The Question of Conservatism

Editorial note: this article is an excerpt from Buffett Partnership Letter, January 24, 1962

The above description of our various areas of operation may provide some clue as to how conservatively our portfolio is invested. Many people some years back thought they were behaving in the most conservative manner by purchasing medium or long-term municipal or government bonds. This policy has produced substantial market depreciation in many cases, and most certainly has failed maintain or increase real buying power.

Conscious, perhaps overly conscious, of inflation, many people now feel that they are behaving in a conservative manner by buying blue chip securities alm regardless of price-earnings ratios, dividend yields, etc. Without the benefit hindsight as in the bond example, I feel this course of action is fraught with danger. There is nothing at all conservative, in my opinion, about speculating a; to just how high a multiplier a greedy and capricious public will put on earning.

You will not be right simply because a large number of people momentarily agree with you. You will not be right simply because important people agree with you. In many quarters the simultaneous- occurrence of the two above factors is enough to make a course of action meet the test of conservatism.

You will be right, over the course of many transactions, if your hypotheses are correct, your facts are correct, and your reasoning is correct. True conservatism is only possible through knowledge and reason.

I might add that in no way does the fact that our portfolio is not conventional prove that we are more conservative or less conservative than standard meth of investing. This can only be determined by examining the methods or examining the results.

I feel the most objective test as to just how conservative our manner of investing is arises through evaluation of performance in down markets. Preferably these should involve a substantial decline in the Dow. Our performance in the rather mild declines of 195? and 1960 would confirm my hypothesis that we in vest in an extremely conservative manner. I would welcome any partner’s suggesting objective tests as to conservatism to see how we stack up. We have never suffered a realized loss of more than ½ of 1% of total net assets, and our ratio of total dollars of realized gains to total realized losses is something like 100 to 1. Of course, this reflects the fact that on balance we have been operating in an up market. However, there have been many opportunities for loss transactions even in markets such as these (you may have found out about a few of these yourselves) so I think the above facts have some significance.

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