example, everyone can see that you have to more or less just guess at the useful life of a jet airplane or anything like that. Just because you express the depreciation rate in neat numbers doesn't make it anything you really know.
In terms of the limitations of accounting, one of my favorite stories involves a very great businessman named Carl Braun who created the CF Braun Engineering Company. It designed and built oil refineries -which is very hard to do. And Braun would get them to come in on time and not blow up and have efficiencies and so forth. This is a major art.
And Braun, being the thorough Teutonic type that he was, had a number of quirks. And one of them was that he took a look at standard accounting and the way it was applied to building oil refineries and he said, "This is asinine." So he threw all of his accountants out and he took his engineers and said, "Now, we'll devise our own system of accounting to handle this process. "And in due time, accounting adopted a lot of Carl Braun's notions. So he was a formidably willful and talented man who demonstrated both the importance of accounting and the importance of knowing its limitations.
He had another rule, from psychology, which, if you're interested in wisdom, ought to be part of your repertoire -like the elementary mathematics of permutations and combinations.
His rule for all the Braun Company's communications was called the five W's -you had to tell who was going to do what, where, when and why. And if you wrote a letter or directive in the Braun Company telling somebody to do something, and you didn't tell him why, you could get fired. In fact, you would get fired if you did it twice.
You might ask why that is so important? Well, again that's a rule of psychology. Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they'll understand it better, they'll consider it more important, and they'll be more likely to comply. Even if they don't understand your reason, they'll be more likely to comply.
So there's an iron rule that just as you want to start getting worldly wisdom by asking why, why, why, in communicating with other people about everything, you want to include why, why, why. Even if it's obvious, it's wise to stick in the why.
Which models are the most reliable? Well, obviously, the models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control -at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers -is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much. It's all elementary high school mathematics. And an elaboration of that is what Deming brought to Japan for all of that quality control stuff.
I don't think it's necessary for most people to be terribly facile in statistics. For example, I'm not sure that I can even pronounce the Poisson distribution. But I know what a Gaussian or normal distribution looks like and I know that events and huge aspects of reality end up distributed that way. So I can do a rough calculation.
But if you ask me to work out something involving a Gaussian distribution to ten decimal points, I can't sit down and do the math. I'm like a poker player who's learned to play pretty well without mastering Pascal.
And by the way, that works well enough. But you have to understand that bell‑shaped curve at least roughly as well as I do.
And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints that's a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass that comes out of physics is a very powerful model.
All of these things have great utility in looking at ordinary reality. And all of this cost-benefit analysis -hell, that's all elementary high school algebra, too. It's just been dolled up a little bit with fancy lingo.
I suppose the next most reliable models are from biology/ physiology because, after all, all of us are programmed by our genetic makeup to be much the same.
And then when you get into psychology, of course, it gets very much more complicated. But it's an ungodly important subject if you're going to have any worldly wisdom.
And you can demonstrate that point quite simply: There's not a person in this room viewing the work of a very ordinary professional magician who doesn't see a lot of things happening that aren't happening and not see a lot of things happening that are happening.
And the reason why is that the perceptual apparatus of man has shortcuts in it. The brain cannot have unlimited circuitry.
So someone who knows how to take advantage of those shortcuts and cause the brain to miscalculate in certain ways can cause you to see things that aren't there.
Now you get into the cognitive function as distinguished from the perceptual function. And there, you are equally more than equally in fact likely to be misled. Again, your brain has a shortage of circuitry and so forth and it's taking all kinds of little automatic shortcuts.
So when circumstances combine in certain ways or more commonly, your fellow man starts acting like the magician and manipulates you on purpose by causing your cognitive dysfunction you're a patsy.
And so just as a man working with a tool has to know its limitations, a man working with his cognitive apparatus has to know its limitations. And this knowledge, by the way, can be used to control and motivate other people....
So the most useful and practical part of psychology which I personally think can be taught to any intelligent person in a week is ungodly important. And nobody taught it to me by the way. I had to learn it later in life, one piece at a time. And it was fairly laborious. It's so elementary though that, when it was all over, I felt like a fool.
And yeah, I'd been educated at Cal Tech and the Harvard Law School and so forth. So very eminent places mis-educated people like you and me.
The elementary part of psychology -the psychology of misjudgment, as I call it is a terribly important thing to learn.
There are about 20 little principles. And they interact, so it gets slightly complicated. But the guts of it is unbelievably important.
Terribly smart people make totally bonkers mistakes by failing to pay heed to it. In fact, I've done it several times during the last two or three years in a very important way. You never get totally over making silly mistakes.
There's another saying that comes from Pascal which I've always considered one of the really accurate observations in the history of thought. Pascal said in essence, "The mind of man at one and the same time is both the glory and the shame of the universe." And that's exactly right. It has this enormous power. However, it also has these standard malfunctions that often cause it to reach wrong conclusions. It also makes man extraordinarily subject to manipulation by others. For example, roughly half of the army of Adolf Hitler was composed of believing Catholics. Given enough clever psychological manipulation, what human beings will do is quite interesting.
Personally, I've gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things which by and large are useful, but which often malfunction.
One approach is rationality the way you'd work out a bridge problem: by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions many of which are wrong.
Now we come to another somewhat less reliable form of human wisdom microeconomics. And here, I find it quite useful to think of a free market economy or partly free market economy as sort of the equivalent of an ecosystem....
This is a very unfashionable way of thinking because early in the days after Darwin came along, people like the robber barons assumed that the doctrine of the survival of the fittest authenticated them as deserving power you know, "I'm the richest. Therefore, I'm the best. God's in his heaven, etc." And that reaction of the robber barons was so irritating to people that it made it unfashionable to think of an economy as an ecosystem. But the truth is that it is a lot like an ecosystem. And you get many of the same results.
Just as in an ecosystem, people who narrowly specialize can get terribly good at occupying some little niche. Just as animals flourish in niches, similarly, people who specialize in the business world -and get very good because they specialize frequently find good economics that they wouldn't get any other way.
And once we get into microeconomics, we get into the concept of advantages of scale. Now we're getting closer to investment analysis because in terms of which businesses succeed and which businesses fail, advantages of scale are ungodly important.
For example, one great advantage of scale taught in all of the business schools of the world is cost reductions along the so-called experience curve. Just doing something complicated in more and more volume enables human beings, who are trying to improve and are motivated by the incentives of capitalism, to do it more and more efficiently.
The very nature of things is that if you get a whole lot of volume through your joint, you get better at processing that volume. That's an enormous advantage. And it has a lot to do with which businesses succeed and fail....
Let's go through a list albeit an incomplete one of possible advantages of scale. Some come from simple geometry. If you're building a great spherical tank, obviously as you build it bigger, the amount of steel you use in the surface goes up with the square and the cubic volume goes up with the cube. So as you increase the dimensions, you can hold a lot more volume per unit area of steel.
And there are all kinds of things like that where the simple geometry the simple reality gives you an advantage of scale.
For example, you can get advantages of scale from TV advertising. When TV advertising first arrived when talking color pictures first came into our living rooms it was an unbelievably powerful thing. And in the early days, we had three networks that had whatever it was say 90% of the audience.
Well, if you were Proctor & Gamble, you could afford to use this new method of advertising. You could afford the very expensive cost of network television because you were selling so many cans and bottles. Some little guy couldn't. And there was no way of buying it in part. Therefore, he couldn't use it. In effect, if you didn't have a big volume, you couldn't use network TV advertising which was the most effective technique.
So when TV came in, the branded companies that were already big got a huge tail wind. Indeed, they prospered and prospered and prospered until some of them got fat and foolish, which happens with prosperity -at least to some people....
And your advantage of scale can be an informational advantage. If I go to some remote place, I may see Wrigley chewing gum alongside Glotz's chewing gum. Well, I know that Wrigley is a satisfactory product, whereas I don't know anything about Glotz's. So if one is 40 cents and the other is 30 cents, am I going to take something I don't know and put it in my mouth which is a pretty personal place, after all for a lousy dime? So, in effect, Wrigley , simply by being so well known, has advantages of scale what you might call an informational advantage.
Another advantage of scale comes from psychology. The psychologists use the term "social proof". We are all influenced subconsciously and to some extent consciously by what we see others do and approve. Therefore, if everybody's buying something, we think it's better. We don't like to be the one guy who's out of step.
Again, some of this is at a subconscious level and some of it isn't. Sometimes, we consciously and rationally think, "Gee, I don't know much about this. They know more than I do. Therefore, why shouldn't I follow them?" The social proof phenomenon which comes right out of psychology gives huge advantages to scale -for example, with very wide distribution, which of course is hard to get. One advantage of Coca-Cola is that it's available almost everywhere in the world.
Well, suppose you have a little soft drink. Exactly how do you make it available all over the Earth? The worldwide distribution setup which is slowly won by a big enterprise gets to be a huge advantage.... And if you think about it, once you get enough advantages of that type, it can become very hard for anybody to dislodge you.
There's another kind of advantage to scale. In some businesses, the very nature of things is to sort of cascade toward the overwhelming dominance of one firm.
The most obvious one is daily newspapers. There's practically no city left in the U.S., aside from a few very big ones, where there's more than one daily newspaper.
And again, that's a scale thing. Once I get most of the circulation, I get most of the advertising. And once I get most of the advertising and circulation, why would anyone want the thinner paper with less information in it? So it tends to cascade to a winner take all situation. And that's a separate form of the advantages of scale phenomenon.
Similarly, all these huge advantages of scale allow greater specialization within the firm. Therefore, each person can be better at what he does.
And these advantages of scale are so great, for example, that when Jack Welch came into General Electric, he just said, "To hell with it. We're either going to be # 1 or #2 in every field we're in or we're going to be out. I don't care how many people I have to fire and what I have to sell. We're going to be #I or #2 or out." That was a very tough‑minded thing to do, but I think it was a very correct decision if you're thinking about maximizing shareholder wealth. And I don't think it's a bad thing to do for a civilization either, because I think that General Electric is stronger for having Jack Welch there.
And there are also disadvantages of scale. For example, we by which I mean Berkshire Hathaway -are the largest shareholder in Capital Cities /ABC. And we had trade publications there that got murdered where our competitors beat us. And the way they beat us was by going to a narrower specialization.
We'd have a travel magazine for business travel. So somebody would create one which was addressed solely at corporate travel departments. Like an ecosystem, you're getting a narrower and narrower specialization.
Well, they got much more efficient. They could tell more to the guys who ran corporate travel departments. Plus, they didn't have to waste the ink and paper mailing out stuff that corporate travel departments weren't interested in reading. It was a more efficient system. And they beat our brains out as we relied on our broader magazine.
That's what happened to The Saturday Evening Post and all those things. They're gone. What we have now is Motorcross which is read by a bunch of nuts who like to participate in tournaments where they turn somersaults on their motorcycles. But they care about it. For them, it's the principle purpose of life. A magazine called Motorcross is a total necessity to those people. Arid its profit margins would make you salivate.
Just think of how narrowcast that kind of publishing is. So occasionally, scaling down and intensifying gives you the big advantage. Bigger is not always better.
The great defect of scale, of course, which makes the game interesting -so that the big people don't always win -is that as you get big, you get the bureaucracy. And with the bureaucracy comes the territoriality -which is again grounded in human nature.
And the incentives are perverse. For example, if you worked for AT&T in my day, it was a great bureaucracy. Who in the hell was really thinking about the shareholder or anything else? And in a bureaucracy, you think the work is done when it goes out of your in-basket into somebody else's in-basket. But, of course, it isn't. It's not done until AT&T delivers what it's supposed to deliver. So you get big, fat, dumb, unmotivated bureaucracies.
They also tend to become somewhat corrupt. In other words, if I've got a department and you've got a department and we kind of share power running this thing, there's sort of an unwritten rule: "If you won't bother me, I won't bother you and we're both happy. "So you get layers of management and associated costs that nobody needs. Then, while people are justifying all these layers, it takes forever to get anything done. They're too slow to make decisions and nimbler people run circles around them.
The constant curse of scale is that it leads to big, dumb bureaucracy -which, of course, reaches its highest and worst form in government where the incentives are really awful. That doesn't mean we don't need governments -because we do. But it's a terrible problem to get big bureaucracies to behave.
So people go to stratagems. They create little decentralized units and fancy motivation and training programs. For example, for a big company, General Electric has fought bureaucracy with amazing skill. But that's because they have a combination of a genius and a fanatic running it. And they put him in young enough so he gets a long run. Of course, that's Jack Welch.
But bureaucracy is terrible.... And as things get very powerful and very big, you can get some really dysfunctional behavior. Look at Westinghouse. They blew billions of dollars on a bunch of dumb loans to real estate developers. They put some guy who'd come up by some career path -I don't know exactly what it was, but it could have been refrigerators or something -and all of a sudden, he's loaning money to real estate developers building hotels. It's a very unequal contest. And in due time, they lost all those billions of dollars.
CBS provides an interesting example of another rule of psychology namely, Pavlovian association. If people tell you what you really don't want to hear what's unpleasant there's an almost automatic reaction of antipathy. You have to train yourself out of it. It isn't foredestined that you have to be this way. But you will tend to be this way if you don't think about it.
Television was dominated by one network -CBS in its early days. And Paley was a god. But he didn't like to hear what he didn't like to hear. And people soon learned that. So they told Paley only what he liked to hear. Therefore, he was soon living in a little cocoon of unreality and everything else was corrupt although it was a great business.
So the idiocy that crept into the system was carried along by this huge tide. It was a Mad Hatter's tea party the last ten years under Bill Paley.
And that is not the only example by any means. You can get severe malfunction in the high ranks of business. And of course, if you're investing, it can make a lot of difference. If you take all the acquisitions that CBS made under Paley, after the acquisition of the network itself, with all his advisors his investment bankers, management consultants and so forth who were getting paid very handsomely it was absolutely terrible.
For example, he gave something like 20% of CBS to the Dumont Company for a television set manufacturer which was destined to go broke. I think it lasted all of two or three years or something like that. So very soon after he'd issued all of that stock, Dumont was history. You get a lot of dysfunction in a big fat, powerful place where no one will bring unwelcome reality to the boss.
So life is an everlasting battle between those two forces -to get these advantages of scale on one side and a tendency to get a lot like the U.S. Agriculture Department on the other side -where they just sit around and so forth. I don't know exactly what they do. However, I do know that they do very little useful work.
On the subject of advantages of economies of scale, I find chain stores quite interesting. Just think about it. The concept of a chain store was a fascinating invention. You get this huge purchasing power which means that you have lower merchandise costs. You get a whole bunch of little laboratories out there in which you can conduct experiments. And you get specialization.
If one little guy is trying to buy across 27 different merchandise categories influenced by traveling salesmen, he's going to make a lot of poor decisions. But if your buying is done in headquarters for a huge bunch of stores, you can get very bright people that know a lot about refrigerators and so forth to do the buying.
The reverse is demonstrated by the little store where one guy is doing all the buying. It's like the old story about the little store with salt all over its walls. And a stranger comes in and says to the storeowner, "You must sell a lot of salt." And he replies, "No, I don't. But you should see the guy who sells me salt." So there are huge purchasing advantages. And then there are the slick systems of forcing everyone to do what works.
So a chain store can be a fantastic enterprise.
It's quite interesting to think about Wal-Mart starting from a single store in Bentonville, Arkansas against Sears, Roebuck with its name, reputation and all of its billions. How does a guy in Bentonville, Arkansas with no money blow right by Sears, Roebuck? And he does it in his own lifetime -in fact, during his own late lifetime because he was already pretty old by the time he started out with one little store....
He played the chain store game harder and better than anyone else. Walton invented practically nothing. But he copied everything anybody else ever did that was smart -and he did it with more fanaticism and better employee manipulation.
So he just blew right by them all.
He also had a very interesting competitive strategy in the early days. He was like a prizefighter who wanted a great record so he could be in the finals and make a big TV hit. So what did he do? He went out and fought 42 palookas.
Right? And the result was knockout, knockout, knockout 42 times.
Walton, being as shrewd as he was, basically broke other small town merchants in the early days. With his more efficient system, he might not have been able to tackle some titan head-on at the time. But with his better system, he could destroy those small town merchants. And he went around doing it time after time after time. Then, as he got bigger, he started destroying the big boys.
Well, that was a very, very shrewd strategy.
You can say, "Is this a nice way to behave? "Well, capitalism is a pretty brutal place. But I personally think that the world is better for having Wal-Mart. I mean you can idealize small town life. But I've spent a fair amount of time in small towns.
And let me tell you -you shouldn't get too idealistic about all those businesses he destroyed.
Plus, a lot of people who work at Wal-Mart are very high grade, bouncy people who are raising nice children. I have no feeling that an inferior culture destroyed a superior culture. I think that is nothing more than nostalgia and delusion. But, at any rate, it's an interesting model of how the scale of things and fanaticism combine to be very powerful.
And it's also an interesting model on the other side how with all its great advantages, the disadvantages of bureaucracy did such terrible damage to Sears, Roebuck. Sears had layers and layers of people it didn't need. It was very bureaucratic. It was slow to think. And there was an established way of thinking. If you poked your head up with a new thought, the system kind of turned against you. It was everything in the way of a dysfunctional big bureaucracy that you would expect.
In all fairness, there was also much that was good about it. But it just wasn't as lean and mean and shrewd and effective as Sam Walton. And, in due time, all its advantages of scale were not enough to prevent Sears from losing heavily to Wal-Mart and other similar retailers.
Here's a model that we've had trouble with. Maybe you'll be able to figure it out better. Many markets get down to two or three big competitors or five or six. And in some of those markets, nobody makes any money to speak of. But in others, everybody does very well.
Over the years, we've tried to figure out why the competition in some markets gets sort of rational from the investor's point of view so that the shareholders do well, and in other markets, there's destructive competition that destroys shareholder wealth.
If it's a pure commodity like airline seats, you can understand why no one makes any money. As we sit here, just think of what airlines have given to the world safe travel, greater experience, time with your loved ones, you name it. Yet, the net amount of money that's been made by the shareholders of airlines since Kitty Hawk, is now a negative figure -a substantial negative figure. Competition was so intense that, once it was unleashed by deregulation, it ravaged shareholder wealth in the airline business.
Yet, in other fields like cereals, for example almost all the big boys make out. If you're some kind of a medium grade cereal maker, you might make 15% on your capital. And if you're really good, you might make 40%.But why are cereals so profitable despite the fact that it looks to me like they're competing like crazy with promotions, coupons and everything else? I don't fully understand it.
Obviously, there's a brand identity factor in cereals that doesn't exist in airlines. That must be the main factor that accounts for it.
And maybe the cereal makers by and large have learned to be less crazy about fighting for market share -because if you get even one person who's hell-bent on gaining market share.... For example, if I were Kellogg and I decided that I had to have 60% of the market, I think I could take most of the profit out of cereals. I'd ruin Kellogg in the process. But I think I could do it.
In some businesses, the participants behave like a demented Kellogg. In other businesses, they don't. Unfortunately, I do not have a perfect model for predicting how that's going to happen.
For example, if you look around at bottler markets, you'll find many markets where bottlers of Pepsi and Coke both make a lot of money and many others where they destroy most of the profitability of the two franchises. That must get down to the peculiarities of individual adjustment to market capitalism. I think you'd have to know the people involved to fully understand what was happening.
In microeconomics, of course, you've got the concept of patents, trademarks, exclusive franchises and so forth. Patents are quite interesting. When I was young, I think more money went into patents than came out. Judges tended to throw them out based on arguments about what was really invented and what relied on prior art. That isn't altogether clear.
But they changed that. They didn't change the laws. They just changed the administration -so that it all goes to one patent court. And that court is now very much more pro-patent. So I think people are now starting to make a lot of money out of owning patents.
Trademarks, of course, have always made people a lot of money. A trademark system is a wonderful thing for a big operation if it's well known.
The exclusive franchise can also be wonderful. If there were only three television channels awarded in a big city and you owned one of them, there were only so many hours a day that you could be on.So you had a natural position in an oligopoly in the pre-cable days.
And if you get the franchise for the only food stand in an airport, you have a captive clientele and you have a small monopoly of a sort.
The great lesson in microeconomics is to discriminate between when technology is going to help you and when it's going to kill you.And most people do not get this straight in their heads. But a fellow like Buffett does.
For example, when we were in the textile business, which is a terrible commodity business, we were making low-end textiles which are a real commodity product. And one day, the people came to Warren and said, "They've invented a new loom that we think will do twice as much work as our old ones."
And Warren said, "Gee, I hope this doesn't work because if it does, I'm going to close the mill." And he meant it.
What was he thinking? He was thinking, "It's a lousy business. We're earning substandard returns and keeping it open just to be nice to the elderly workers.B ut we're not going to put huge amounts of new capital into a lousy business." And he knew that the huge productivity increases that would come from a better machine introduced into the production of a commodity product would all go to the benefit of the buyers of the textiles. Nothing was going to stick to our ribs as owners.
That's such an obvious concept -that there are all kinds of wonderful new inventions that give you nothing as owners except the opportunity to spend a lot more money in a business that's still going to be lousy. The money still won't come to you. All of the advantages from great improvements are going to flow through to the customers.
Conversely, if you own the only newspaper in Oshkosh and they were to invent more efficient ways of composing the whole newspaper, then when you got rid of the old technology and got new fancy computers and so forth, all of the savings would come right through to the bottom line.
In all cases, the people who sell the machinery -and, by and large, even the internal bureaucrats urging you to buy the equipment show you projections with the amount you'll save at current prices with the new technology. However, they don't do the second step of the analysis which is to determine how much is going stay home and how much is just going to flow through to the customer. I've never seen a single projection incorporating that second step in my life. And I see them all the time. Rather, they always read: "This capital outlay will save you so much money that it will pay for itself in three years." So you keep buying things that will pay for themselves in three years. And after 20 years of doing it, somehow you've earned a return of only about 4% per annum. That's the textile business.
And it isn't that the machines weren't better. It's just that the savings didn't go to you. The cost reductions came through all right. But the benefit of the cost reductions didn't go to the guy who bought the equipment. It's such a simple idea. It's so basic. And yet it's so often forgotten.
Continue to read Part II.