Buffett on Stock Market Risk

Question: Could you give us your definition of stock market risk

Warren Buffett: We think first in terms of business risk. The key to Graham’s approach to investing is not thinking of stocks as stocks or part of the stock market. Stocks are part of a business. People in this room own a piece of a business. If the business does well, they’re going to do all right as long as long as they don’t pay way too much to join in to that business. So we’re thinking about business risk.

Business risk can arise in various ways. It can arise from the capital structure. When somebody sticks a ton of debt into a business, if there’s a hiccup in the business, then the lenders foreclose. It can come about by their nature–there are just certain businesses that are very risky. Back when there were more commercial aircraft manufacturers, Charlie and I would think of making a commercial  airplane as a sort of bet-your-company risk because you would shell out hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars before you really had customers, and then if you had a problem with the plane, the company could go. There are certain businesses that inherently, because of long lead time, because of heavy capital investment, basically have a lot of risk. Commodity businesses have a lot of risk unless you’re a low-cost producer, because the low-cost producer can put you out of business. Our textile business was not the low-cost producer. We had fine management, everybody worked hard, we had cooperative unions, all kinds of things. But we weren’t the low-cost producers so it was a risky business. The guy who could sell it cheaper than we could made it risky for us.

We tend to go into businesses that are inherently low risk and are capitalized in a way that that low risk of the business is transformed into a low risk for the enterprise. The risk beyond that is that even though you identify such businesses, you pay too much for them. That risk is usually a risk of time rather than principal, unless you get into a really extravagant situation. Then the risk becomes the risk of you yourself–whether you can retain your belief in the real fundamentals of the business and not get too concerned about the stock market. The stock market is there to serve you and not to instruct you. That’s a key to owning a good business and getting rid of the risk that would otherwise exist in the market.

You mention volatility–it doesn’t make any difference to us whether the volatility of the stock market is a half a percentage of a point a day, or a quarter percent a day, or five percent a day. In fact, we’d probably make a lot more money if volatility was higher because it would create more mistakes in the market. Volatility is a huge plus to the real investor. Ben Graham used the example of Mr. Market. Ben said that just imagine that when you bought a stock you in effect bought into a business where you have this obliging partner who comes around every day and offers you a price at which he’ll either buy or sell and that price is identical. No one ever gets that in a private business, where daily you get a buy-sell offer by a party. But you get that in the stock market, and that’s a huge advantage. And it’s a bigger advantage if this partner of yours is a heavy-drinking manic depressive. (laughter) The crazier he is, the more money you’re going to make. So, as an investor, you love volatility. Not if you’re on margin, but if you’re an investor you’re not on margin, and if you’re an investor you love to get these wild swings because it means more things are going to get mispriced. 

Actually, volatility in recent years has dampened from what it used to be. It looks bigger because people think in terms of Dow points, but volatility was much higher many years ago than it is now. The amplitude of the swings used to be really wild and that gave you more opportunity. Charlie?

[Charlie Munger:  Well it came to be that corporate finance departments at universities developed the notion of risk-adjusted returns. My best advice to all of you would be to totally ignore this development. Risk had a very good colloquial meaning, meaning a substantial chance that something could go horribly wrong, and the finance professors sort of got volatility mixed up with a bunch of foolish mathematics and to me it’s less rational than what we do. And I don’t think we’re going to change.]

Finance departments believe that volatility equals risk. They want to measure risk, and they don’t know how to do it, basically. So they said volatility measures risk. I’ve often used the example of the Washington Post’s stock. When I first bought it in 1973 it had gone down almost 50%, from a valuation of the whole company of close to $170 million down to $80 million. Because it happened pretty fast, the beta of the stock had actually increased, and a professor would have told you that the company was more risky if you bought it for $80 million than if you bought it for $170 million. That’s something I’ve thought about ever since they told me that 25 years ago and I still haven’t figured it out. (laughter)

Source: BRK Annual Meeting 1997

Time: May 1997


Warren Buffett: One key aspect to risk is how long you expect to hold an investment, i.e., stock in Coca Cola might be very risky if bought for a day trade or to hold for only a week. But, over a 5 or 10 year period it probably has almost no risk at all.

The myth that volatility of a stock somehow equates to risk was discussed. In fact, volatility often creates great opportunity, in Buffett’s view. The following comments on risk in investments were in the 1993 Annual Report, on page 14:

“Charlie and I decided long ago that in an investment lifetime it’s just too hard to make hundreds of smart decisions. That judgment became ever more compelling as Berkshire’s capital mushroomed and the universe of investments that could significantly affect our results shrank dramatically. Therefore, we adopted a strategy that required our being smart- and not too smart at that – only a very few times. Indeed, we’ll now settle for one good idea a year. (Charlie says it’s my turn.)

The strategy we’ve adopted precludes our following standard diversification dogma. Many pundits would therefore say the strategy must be riskier than that employed by more conventional investors. We disagree. We believe that a policy of portfolio concentration may well decrease risk if it raises, as it should, both the intensity with which an investor thinks about a business and the comfort level he must feel with its economic characteristics before buying into it. In stating this opinion, we define risk, using dictionary terms, as “the possibility of loss or injury”.

Academics, however, like to define investment “risk” differently, averring that it is the relative volatility of a stock or portfolio of stocks – that is, their volatility as compared to that of a large universe of stocks. Employing data bases and statistical skills, these academics compute with precision the “beta” of a stock – its relative volatility in the past – and then build arcane investment and capital-allocation theories around this calculation. In their hunger for a single statistic to measure risk, however, they forget a fundamental principle: It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong”.

For owners of a business – and that’s the way we think of shareholders – the academics’ definition of risk is far off the mark, so much so that it produces absurdities. For example, under beta-based theory, a stock that has dropped very sharply compared to the market – as had Washington Post when we bought it in 1973 – becomes “riskier” at the lower price than it was at the higher price. Would that description have then made any sense to someone who was offered the entire company at a vastly-reduced price?

Source: BRK Annual Meeting 1994

Time: May 1994


Warren Buffett: “We regard using [a stock’s] volatility as a measure of risk is nuts. Risk to us is 1) the risk of permanent loss of capital, or 2) the risk of inadequate return. Some great businesses have very volatile returns — for example, See’s usually loses money in two quarters of each year — and some terrible businesses can have steady results.

[Munger: “How can professors spread this? I’ve been waiting for this craziness to end for decades. It’s been dented, but it’s still out there.”]

If someone starts talking to you about beta, zip up your pocketbook.”

Source: BRK Annual Meeting 2001

Time: April 2001


We think the best way to minimize risk is to think. Our default is [to have our capital] in short-term instruments and only do something when it makes sense.

Source: BRK Annual Meeting 2004 Tilson Notes

Time: April 2004


[RE: Beta]

Warren Buffett: Volatility does not measure risk. The problem is that the people who have written about and taught volatility do not understand risk. Beta is nice and mathematical, but it’s wrong. Past volatility does not determine risk.

Take farmland here in Nebraska: the price of land went from $2,000 to $600 per acre. The beta of farms went way up, so according to standard economic theory, I was taking more risk buying at $600. Most people would know that’s nonsense because farms aren’t traded. But stocks are traded and jiggle around and so people who study markets translate past volatility into all kinds of measures of risk. The whole concept of volatility is useful for people whose career is teaching, but useless to us.

Risk comes from the nature of certain kinds of businesses by the simple economics of the business, and from not knowing what you’re doing. If you understand the economics and you know the people, then you’re not taking much risk.

Munger: We’d argue that what’s taught is at least 50% twaddle, but these people have high IQs. We recognized early on that very smart people do very dumb things, and we wanted to know why and who, so we could avoid them. [Laughter]

Buffett: We are willing to lose $6 billion in one catastrophe, but our insurance business over time is not very risky. If you own a roulette wheel, you sometimes have to pay 35-to-1, but that’s okay. We would love to own a lot of roulette wheels.

Source: BRK Annual Meeting 2007 Tilson Notes

Time: 2007