For months, the Obama administration has been using Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A, BRK.B) Chairman and CEO Warren Buffett's considerable name recognition to try to change how America's top earners are taxed.
The fate of the so-called "Buffett Rule," which would apply a minimum tax of 30% to individuals making more than $1 million a year, still has yet to be determined. Chalk it up to politics as usual.
There is, however, a list of other Buffett Rules that are far more useful to investors.
They're the tricks of the trade that have made Warren Buffett the most successful living investor, and one of the richest men in the world.
After all, the Oracle of Omaha hasn't earned his nickname by mistake. To many, it seems the billionaire has a sixth sense when it comes to investing, a supernatural ability to divine the good investments from bad.
But while his ability may be uncanny, there's really no magic at work. What Buffett has above all else is discipline. His philosophy is based on patience.
As a value investor, Buffett's goal is to identify companies the market has undervalued or companies that are trading cheaply compared to their intrinsic value.
Once he finds them, he buys them and holds on to them for the long term while their value steadily increases over decades.
Warren Buffett's Rules for Successful Investments
Beyond those simple tenets, there are a few rules – those other Buffett Rules – that guide Buffett's conscience as he makes investment decisions.
Rule No. 1: Consistent Performance
Warren Buffett won't even consider a company unless it's been around for 10 years or more and can demonstrate a record of consistent performance.
One metric Buffett uses to track performance is return on equity (ROE). ROE measures the rate of return on the money invested by stockholders and retained by the company in profitable times, demonstrating a company's ability to generate profits from shareholders' equity (net assets). In other words, ROE shows how well a company uses investment funds to generate growth.
Last November, after years of eschewing technology stocks, Buffett sank $10.7 billion into International Business Machines Corp. (NYSE: IBM). A quick look at IBM's ROE tells much of the story. With a stellar 73.40% ROE, IBM is in the 98th percentile overall, and the single-best performer in its industry.
Rule No. 2: High Income
Buffett has said that one of the best ways to stay wealthy is to invest in companies with a stable business and a high dividend. As a buy-and-hold investor, Buffett minimizes his tax liability by remaining in his positions for years, even decades.
Dividend stocks help to balance out a growth-oriented portfolio, which is what you'll have if you're following Buffett's footsteps. Your portfolio will be more diverse, and you'll be insulated a bit from market volatility.
In Buffett's portfolio, you'll find high-yield stocks like General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), which yields 3.60%, and GlaxoSmithKline plc (NYSE: GSK), which pulls in 5.80%. You'll also find ConocoPhillips (NYSE: COP), in which Buffett has $2.1 billion invested. COP has a market cap of $96.8 billion and is yielding 3.60%.
The important thing to look for is dividend growth. As the company grows and the stock price goes up, does the dividend rise? Look for companies that have increased their dividend each of the last several years.
Rule No. 3: Manageable Long-Term Debt
Warren Buffett, as a general rule, doesn't like debt — especially long-term debt. The debt-to-equity (D/E) ratio tells investors what proportion of equity and debt the company is using to finance its assets. A high D/E ratio can lead to greater volatility in a company's earnings. But what's really important is how much debt a company has compared to its competition in the same industry. All of Buffett's positions take a prudent approach to debt.
Take, for example Johnson & Johnson (NYSE: JNJ). Its D/E ratio currently sits at 0.3439, which is about average. But over the last five years, it's 0.2648, a bit better than average.
Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC), another of Buffett's newer holdings, has averaged a D/E of 0.064 over the past five years. Visa Inc. (NYSE: V), in which Buffett has a nearly $100 million stake, has had a microscopic D/E ratio of 0.030 over that same period.
While he only speaks about debt in a general sense, it is believed that Buffett is most concerned with a company's ability to repay its debts. To figure this out, simply divide the long-term debt by profit. In the case of JNJ, it would take just a bit over three months for it to pay off its long-term debt, which is very manageable.
Rule No. 4: The "Economic Moat"
High profit margins relative to a company's closest competition are extremely important. This creates what is known as an "economic moat," a term coined by Buffett to describe a company's competitive advantage. Economic moats help defend against competitors that try to gain market share by imitating successful products. In short, an industry leader itself can be an imposing barrier to entry, and those are companies Buffett thinks have value.
Look at Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG), owner of brands like Tide, Pampers, Oral-B, Gillette, and Duracel, to name just a few. PG's long-term strategy is to compete only in markets where it is first or second in market share. That leadership position allows the company to comfortably raise prices when its costs go up, and its many popular brands represent pretty high barriers to entry in most of the markets in which they compete.
Rule No. 5: Sound Management
Buffett has said that investors should buy stocks as though they are buying the company. Buying stocks, therefore, is a vote of confidence in how that company is managed.
Evidence of good management, in Buffett's view, is when management's actions deliberately benefit shareholders. This includes things like share buybacks, wise use of retained earnings (transforming earnings into market value), and focusing on the core business. In general, it's when management acts as a good shepherd for its shareholders' money.
Berkshire's holdings read like a who's who of well-managed companies: Kraft Foods Inc. (NYSE: KFT), Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT), M&T Bank Corp. (NYSE: MTB), Sanofi SA (NYSE: SNY), and U.S. Bancorp (NYSE: USB), to name a few.
So there's no magic or extraordinary clairvoyance illuminating Buffett's great investments. There's not even a complicated trading strategy at work.
It is just a simple, principled approach to investing that's made Warren Buffett a billionaire several times over.
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