Appearing on CNBC ahead of Berkshire Hathaway’s annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, Buffett said he’d been “an idiot” for not buying shares of Amazon when they were cheap.
To be sure, Buffett is far from an idiot.
“Warren Buffett has said many times that he invests only within his circle of competence,” says David Kass, clinical professor of finance at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.
That circle, Kass says, covers about 20% of all listed securities, with much of it focused on the financial sector, food companies and consumer goods.
“Falling outside of this circle of competence are technology companies,” says Kass, who has studied Buffett’s investments and philosophy for more than 35 years. “Buffett acknowledges that he has no edge, no expertise, no reason why he would perform any better than anyone else in investing in technology companies.”
Those who do are likely to outperform the Oracle – at least in tech. And that’s why he has traditionally avoided tech stocks, with a few exceptions.
Both Buffett and Berkshire vice chairman Charlie Munger have expressed regret about not investing earlier in Google parent Alphabet, when shares could have been picked up for a sliver of the $1,170 they go for now. They both were aware of Google’s importance from its earliest days on the market, Kass says.
“I’ll give you an example,” Kass says. In 2005, less than a year after Google first went public, Kass traveled to Omaha with a group of Maryland Smith students, where they would have a private meeting with Buffett. Over the course of the conversation, Buffett would summarize Google’s economics and revenue sources.
Buffett did not feel comfortable investing in it then. And at the annual meeting, this past Saturday, Munger was asked again about this. His response? “We screwed up.”
Still, Kass notes, “they are not exactly running out to buy Google today.”
“With 20/20 hindsight, we can all look back at 2005 and say, ‘Gee, why didn’t we all invest in Google in 2005?’” Kass says. “But back then, there were other search engines and it wasn’t clear to everyone, though it likely was clear to some, that Google would not only dominate the search engine industry, but become a virtual monopoly in it.”
Omission vs. commission
Buffett has always said there are two types of investment errors that he has made – errors of omission and errors of commission.
“Google was an error of omission. He should have bought Google, but didn’t,” Kass says. “An error of commission, which did not come up during this annual meeting, came when he dabbled in technology in 2011, investing billions in IBM, and eventually selling at a loss.”
For an investor like Buffett, the loss is twofold. There’s the loss that’s realized with the decline of the share price. And there’s the bigger loss, says Kass, the opportunity cost of that capital. “Had he taken that same amount of money – about $10 billion – and invested it in the S&P 500, he would have doubled his money over the same time period.”
Win some, lose far fewer
“Most portfolio managers would be considered successful if they were right 70% of the time. Buffett is right 90% of the time. And that’s what makes him so unique – and rich,” Kass says.
Perhaps what also makes him unique, Kass says, is that he knows he can’t see and know everything in the market, and he nonetheless seems content with that.
“Once, in a letter to shareholders, he included a very interesting quote from Henry David Thoreau, which really does sum up investing very well. I love this quote and it has stayed with me for many years. The quote is: ‘It’s not what you look at that matters; it’s what you see.’ ”