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Oracle wisdom

DOUG? By Guest Blogger Doug Rowat

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There are many famous Warren Buffett stories, but perhaps my favourite is the one told by his first wife, Susan Buffett.

As the story goes, one day when Susan was sick she asked Warren for a bowl for her bedside because she was feeling nauseous. Warren banged around in the kitchen and eventually came back with a colander. Frustrated, Susan explained that this wouldn’t work because it had holes in it. Warren returned to the kitchen, banged around some more and returned with the same colander but this time on a cookie sheet.

Such is the impossibility of trying to decipher the mind of a genius.

Though much has been written about Warren Buffett, perhaps those who have deciphered him best, at least in terms of his approach to investing, are David Clark and Mary Buffett (Warren’s daughter-in-law).

Their many books on Warren contain great insight into his techniques and approach to the market. While too numerous and complex to detail in their entirety, one surprisingly straightforward factor that contributes to his investing success is simply this: he buys old companies.

Why? Because Warren likes companies that have predictable products and predictable profits. And a brand-name product or service that’s been around a long time, preferably decades, gives a company a durable competitive advantage, which usually results in better and more consistent performance. Warren’s famous explanation of why he likes Wrigley’s chewing gum, which was first introduced in the 1890s, perhaps says it best: “I don’t think the Internet is going to change how people chew gum.”

David Clark and Mary Buffett detail his preference for old companies in their book The Warren Buffett Stock Portfolio:

Why is OLD so important to Warren? It has to do with the product or service the company is selling. Take Coca-Cola for an example. Coke has been manufacturing and selling the same product for well over a hundred years. It spends very little on research and development and has to replace its manufacturing machinery only when it wears out. This means that the company gets maximum economic use out of its plants and equipment before it has to replace them.

Old also goes to the nature of the product. Do you think that if Coke has been selling the same product for the last hundred years, it will be selling the same product ten or twenty years from now?

Now, I don’t highlight this passage to recommend buying Coca-Cola stock—my preference for broad-based and diversified ETFs, as well as my Raymond James compliance department, prevents me from making this recommendation. However, I do highlight the passage to emphasize the importance of considering a company’s age before investing in it. It’s certainly not a complicated strategy, but nevertheless, all things being equal, buying older is better.

Indeed, when I looked at the components of the S&P 500 and ranked them all by ‘years of incorporation’ and simply split the Index in half, the oldest half has outperformed the youngest half over both the past five years and the past 10 years. Unsurprisingly, these older companies have also been less volatile. (Looking at periods longer than 10 years gets problematic as the number of data points gets scarcer as too many younger companies actually don’t have 15-, 20- or 30-year trading histories.) What’s even more remarkable is that the youngest half contains a large proportion of high-flying information technology and consumer discretionary stocks such as Netflix and Amazon. Yet collectively, the old fuddy-duddies, like Johnson & Johnson and Kroger, still came out on top overall. In fact, virtually all of the top-10 oldest companies were incorporated prior to 1900 (some prior to the Civil War!).

The youngster in the top-10 was Eli Lilly, but even this company was still incorporated over a century ago in 1901. (To put 1901 into perspective, there were fewer than a million phones in use in the US and carrier pigeons were still sometimes used to send messages.) So, clearly, in terms of business models, any companies that’ve been around for a hundred years or more must know a thing or two about creating and offering successful products and services.

I further examined how this older-is-better approach has infiltrated (albeit somewhat unintentionally) our own portfolio management at Turner Investments. In particular, with our Canadian equity exposure. For many years now we have taken a non-benchmark approach to the Canadian equity market, overweighting an ETF that minimizes volatility and dramatically limits energy exposure. However, as it turns out, this ETF also contains companies that are much older on average than those in the overall S&P/TSX Composite. Unsurprisingly, the ETF that we selected has strongly outperformed:

Better with age

Source: Bloomberg, *measures years of incorporation
Click to enlarge

So, Warren Buffett, as usual, was right. Older is better.

Companies, it seems, are like fine wines: they get better with age.
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And finally, this came in my junk mail this week. Could there be a surer sign that Covid-19 is becoming a normalized part of our lives? I hope that they’re all actually smiling under those masks…

Doug Rowat, FCSI? is Portfolio Manager with Turner Investments and Senior Vice President, Private Client Group, Raymond James Ltd.

 

 

Dr. Garth

We have the vaccine! Four consecutive doses of this pathetic blog will cure acid reflux, ennui, cat-fancying, impotence and house-horniness at the same time. No Lysol injections required, unless you’ve bene exposed to Brad Lamb or Don Campbell. So strip off that mask, face shield, Nitrile gloves, codpiece and plastic over-booties. Dr. Garth is here, your public health wonk. It’s all good.

“I enjoy your blog and am happy to learn about finances from someone with experience and knowledge. Certainly not a strength of mine. (I’m not one of the crazies.),” writes Ian.

I owned a little place in downtown Oshawa. A nice “addict-friendly” neighborhood. When housing took off, we sold it for a big profit and rented a lesser home with a lot more property. We invested the profits in bank stocks and watched it grow until “Pandemania.” It will grow again and we are being patient.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve given up on EVER owning a home. I would read your blog and it would accurately foretell all the difficulties the housing market faced. I kept waiting for prices to go down, and they just never did. Not because you were wrong, (heaven forbid) but because the government would step in and do anything to keep the real estate cash cow grazing. I never foresaw interest rates going down to what they are now. Am I wrong? Will the day come where I can buy a house that won’t be a million-dollar anchor holding my family down?

Maybe you have some advice for someone waiting for prices to come back to Earth? It sure would be great reading. Clicking on your blog in the evening is the high point of my day. Thanks for all you do.

Sounds like you cashed out of your druggie-infested hood at about the right time as local values peaked three years ago. Good work. But why stick all the proceeds into individual stocks? This therapeutic blog never suggested that strategy. And banks were whacked by the virus. More whacking could be coming, too. A B&D portfolio made significant gains last year and has been healing nicely after the Covid crushing in March.

Whither GTA real estate prices? Nothing has changed. Mini-fervour now as pent-up demand clashes with re-opening, fueled by 2% mortgages, then a drag later when the deferral cliff hits and CERB peters out. Property taxes are going up. Insurance is rising. Condo fees, too. The virus has upset the financial stability of society in general, and real estate will not be spared. In fact, it’s a target. Landlords in negative cash flow. Rents falling. Airbnb imploding. Credit tightening. Just wait. In the meantime, dial back the testo and dump the stocks.

“Love the blog, and have learned a lot from it. You’re doing us all a real service,” says Tim, in his MSU.

A question for you…. I am trying to make sense of some bafflegab that my Ontario public-sector defined-benefit pension plan is handing us about how they have to cut benefits “to keep the plan sustainable.” (Which should itself be a warning to anyone counting on seemingly secure DB plans instead of taking on the risk of cashing out the commuted value and managing it oneself.)

They’re bragging about the pension fund getting an 11.4% net return in 2019. I’d like to know, what was the return on a balanced 60-40 portfolio a la Dr. Garth? (If it matters, their effective MER is about 0.63% as far as I can tell, which is not as bad as some mutual funds but not, as far as I can tell, exactly great either.) Feel free to use this email as fodder for the blog if you see fit. Again, I really appreciate your efforts to drop the science on us.

It’s always worth remembering, Tim, that pension funds are businesses and throw off a ton of cash flow to the managers, administrators, portfolio dudes and sponsoring body. They want you to buy back time, to be obedient and unquestioning and (especially) never cash out through a commutation. But, of course, the reasons to commute are huge – more personal control, lower potential taxes, family financial security and usually better returns.

So last year a balanced & diversified 60/40 portfolio of the kind prescribed here and extensively canine-tested, delivered 15.22%. The nine-year average is currently 7.24%. We’ll see what 2020 delivers, but it’s looking okay. This portfolio is far less volatile and more predictable than one based on equities and honours the two goals most people have: (a) achieve a reasonable rate of return and (b) preserve capital. If that’s what you want, get vaxxed. Don’t be a cowboy (like Ian).

New here’s Will. Excuse him. He’s in love.

“Thank you for all the years of sharing your knowledge. I met you, shook your hand and got your autograph in your book one sunny day at the Victoria Conference Centre a good many years ago. The woman who attended with me as my wife is no longer my wife. We share a beautiful daughter together though and I cherish the lessons that union taught me.

I know that one piece of financial advise you extoll is to stay married to the same person for life. I wonder what your advise would be for a not so young anymore man that is in love and considering a lifelong commitment including marriage. Aside from the love, companionship and support that a special person can bring into another’s life what are some of the financial reasons I may or may not want to get married again? Am I best to stay “single” and enjoy my life with this amazing woman or am I better to tie the knot as after two years of cohabitation we are in the eyes of the law married anyways but without the potential financial benefits.

I make close to $100,000/year and she makes $50k. We have investments totaling a few hundred thousand and my pension with the Prov of BC. My job is very secure. She of course wants a house/townhouse/condo and I have asked her to wait at least twelve months. I am 49 and she is 46. My daughter is 9 and her two kids are 15 and 18. Their Dad is a professor at UVIC and is not a deadbeat Dad and everyone gets along well.? Any wisdom you can share would be greatly appreciated!

Okay, Will, we get it. She’s da one. You’re smitten. What now?

Since 2013 couples in a ‘marriage-like relationship’ in BC are actually considered hitched. Same as married. Chain. Ball. The works. That means if you break up there must be a 50/50 split of all shared assets and debts, including that house she wants. This also extends to your pension, as well as your registered retirement assets and other accounts.

You (and she) can protect yourself somewhat if married with a pre-nup agreement that clearly states what things you have individually brought into the relationship and should be excluded if it fails. But if you buy a home, both go on title and arrange financing as co-signatories, that’s a joint holding. If you split, one partner will likely have to buy out the other, or the place is sold and the proceeds split. Simple: under family law couples share whatever they acquire while together.

As for tax planning, common-law or single matters not. Income can be split with a spousal RRSP (to which you can contribute, claiming the deduction, and she gets to withdraw at a reduced tax rate after three years), through the means of a spousal loan (at the proscribed 2% rate, which drops next week, tax-deductible, no attribution) or by sharing pension benefits. You can, and should, have a joint non-registered investment account as well as a joint bank chequing account. Failure to merge finances is a big mistake lots of second-marriage folks make, thinking they’re retaining independence and flexibility.

Nope. Ignore what all those female advisors tell you. No secret bank accounts allowed. No mad money. For relationships to work, you need transparency, honesty, cooperation and, above all, trust. If you make it through this life with one good friend, you’ve won. That comes only through the surrender of self.

We’re done. Congratulations, you’re immune.