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Rupert Hargreaves
Rupert Hargreaves
Articles (542)  | Author's Website |

Warren Buffett on the Joys of Compounding

Guru was especially vocal on this topic in early partnership letters

July 13, 2017 | About:

Warren Buffett (Trades, Portfolio) is known for his love of compounding and without it, he would not be where he is today.

Over the years he’s mentioned the benefits of letting your wealth compound numerous times; he was especially vocal about this principle in his early partnership letters. Here’s what he said on the topic in the early years.

“I have it from unreliable sources that the cost of the voyage Isabella originally underwrote for Columbus was approximately $30,000. This has been considered at least a moderately successful utilization of venture capital. Without attempting to evaluate the psychic income derived from finding a new hemisphere, it must be pointed out that even had squatter's rights prevailed, the whole deal was not exactly another IBM (NYSE:IBM). Figured very roughly, the $30,000 invested at 4% compounded annually would have amounted to something like $2,000,000,000,000 (that's $2 trillion for those of you who are not government statisticians) by 1962. Historical apologists for the Indians of Manhattan may find refuge in similar calculations. Such fanciful geometric progressions illustrate the value of either living a long time or compounding your money at a decent rate. I have nothing particularly helpful to say on the former point.” – January 1963

“Since the whole subject of compounding has such a crass ring to it, I will attempt to introduce a little class into this discussion by turning to the art world. Francis I of France paid 4,000 écus in 1540 for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. On the off chance that a few of you have not kept track of the fluctuations of the écu 4,000 converted out to about $20,000. If Francis had kept his feet on the ground and he (and his trustees) had been able to find a 6% after-tax investment, the estate now would be worth something over $1,000,000,000,000,000.00. That's $1 quadrillion or over 3,000 times the present national debt, all from 6%. I trust this will end all discussion in our household about any purchase or paintings qualifying as an investment. However, as I pointed out last year, there are other morals to be drawn here. One is the wisdom of living a long time. The other impressive factor is the swing produced by relatively small changes in the rate of compound.” – January 1964

“One story stands out. This, of course, is the saga of trading acumen etched into history by the Manhattan Indians when they unloaded their island to that notorious spendthrift, Peter Minuit, in 1626. My understanding is that they received $24 net. For this, Minuit received 22.3 square miles which works out to about 621,688,320 square feet. While on the basis of comparable sales, it is difficult to arrive at a precise appraisal, a $20 per square foot estimate seems reasonable giving a current land value for the island of $12,433,766,400 ($12.5 billion). To the novice, perhaps this sounds like a decent deal. However, the Indians have only had to achieve a 6.5% return (The tribal mutual fund representative would have promised them this.) to obtain the last laugh on Minuit. At 6.5%, $24 becomes $42,105,772,800 ($42 billion) in 338 years, and if they just managed to squeeze out an extra half point to get to 7%, the present value becomes $205 billion.” January 1965

“The Sorrows of Compounding. Usually, at this point in my letter, I have paused to modestly attempt to set straight the historical errors of the last four or five hundred years. While it might seem difficult to accomplish this in only a few paragraphs a year, I feel I have done my share to reshape world opinion on Columbus, Isabella, Francis I, Peter Minuit and the Manhattan Indians. A byproduct of this endeavor has been to demonstrate the overwhelming power of compound interest. To insure reader attention I have titled these essays 'The Joys of Compounding.' The sharp-eyed may notice a slight change this year.

"A decent rate (better we have an indecent rate) of compound plus the addition of substantial new money has brought our beginning capital this year to $43,645,000. Several times in the past I have raised the question whether increasing amounts of capital would harm our investment performance. Each time I have answered negatively and promised you that if my opinion changed, I would promptly report it.

"I now feel that we are much closer to the point where increased size may prove disadvantageous. I don't want to ascribe too much precision to that statement since there are many variables involved. What may be the optimum size under some market and business circumstances can be substantially more or less than optimum under other circumstances. There have been a few times in the past when, on a very short-term basis, I have felt it would have been advantageous to be smaller but substantially more times when the converse was true.” January 1966

Disclosure: The author owns no share mentioned.

About the author:

Rupert Hargreaves
Rupert is a committed value investor and regularly writes and invests following the principles set out by Benjamin Graham. Prior to his investing and writing career, Rupert was as a proprietary currency trader. Rupert holds qualifications from the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investment and the CFA Society of the UK. He covers everything value investing for ValueWalk and other sites on a freelance basis.

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