Why won't people listen to Buffett when he gives one of his rare predictions about the valuation of the overall stock market?
In fact, why don't people listen to everything that he says? It is pretty rare that what he observes doesn't with the benefit of hindsight appear to be true.
The article below is classic Buffett. It was written in November 1999 when everyone was writing him off as being washed up and not understanding the internet age. The article was a prescient call on what would happen in the next couple of years to the stock market which crashed.
FORTUNE Magazine) – Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, almost never talks publicly about the general level of stock prices--neither in his famed annual report nor at Berkshire's thronged annual meetings nor in the rare speeches he gives. But in the past few months, on four occasions, Buffett did step up to that subject, laying out his opinions, in ways both analytical and creative, about the long-term future for stocks. FORTUNE's Carol Loomis heard the last of those talks, given in September to a group of Buffett's friends (of whom she is one), and also watched a videotape of the first speech, given in July at Allen & Co.'s Sun Valley, Idaho, bash for business leaders. From those extemporaneous talks (the first made with the Dow Jones industrial average at 11,194), Loomis distilled the following account of what Buffett said. Buffett reviewed it and weighed in with some clarifications.
Investors in stocks these days are expecting far too much, and I'm going to explain why. That will inevitably set me to talking about the general stock market, a subject I'm usually unwilling to discuss. But I want to make one thing clear going in: Though I will be talking about the level of the market, I will not be predicting its next moves. At Berkshire we focus almost exclusively on the valuations of individual companies, looking only to a very limited extent at the valuation of the overall market. Even then, valuing the market has nothing to do with where it's going to go next week or next month or next year, a line of thought we never get into. The fact is that markets behave in ways, sometimes for a very long stretch, that are not linked to value. Sooner or later, though, value counts. So what I am going to be saying--assuming it's correct--will have implications for the long-term results to be realized by American stockholders.
Let's start by defining "investing." The definition is simple but often forgotten: Investing is laying out money now to get more money back in the future--more money in real terms, after taking inflation into account.
Now, to get some historical perspective, let's look back at the 34 years before this one--and here we are going to see an almost Biblical kind of symmetry, in the sense of lean years and fat years--to observe what happened in the stock market. Take, to begin with, the first 17 years of the period, from the end of 1964 through 1981. Here's what took place in that interval:
DOW JONES INDUSTRIAL AVERAGE Dec. 31, 1964: 874.12 Dec. 31, 1981: 875.00
Now I'm known as a long-term investor and a patient guy, but that is not my idea of a big move.
And here's a major and very opposite fact: During that same 17 years, the GDP of the U.S.--that is, the business being done in this country--almost quintupled, rising by 370%. Or, if we look at another measure, the sales of the FORTUNE 500 (a changing mix of companies, of course) more than sextupled. And yet the Dow went exactly nowhere.
To understand why that happened, we need first to look at one of the two important variables that affect investment results: interest rates. These act on financial valuations the way gravity acts on matter: The higher the rate, the greater the downward pull. That's because the rates of return that investors need from any kind of investment are directly tied to the risk-free rate that they can earn from government securities. So if the government rate rises, the prices of all other investments must adjust downward, to a level that brings their expected rates of return into line. Conversely, if government interest rates fall, the move pushes the prices of all other investments upward. The basic proposition is this: What an investor should pay today for a dollar to be received tomorrow can only be determined by first looking at the risk-free interest rate.
Consequently, every time the risk-free rate moves by one basis point--by 0.01%--the value of every investment in the country changes. People can see this easily in the case of bonds, whose value is normally affected only by interest rates. In the case of equities or real estate or farms or whatever, other very important variables are almost always at work, and that means the effect of interest rate changes is usually obscured. Nonetheless, the effect--like the invisible pull of gravity--is constantly there.
In the 1964-81 period, there was a tremendous increase in the rates on long-term government bonds, which moved from just over 4% at year-end 1964 to more than 15% by late 1981. That rise in rates had a huge depressing effect on the value of all investments, but the one we noticed, of course, was the price of equities. So there--in that tripling of the gravitational pull of interest rates--lies the major explanation of why tremendous growth in the economy was accompanied by a stock market going nowhere.
Then, in the early 1980s, the situation reversed itself. You will remember Paul Volcker coming in as chairman of the Fed and remember also how unpopular he was. But the heroic things he did--his taking a two-by-four to the economy and breaking the back of inflation--caused the interest rate trend to reverse, with some rather spectacular results. Let's say you put $1 million into the 14% 30-year U.S. bond issued Nov. 16, 1981, and reinvested the coupons. That is, every time you got an interest payment, you used it to buy more of that same bond. At the end of 1998, with long-term governments by then selling at 5%, you would have had $8,181,219 and would have earned an annual return of more than 13%.
That 13% annual return is better than stocks have done in a great many 17-year periods in history--in most 17-year periods, in fact. It was a helluva result, and from none other than a stodgy bond.
The power of interest rates had the effect of pushing up equities as well, though other things that we will get to pushed additionally. And so here's what equities did in that same 17 years: If you'd invested $1 million in the Dow on Nov. 16, 1981, and reinvested all dividends, you'd have had $19,720,112 on Dec. 31, 1998. And your annual return would have been 19%.
The increase in equity values since 1981 beats anything you can find in history. This increase even surpasses what you would have realized if you'd bought stocks in 1932, at their Depression bottom--on its lowest day, July 8, 1932, the Dow closed at 41.22--and held them for 17 years.
The second thing bearing on stock prices during this 17 years was after-tax corporate profits, which this chart [above] displays as a percentage of GDP. In effect, what this chart tells you is what portion of the GDP ended up every year with the shareholders of American business.
The chart, as you will see, starts in 1929. I'm quite fond of 1929, since that's when it all began for me. My dad was a stock salesman at the time, and after the Crash came, in the fall, he was afraid to call anyone--all those people who'd been burned. So he just stayed home in the afternoons. And there wasn't television then. Soooo... I was conceived on or about Nov. 30, 1929 (and born nine months later, on Aug. 30, 1930), and I've forever had a kind of warm feeling about the Crash.
As you can see, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP peaked in 1929, and then they tanked. The left-hand side of the chart, in fact, is filled with aberrations: not only the Depression but also a wartime profits boom--sedated by the excess-profits tax--and another boom after the war. But from 1951 on, the percentage settled down pretty much to a 4% to 6.5% range.