Buffett to investors: Think small

Lower your expectations, advised Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger at Berkshire's annual meeting Saturday. They also answered questions ranging from succession plans to the Cubs.

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By Jason Zweig, Money Magazine senior writer/columnist

I would most likely take financial advice from:
  • Warren Buffett
  • Donald Trump
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • President Bush

OMAHA(CNNMoney.com) -- In the Q&A session Saturday morning at Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting, CEO Warren Buffett and vice chairman Charlie Munger repeatedly warned investors to lower their expectations. When a shareholder asked whether Buffett's recent purchases of publicly traded stocks were likely to generate returns greater than 7% to 10% over time, Buffett promptly said no.

Note: What follows is based on a best-effort attempt to take accurate notes of a fast-moving discussion and does not purport to be an exact transcript of Buffett and Munger's remarks.

"We would be very happy if we earned 10%, pre-tax" on the additions to Berkshire's equity portfolio, said Buffett. "Anyone that expects us to come close to replicating the past should sell their stock; it isn't going to happen. We'll get decent results over time, but not indecent results." Added Munger: "You can take what Warren said to the bank. We are very happy at making money at a rate in the future that's much less than the past... and I suggest that you adopt the same attitude."

"We think Berkshire is an attractive investment [at today's price]," said Buffett. "We don't think it's the most attractive in the world."

Both men made it clear that their preference now is to acquire 100% ownership of private businesses at a "fair" price and to increase BRK's interest in companies that get substantial portions of their earnings in non-U.S. currencies.

"We are happy to invest in businesses that earn their money in euros in France or Italy or sterling in the UK, because I don't have a feeling that those currencies are likely to depreciate against the dollar," said Buffett. "Overall I think that the U.S. continues to follow policies that will make the dollar weaken against other major currencies.... I feel no need to hedge purchases of companies that earn profits in other currencies." Buffett added that major U.S. multinationals, like Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500), are a natural hedge against the dollar, since they earn most of their profits offshore -- which, he said, "will be a net plus over time."

Asked what's in store for the economy, Buffett said he doesn't have a clue and doesn't care.

"I haven't the faintest idea," he said. "We never talk about it, it never comes up in our board meetings or other discussions. We're not in that business [of economic forecasting], we don't know how to be in that business. If we knew where the economy was going, we'd do nothing but play the S&P futures market."

His simple point: As an investor, you don't need to predict the economic cycle (or even pay much attention to it). Instead, you should focus on evaluating individual businesses if you pick your own stocks -- or, simply buy the entire market in the form of an index fund. When a shareholder asked for the single best specific investment idea Buffett could recommend to an individual in his 30s, Buffett said: "I would just have it all in a very low-cost index fund from a reputable firm, maybe Vanguard. Unless I bought during a strong bull market, I would feel confident that I would outperform...and I could just go back and get on with my work."

In response to a similar question from an investor asking how Berkshire (BRKA, Fortune 500) would invest differently if it had only a few million dollars to put to work, Buffett advised him to think small. "That would open up thousands of opportunities," said Buffett. Earlier this year there were "very mispriced bonds" that "we could buy nowhere near enough of to make a difference to Berkshire," but a smaller investor could have exploited. "Most of the opportunities would probably be in small stocks or in specialized bond situations."

On succession

Asked about succession, Buffett (who is 77) and Munger (who is 84) had this to say:

"On the CEO front, we have three [internal candidates] who could step in," said Buffett. "The board is unanimous in knowing which one it would be, although the answer might change with time.... In terms of the [chief] investment officer, the board has four names, any one or all of whom would be good at my job. They all are happy where they are now [working outside of Berkshire], but any would be here tomorrow if I died tonight, they all are reasonably young, and compensation would not be a big factor.... There will be no gap after my death in terms of having someone manage the money. They'll be much more energetic [than I am] and may even have a better record."

Added Munger: "We still have a rising young man here named Warren Buffett. And I think we want to encourage this rising young man to reach his full potential." At this point, Buffett interjected: "At the average age of 80, we're aging at the average rate of only 1 1/4% per year. That's a lot better than younger people."

From the Cubs, to China

Later, asked by a teen shareholder whether he is interested in buying the Chicago Cubs (currently on sale by the Tribune Co. for roughly $700 million), Buffett said he did not need the "psychic income" and would not swing at the offer.

Asked whether Berkshire will seek to purchase entire private companies based in China or India, Buffett responded: "We would like to. If we get lucky, we'll buy one or two in the next three or four years. I don't know if it will be in China, India, Germany, the U.K. or Japan -- there's a lot of luck in that in terms of families thinking of us specifically.... But you will see the day that BRK owns businesses in both countries [India and China]."

Despite its huge cash hoard, Berkshire won't be paying a dividend anytime soon. "The test," said Buffett, "is whether you can continue to create more than $1 for every $1 you're retaining." He and Munger feel they still can put surplus cash to work and earn a higher return with it than shareholders could on their own, after tax, if BRK paid it out. "If we can turn $1 in dividends into $1.10 or $1.20 on a present-value basis, they're better off if we don't pay out. When the day comes, it should be paid out. But because we still have this ability to redistribute money in a tax-efficient way within the company, we can reallocate it," he said, where it will earn a higher return than shareholders may be able to on their own." To top of page

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