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Buffett’s Claim About Mistakes of Omission Being His Greatest Regret Is a Bunch of Bunk

December 18, 2010 | About:

I’ve been chewing on this for a long, long time and finally decided to get it out of my system. First though I want you to know that I am a Buffett junkie like most self proclaimed value investors. I’ve read every letter to shareholders a few times and every one of the Buffett Partnership letters. And of course the various Buffett books, and transcripts of the annual meeting.

But I really disagree with Buffett on one thing, and that is his claim of his greatest errors being those of omission rather than commission. Here are comments from Buffett and Munger at the 2004 annual meeting:

The main mistakes we’ve made – some of them big time – are: 1) Ones when we didn’t invest at all, even when we understood it was cheap; and 2) Starting in on an investment and not maximizing it.

Charlie is a big fan of doing things on a big scale. But when I bought something at X and it went up to X and 1/8th, I sometimes stopped buying, perhaps hoping it would come back down. We’ve missed billions when I’ve gotten anchored.

Munger: Do you have anything worse to confess than Wal-Mart?

Buffett: I cost us about $10 billion. I set out to buy 100 million sharers, pre-split, at $23. We bought a little and it moved up a bit and I stopped buying. Perhaps I thought it might come back a bit – who knows? That thumb-sucking, the reluctance to pay a little more, cost us a lot. There are other examples.

And Buffett Again on mistakes of omission from the 2007 Letter to shareholders:

About the time of the See’s purchase, Tom Murphy, then running Capital Cities Broadcasting,called and offered me the Dallas-Fort Worth NBC station for $35 million. The station came with the Fort

Worth paper that Capital Cities was buying, and under the “cross-ownership” rules Murph had to divest it.

I knew that TV stations were See’s-like businesses that required virtually no capital investment and had

excellent prospects for growth. They were simple to run and showered cash on their owners.

Moreover, Murph, then as now, was a close friend, a man I admired as an extraordinary manager

and outstanding human being. He knew the television business forward and backward and would not have called me unless he felt a purchase was certain to work. In effect Murph whispered “buy” into my ear. But I didn’t listen.

In 2006, the station earned $73 million pre-tax, bringing its total earnings since I turned down the

deal to at least $1 billion – almost all available to its owner for other purposes. Moreover, the property now has a capital value of about $800 million. Why did I say “no”? The only explanation is that my brain had gone on vacation and forgot to notify me. (My behavior resembled that of a politician Molly Ivins once

described: “If his I.Q. was any lower, you would have to water him twice a day.”)

I understand what he is trying to say. When you have quality in front of you at a fair or excellent price buy a big position, don’t worry about a few percentage points one way or the other. But what I desperately want to ask Buffett is how much have you saved Berkshire shareholders BECAUSE of your thumb sucking. How many times were you able to get a better price because you had such incredible discipline and refused to pay up ? How many times did your thumb sucking allow you to have a boatload of cash at your disposal at exactly the correct moment ? How many tens of thousands of good decisions did you make by passing on certain investment opportunities ?

My point is this. Buffett’s discipline and thumb sucking is probably the single greatest contributor to his investment outperformance over the year. Of course there are going to be a few instances where it resulted in him sitting on the sidelines when he should have been playing. Or more accurately taking pitches when he should have been swinging. Those omissions aren’t mistakes they are part of what makes Buffett great. Yes, looking back on the two examples above make it look like the decision to buy should have been obvious, but rather than having this short list of mistakes of omission I’d much rather have his very long list of investments he passed on where those pitches that he took were good decisions.

I say wear your mistakes of omission as a badge of honor Warren. That thumb sucking is what has made you great. I struggle every day to keep my thumbs in my mouth and off my buy button. Because of you Warren I’ve learned that sitting with cash is not a bad thing, it is a very sensible option. Yes I will miss a lot of opportunities and may underperform the stock market for long stretches of time. But I will not lose money. And that is the key to long term success. So I’m planning on making several mistakes of omission next week. And every week after that.

About the author:


Rating: 3.0/5 (36 votes)


Kfh227 - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

What Buffett probably does not talk about is all the time where he did wait for a pull back and it paid off. Probably some cognative bias prevents him from noticing it though. I know that when things go wrong, they tend to stick in my head alot more than when they go right. Because when they go right, it is simply because that was what was supposed to happen.

I've lost out on dollar cost averaging on SD and LEE recently because I jsut wanted to wait for 10% more of a drop and I missed it. I've also lost thousands on this kind of action and it sticks in my head.

Perhaps it is simply that Buffett's errors of omission are those that stick in his head the most.
Davethebooker - 6 years ago    Report SPAM
You must have courage of your convictions. Once you make an assesment you must stick with it , not waffle, for better or worse. Buffet is very cautious and makes more correct swings than incorrect.

The thumb sucking is something all good investors are guilty of at one time or another , you dont cry you just stick to what your plan is no matter what.

When we get off track on our selections our account values correct our thinking and get it back on track. We are human and make mistakes.

That is all warren is saying really. I am human I make mistakes , and look I can lose money too.

Look at NETJETS. Warren not only lost money , he sacrificed David Scokol ( almost) the emplyees hate David and probably Warren as well) .


Warren is a humble fellow , with a great mind , good wit , and someone who understands he is imperfect. He omissions are his admissions or his imperfection and his ability to make fun at his faults At least he gets some value out of it , right ?. We all have them so laugh away !!!

Sometimes we make money , fewer times we lose money , and to the ones we miss we just get a good laugh.
Sivaram - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

The way I look at it...

For good investors, mistakes of omission are the biggest mistakes they typically make; for newbies and not-so-good investors, mistakes of commission are their biggest problems.
the Spark
The Spark - 6 years ago    Report SPAM

I think you totally missed his point. He wasn't asked if, on balance thumb sucking has helped or hurt him. Of course it has helped him in countless cases. He was asked for specific mistakes and he has given several where thumbsucking was involved. Undoubtedly, if asked for his best plays, he would mention a couple times where he almost committed capital but waited and didn't, to Berkshire's benefit. For some reason you have taken specific examples of inaction and chosen to draw a universal conclusion about thumb sucking. I am sure Buffett never intended you to draw such a conclusion.

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