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When a guru loses his mojo

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When a guru loses his mojo.

I've always thought Buffett epitomises best practice investing and we'd be crazy not to heed his advice, shared freely and often.

How odd it feels to admit today I don't agree with everything he says. Sacrilege! I've lost count of the Warren Buffett quotes I've used over the years to illustrate aspects of investment theory — and he is arguably the best active investor alive today, so who am I to disagree with him?

I don't believe he says anything wrong per se; I just think the nature of his advice has changed and needs to be kept in perspective.

When I first began my investing career, I would eagerly read or listen to every snippet from or about Warren Buffett.

I learned about sticking to what you know; investing without emotion; ignoring the market; being patient and waiting for a good price before buying and to understand the fundamental characteristics of a good company — the sort you'd want to own forever.

I attended one of his annual shareholder meetings in Nebraska with 40,000 other disciples and hung on his every word as he chatted and answered questions for hours, chewing peanut brittle and drinking soft drinks to maintain his energy.

This year's shareholder meeting was apparently much the same as previous years but Buffett's discourse has become more wide-ranging. He was as happy to tackle questions on politicians, immigration and taxes as he was to discuss his individual investments.

He commented on other investment professionals (hedge fund managers) in unflattering terms and even disagreed with partner Charlie Munger on the best investments for their heirs.

While I understand how Buffett's communications have evolved, not everyone does. His past advice was generally confined to investment philosophy, a way of thinking about investing.

In recent years, he has offered more opinion than philosophy and his comments are more generic — like dissing all hedge fund managers; there must be one or two nice ones...

Last year, and again at his recent shareholder meeting, Buffett stated his trustees should invest 10 per cent in short-term government bonds and 90 per cent in an S&P500 index fund after his death. He said he believed the trust's long term results from this policy would "be superior to those attained by most investors".

This goes against the grain and to my mind is very un-Buffett-like.

Buffett has always supported the notion of diversification — spreading your investment widely to reduce the risk of one going bad.

Why then would he recommend a portfolio of just 500 mainly large US companies for his widow, meaning she'll miss out on thousands of other potentially attractive US companies, let alone those in other countries?

As for the 10 per cent in short-term government bonds, Buffett has long thought of short-term bonds as a parking place until a better investment came along. What is his widow to do when they mature? Play the bond market and take a view on the direction of interest rates?

Buffett recently clarified his trust's policy saying his wife "won't need to beat the market. She's going to have more money than she needs". Ah, that explains it.

Ten years ago you could have acted on any piece of Buffett's advice in good faith. Not now.

As much as I feel uncomfortable disagreeing with an investing guru, I guess it is a timely reminder to understand the difference between general advice, personalised advice and plain old opinion.

 

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