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Warren’s Way

Kai Sato

I GRADUATED FROM college in 2007, shortly before the economy was brought to its knees by the Great Recession. I worked in asset management for Macerich (symbol: MAC), a publicly traded real estate investment trust. During the panic, the company’s share price plunged from $92 to $5.

There was fear in the markets. You might even say mass hysteria. Our executives were mostly miserable because their stock options were underwater. Waves of layoffs ensued. Knowing the company’s balance sheet was relatively healthy, I began buying shares—although I didn’t have much money and I was pretty clueless as an investor.

What I didn’t know then was that 2008-09 would present one of the best investment opportunities of my lifetime. I’ve continued to invest, mostly following the advice of Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, the chairman and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Along the way, I’ve made millions of dollars’ worth of mistakes—but I’ve also enjoyed some success and learned an awful lot.

Being raised in a family where money was tight—my parents had to file for bankruptcy—I root for people to invest well. I also agree with Buffett that most people should “consistently buy an S&P 500 low-cost index fund; keep buying it through thick and thin, and especially through thin.”

What if, like me, you feel compelled to actively manage your investments? I’d suggest following Buffett and Munger’s philosophy. Here are 10 rules I’ve distilled by studying their approach to investing.

1. Limit yourself to 10 “units.” “Your goal as an investor should be simply to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily understood business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, 10, and 20 years from now,” says Buffett. “Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet those standards.”

Growing up, I was always told to diversify. If you’re going to actively manage your stock investments, that advice goes out the window. Good ideas are rare, and you should only invest in something if you’re willing to risk 10% of your capital, advises Buffett.

I take this literally, and imagine my portfolio as containing only 10 units. I’ll usually buy a pilot position and then scale up as my conviction rises. It’s not uncommon for a single position to be worth 20% to 30% of my portfolio.

2. Swing at your pitch and only your pitch. “The trick in investing is just to sit there and watch pitch after pitch go by and wait for the one right in your sweet spot,” says Buffett. “And if people are yelling, ‘swing, you bum,’ ignore them.”

You must determine your pitch. Mine is to invest in small public companies that have undergone a management change and are demonstrating sound capital allocation, with the results starting to appear in their financial performance.

An example is Lattice Semiconductor (LSCC). A capable and motivated CEO, Jim Anderson, took the helm in 2018. He focused the company on a single market segment where it had a competitive advantage: low-power chips that can be reprogrammed. Demand for such chips was exploding, thanks to 5G, edge computing and the internet of things.

 Anderson also succeeded in revamping the company’s culture, with the employees committed to delighting the firm’s target customers. That’s started to show in its financial performance. When the markets plummeted in early 2020, I added significantly to my holdings. Shares were below $20 then; they’ve traded above $70 recently.

3. Bet more when your conviction rises. “The wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity,” says Munger. “They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don’t. It’s just that simple.”

I overlooked this one for a long time. I was content with a decent gain instead of adding more money to a winning position. It’s much like a poker game, where you raise your bet when you think you have the best hand. I now use a modified version of the Kelly Formula, which leads to heavier bets when the outcome looks auspicious.

One big bet I undertook recently was Atlas Corporation (ATCO). Atlas’s CEO is the former Berkshire Hathaway executive David Sokol, who’s fashioning Atlas into a mini version of his old employer. Unlike Berkshire, however, Atlas pays a decent dividend. I’d happily hold this stock indefinitely, but it’s likely being taken private by its largest shareholders.

4. Do lots of reading and learning—but not trading. “The real money is in the waiting, not the trading,” says Munger.

While my day job is building early stage tech companies, I commit the first 90 minutes of each day to value investing. I copied this from Munger who, when he was still practicing law, would dedicate the first hour of his workday to his investments.

I read, think and meditate. My actual transactions during this time are minimal. While there are some amazing traders out there, I’m not one of them. For me, this time is better spent revisiting key concepts from some of the best books about Buffett.

5. Be a contrarian and ignore most pundits. “It’s not enough to do the opposite of what others are doing,” says Buffett. “You have to understand what they’re doing; understand why it’s wrong; know what to do instead; have the nerve to act in a contrary fashion; and be willing to look terribly wrong until the ship turns and you’re proved right.”

Being contrarian suits me because I’m competitive and I like to reach my own conclusions. Companies are like puzzles. I enjoy reviewing financials, listening to earnings calls and scrutinizing shareholder letters. I like being an investment committee of one, where you make money when you’re right—and pay the price when you’re wrong.

6. Use your small portfolio to your advantage. “Clearly you run into companies that are less followed,” Buffett says. “There’s more chances for inefficiency when you’re dealing with something where you can buy $100,000 worth of it in a month rather than $100 million.”

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Berkshire is too big to invest in smaller companies now. As an everyday investor, your investment universe is far larger. It takes in small- and micro-cap stocks—meaning companies with market values of less than $2 billion and $300 million, respectively. Companies this size make up more than half of the stocks listed on U.S. exchanges, yet they’re often out of reach of institutional investors.

7. Capitalize on market cycles but don’t time them. “Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful,” Buffett famously advised.

I study market cycles in hopes of capitalizing on them. Howard Marks’s book, Mastering the Market Cycle, is an excellent overview of booms and busts, which are largely driven by credit—or the lack thereof. As legendary value investor Ben Graham taught us, Mr. Market will sometimes present us with great stocks at cheap prices. The key is to buy when others are petrified.

8. Leverage yield, especially “yield on cost,” over long holding periods. “Generate funds at 3% and invest them at 13%,” Munger advises.

Ideally, you’ll have at least one holding that returns your entire initial investment every time you receive a dividend payment. While it can take a number of years, you only need to find one or two of these in your investment career, as Buffett has demonstrated with Coca-Cola and American Express. Yet I’ve made horrendous mistakes around this principle.

My prescient grandmother bought 100 shares of Exxon for me in the mid-1980s, shortly after I was born. The stock split two-for-one in 1987, 1997 and 2001. The money was intended for my college education, but—thanks to academic scholarships—I was able to hang on to the 800 shares. Then, thinking that I was wisely diversifying, I sold half my shares in 2007.

At times, my mother and I relied on the dividend income to make ends meet. If that hadn’t been necessary, imagine what the position would be worth today if we’d reinvested all dividends and held on to all the shares—and how today’s annual dividends would compare to the original cost of the shares.

Regrettably, I made the same mistake again years later, selling a great stock, Innovative Industrial Properties (IIPR), far too early. Now paying nearly 40% of its initial purchase price in annual dividends, it would have been an incredible core portfolio holding.

9. Sell when the investment thesis changes. “We would sell if we needed money for something else—I would reluctantly sell something terribly cheap to buy something even cheaper,” Buffett says.

The ideal holding period is forever. But if you find a better use for your capital, or when the investment thesis changes, it’s likely time to sell. As I mentioned at the start, I bought shares of my employer, Macerich, during the Great Recession. I bought even more shares when they fell into the single digits.

The thesis changed when its largest competitor offered to acquire the company for $91 per share in 2015. The stock surged on the news and I sold my entire position. That was a significant premium for a business that I no longer wanted to own “forever.”

10. Judge your performance against the S&P 500. “If any three-year or longer period produces poor results, we all should start looking around for other places to have our money,” Buffett writes.

Value investing is hard. While Buffett and Stan Druckenmiller have produced incredible streaks of outperformance in their careers, even great investors have down years. A concentrated portfolio is prone to significant swings and may show paper losses. Buffett’s test is to compare your long-run returns to the S&P 500. If you aren’t able to beat it, it’s probably wiser to index.

Kai Sato is the founder of Kaizen Reserve, Inc., a venture capital advisory firm for corporations and family offices. He recently served as the co-president and chief marketing officer of Crown ElectroKinetics (CRKN), a smart glass technology company that combats climate change. Kai is also a fund advisor and the former entrepreneur-in-residence at Hatch, a global startup accelerator focused on helping feed the world through sustainable aquaculture technologies. He’s the author of “Marketing ArchitectureHow to Attract Customers, Hires, and Investors for Any Company Under 50 Employees.” Follow Kai on Twitter @KaiDaywalker.

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Nagaraj Arakere
Nagaraj Arakere
9 days ago

Interesting article, Kai. I am a big admirer of Buffett and Munger and have attended the annual Berkshire meeting at Omaha several times. Berkshire is pretty much the only significant stock holding I have owned since the early 1990’s besides the S&P Vanguard Index fund. I am aware of David Sokol since he was CEO of Mid American Energy, which Berkshire bought in 2000.
FYI, David Sokol is Chairman of Atlas Corp, not CEO.

SCao
SCao
13 days ago

Thanks for the article. Good luck to you, as stock picking is not easy at all and takes tons of time for research. Personally, I am a big fan of both Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. Tons of wisdom when they speak.

Frank O'Brien
Frank O'Brien
13 days ago

hmmm, if this fellow can pick stocks then maybe I can too…?

Nahhh, Last CO I bet on went from $3 to $60, I thought it would go higher…and now it’s less than 3 bucks. I don’t know their mgmt, I can’t see their books, and then COVID hit and changed everything.

Fortunately, I’ve been reading Jonathan for years and stick with things I can control: VTI at .03 expense, zero debt, specific insurance products, spend time with people I want to help, and take care of my health to enjoy it all.

Thanks for the Teaser article Jonathan ~ but no FOMO here.

Last edited 13 days ago by Frank O'Brien
Nate Allen
Nate Allen
12 days ago
Reply to  Frank O'Brien

Why VTI over VT?
Betting on continued US outperformance?

Frank O'Brien
Frank O'Brien
12 days ago
Reply to  Nate Allen

I like the way JL Collins explains it…the largest companies in the S&P 500 (which is the bulk of VTI) are international by definition. Which is good enough for me, complements my other stuff, and keeps it awfully simple. But when in doubt, I’ll always defer to Jonathan and his model portfolios.

Nate Allen
Nate Allen
12 days ago
Reply to  Frank O'Brien

Presumably some of the companies listed in the article above, such as Lattice Semiconductor, are international. That wouldn’t be a reason I would limit myself to fewer stocks, though.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
13 days ago

“I also agree with Buffett that most people should “consistently buy an S&P 500 low-cost index fund; keep buying it through thick and thin, and especially through thin.”What if, like me, you feel compelled to actively manage your investments?”

And just why do you “feel compelled” to ignore Buffet’s advice? Especially when you acknowledge you have made some very expensive mistakes? Thanks, but I’ll stick to my boring index funds and minuscule fees, not to mention minimal time investment.

Olin
Olin
13 days ago

Enjoyed the article. Never heard of the Kelly Formula or some of the stocks mentioned.

Wishing you great success!

William Perry
William Perry
13 days ago

Thanks Kai,

Your article peaked my interest in Macerich. I went to their 9/30/2022 SEC 8-K to learn more about the company.

Per the 8-K – the Company is a fully integrated, self-managed and self-administered real estate investment trust, which focuses on the acquisition, leasing, management, development and redevelopment of regional town centers throughout the United States. 2022 was not kind to them or other REIT’s.

Your point #9, the facts changed, seems to have been the critical factor in your sell decision. I would guess the economic events since Simon issued it’s best and last offer for MAC in 2015 have helped shape your thinking going forward. I am glad to hear you got out near the top.

I fall into the group who just buy broad base index funds as you and Warren Buffet suggest for most investors.

Best, Bill

Kenneth Tobin
Kenneth Tobin
13 days ago

50 Years of Indexing and 100% successful. The next 50 yrs will replicate the past. Buffett made his big dollars last century. He knows he cannot beat the mkts as his wife was directed to put 90% of the inheritance in to the S&P500 index fund. Investing in stocks is that SIMPLE. Of course the distribution phase is a bit more complex to avoid SORR

parkslope
parkslope
13 days ago

Good article.
I can’t help but wonder if we will ever see another Buffett or if today’s widespread awareness of value investing and the numerous other change in today’s investing environment has made that impossible.

Purple Rain
Purple Rain
11 days ago
Reply to  parkslope

He is British and his name is Terry Smith.

Richard Gore
Richard Gore
13 days ago
Reply to  parkslope

Thanks for the article.

I agree that on the whole investors are more knowledgeable than in the past, but at the same time, it seems the focus on short-term results & career risk has also intensified. I think the ability to take a truly long-term perspective is another advantage of the individual investor.

I like everything about building my own portfolio one stock at a time. The key to me is being flexible. It seems no one style works all the time. That might be one reason mutual funds fail to beat the index over time because they are required to stick to one style.

For instance, in 2000 I was 100% in REIT stocks. The next few years were great for me when the index suffered huge losses because the index overweighted Tech stocks. However, by 2005 I was out of REITs and other financial stocks and invested mostly in consumer staples and large tech stocks. Of course I was down in 2009 but much less than the index which at that time overweighted Financials.

The only exception I would make to the prescriptions in the article above is that I don’t think it is advisable to sit on the sidelines because in general the market goes up. Hence, I stay fully invested. I just to invest where in the market sectors where the values are better than the market as a whole.

Rob Jennings
Rob Jennings
13 days ago

As someone who was well into mid-career in 2007-9 and saw my 401k become a 201k and take several years to recover, I definitely learnt the lessons of risk management which I have taken into early retirement. The folks who retired when you started had a very difficult time and many unretired.

Juan Fourneau
Juan Fourneau
13 days ago

Thank you for the article. Number 5 I like. “It’s not enough to do the opposite of what others are doing,”. I’ve thought at times it was this simple. It’s been a blind spot in my thinking.

Don Southworth
Don Southworth
14 days ago

Thanks Kai. Great article and great name for the company. You clearly walk your talk re: kaizen.

Bill Kosar
Bill Kosar
13 days ago
Reply to  Don Southworth

Great article. Lots of good thoughts and congratulations on your success!

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