Buffett Talks about Diversification

Question: What are your views on diversification?

Buffett: I have 2 views on diversification. If you are a professional and have confidence, then I would advocate lots of concentration. For everyone else, if it’s not your game, participate in total diversification. The economy will do fine over time. Make sure you don’t buy at the wrong price or the wrong time. That’s what most people should do, buy a cheap index fund, and slowly dollar cost average into it. If you try to be just a little bit smart, spending an hour a week investing, you’re liable to be really dumb.

If it’s your game, diversification doesn’t make sense. It’s crazy to put money into your 20th choice rather than your 1st choice. “Lebron James” analogy. If you have Lebron James on your team, don’t take him out of the game just to make room for someone else. If you have a harem of 40 women, you never really get to know any of them well.

Charlie and I operated mostly with 5 positions. If I were running 50, 100, 200 million, I would have 80% in 5 positions, with 25% for the largest. In 1964 I found a position I was willing to go heavier into, up to 40%. I told investors they could pull their money out. None did. The position was American Express after the Salad Oil Scandal. In 1951 I put the bulk of my net worth into GEICO. Later in 1998, LTCM was in trouble. With the spread between the on-the-run versus off-the-run 30 year Treasury bonds, I would have been willing to put 75% of my portfolio into it. There were various times I would have gone up to 75%, even in the past few years. If it’s your game and you really know your business, you can load up.

Over the past 50-60 years, Charlie and I have never permanently lost more than 2% of our personal worth on a position. We’ve suffered quotational loss, 50% movements. That’s why you should never borrow money. We don’t want to get into situations where anyone can pull the rug out from under our feet.

In stocks, it’s the only place where when things go on sale, people get unhappy. If I like a business, then it makes sense to buy more at 20 than at 30. If McDonalds reduces the price of hamburgers, I think it’s great.

Source: Emory’s Goizueta Business School and McCombs School of Business at UT Austin

Time: February 2008


The question is about diversification. I have a dual answer to that. If you are not a professional investor. If your goal is not to manage money to earn a significantly better return than the world, then I believe in extreme diversification. I believe 98% – 99% who invest should extensively diversify and not trade, so that leads them to an index fund type of decision with very low costs. All they are going to do is own part of America. And they have made a decision that owning a part of America is worthwhile. I don’t quarrel with that at all. That is the way they should approach it unless they want to bring an intensity to the game to make a decision and start evaluating businesses. Once you are in the businesses of evaluating businesses and you decide that you are going to bring the effort and intensity and time involved to get that job done, then I think diversification is a terrible mistake to any degree. I got asked that question the other day at SunTrust. If you really know businesses, you probably shouldn’t own more than six of them.

If you can identify six wonderful businesses, that is all the diversification you need. And you will make a lot of money. And I can guarantee that going into a seventh one instead of putting more money into your first one is gotta be a terrible mistake. Very few people have gotten rich on their seventh best idea. But a lot of people have gotten rich with their best idea. So I would say for anyone working with normal capital who really knows the businesses they have gone into, six is plenty, and I probably have half of what I like best. I don’t diversify personally. All the people I’ve known that have done well with the exception of Walter Schloss, Walter diversifies a lot. I call him Noah, he has two of everything.

Source: Lecture at the University of Florida Business School

Time: October 15th 1998


[Q – How do you get confident enough with that [smaller] level of diversification?]

WB: If we were running only our own money, putting 75% of our net worth in a single position is not a problem if it is something we really have high confidence in. Putting 500% or more of your net worth in a position is a problem. Several times I have had 75% of my non-Berkshire net worth in a situation. You will see things where it would be a mistake not to act. You won’t see them often, and the press and your friends won’t be talking about them. Wouldn’t you say, Charlie? 75% is not a real significant amount?

CM: Sometimes, I have had more than 100% in an individual investment.

WB: You just had a good banker. Look at LTCM — they put 25x their money in things that had to converge but couldn’t play out the hand. There are people in this room with more than 90% of their worth in Berkshire. I saw things in 2002 in junk bonds that would have been worth going heavily into. You could have bought Cap Cities in 1974 — selling for one-third the property value, with the best manager, and in a good business. You could have put 100% in Coca-Cola when we bought it and that wouldn’t have been a dangerous position.

CM: Students learn corporate finance at business schools. They are taught that the whole secret is diversification. But the exact rule is the opposite. The ‘know-nothing’ investor should practice diversification, but it is crazy if you are an expert. The goal of investment is to find situations where it is safe not to diversify. If you only put 20% into the opportunity of a life-time, you are not being rational. Very seldom do we get to buy as much of any good idea as we would like to.

Source: BRK Annual Meeting 2008 Boodell Notes