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Warren Buffett and the Interpretation

of Financial Statements

by Mary Buffett and David Clark


Copyright © 2008 by Mary Buffett and David Clark
Reprinted by permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.
224 pages

Focus Take-Aways
Leadership & Management • Warren Buffett invests in high-quality companies with “durable competitive advantages.”
Strategy
Sales & Marketing • He favors businesses that sell unique products or services, or sell at the lowest price.
Finance
• Income statements, balance sheets and cash flow statements reveal a firm’s potential.
Human Resources
IT, Production & Logistics • Companies with net incomes consistently at or more than 20% of revenues often are
Career & Self-Development industry leaders.
Small Business
Economics & Politics • Avoid investing in companies with high expenses for research, depreciation and interest.
Industries
• Companies with strong liquidity and little external debt are likely to “sail on through the
Global Business
troubled times.”
Concepts & Trends

• Buffett prefers companies that build retained earnings to those that pay dividends.

• He has amassed $64 billion in unrealized capital gains on stock he owns in his
company, Berkshire Hathaway.

• Buffett sees stocks as “equity bonds” with ever-rising “yields,” or earnings per share.

• Consider selling any stock priced more than 40 times its earnings per share.

Rating (10 is best)


Overall Applicability Innovation Style
8 9 8 8

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Relevance
What You Will Learn
In this Abstract, you will learn:r1) How Warren Buffett uses financial statements to
identify superior companies with solid competitive advantages, 2) What he looks for in
three types of financial statements and 3) Why he pays special attention to certain ratios.

Recommendation
Financial statements hold clues about the future performance of a company, and Warren
Buffett’s quest to find such clues has put him among the ranks of the wealthiest people
in the world, according to Buffett experts Mary Buffett (his former daughter-in-law) and
David Clark. Seeing the interpretation of financial statements through Warren Buffett’s
eyes is both instructive and insightful. He routinely calculates meaningful financial ratios
from line items in financial statements to distinguish the most promising companies from
the rest. Although financial novices may have the most to learn from this book, the authors
include savvy bits of “Buffettology” for more seasoned investors’ benefit. getAbstract
recommends this book to readers who want a basic introduction to financial statement
analysis and, perhaps more importantly, who want to learn how “the Oracle of Omaha”
picks his winning investments.

Abstract
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The Divergent Styles of Warren Buffett and His Mentor
“Warren [Buffett] In the 1950s, an economist and professional investor named Benjamin Graham served as
has learned that a mentor to Warren Buffett, who went on to become one of the world’s wealthiest people.
time will make him
superrich when
Graham pioneered the practice of value investing – that is, buying into companies with
he invests in a low stock prices. Buffett, Graham’s student at New York’s Columbia University, later
company that has a worked as an analyst at Graham’s Wall Street investment firm.
durable competitive
advantage working
in its favor.”
When he started his own investment business, Buffett altered the Graham method of value
String that jumps investing in several ways. For one, Buffett ignores the Graham rule of selling stocks after
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would buy a stock based primarily on its cost – the lower, the better. Buffett favors high-
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“The place that
Buffett studies the financial statements of companies to distinguish the best from the
Warren goes to rest. He believes that top firms share certain financial characteristics. He invests only in
discover whether or financially self-sustaining companies with such a strong “durable competitive advantage”
not the company
has a ‘durable’ over their rivals that it creates “monopoly-like economics, allowing them either to charge
competitive more or to sell more.”
advantage is
its financial
statements.” Three Business Models That Buffett Likes Best
String that jumps The companies that attract Buffett’s investment operate one of three business models:
String that jumps “They sell either a unique product or a unique service, or they are the low-cost buyer
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String that jumps and seller of a product or service the public consistently needs.” Firms that sell unique
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String that jumps products include, for instance, beer brewer Budweiser, soft drink producer Coca-Cola
String that jumps
String that jumps and candy maker Hershey. Many other companies sell beer, soda and chocolate, but they
“When Warren lack the singular brand power of Bud, Coke and Hershey’s. Examples of companies that
is looking at a sell uniquely branded services include credit rating agency Moody’s Corp., tax service
company’s financial
statement, he provider H&R Block, Inc. and bank Wells Fargo & Co. Retail chains Walmart and Costco,
is looking for and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, fit into the third type of business model:
consistency.” the lowest-cost provider of such staples as food and clothing or such fundamental services
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String that jumps
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String that jumps Hunting for Value in Financial Statements
String that jumps Warren Buffett reads three types of financial statements to learn about a business: its
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income statement, its balance sheet and its cash flow statement. He analyzes these
String that jumps statements individually and collectively to discern the truth about a company’s prospects
“Warren knows and the value of its stock.
that one of the
great secrets to The income statement, issued quarterly and annually, summarizes revenue, operating
making more money
is spending less costs, overhead expenses and net results, which are either profits or losses. The cash
money.” flow statement accounts for cash provided or consumed by operations, investments and
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financing activities over a period of time. In contrast, the balance sheet captures the
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strengths and weaknesses of companies. For example, he subtracts the cost of goods sold
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margins of 40% or more probably has a durable competitive advantage.
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“Warren has Companies’ operating activities generate their selling, general and administrative (SGA)
learned over expenses, such as executive compensation, advertising fees and legal costs. Like many
the years that
companies that are
line items in financial statements, SGA expenses alone convey limited information about
busy misleading an organization and its likely fate. Comparisons of line items are more instructive. For
the IRS are usually example, Buffett checks the percentage of gross profit these expenses devour. Companies
hard at work
misleading their
with stable SGA expenses as a percentage of gross profit tend to have dominant positions
shareholders as in their industries. In general, “anything under 30% is considered fantastic.”
well.”
String that jumps
String that jumps The Burden of Research, Depreciation and Interest Expenses
String that jumps Buffett avoids investing in businesses burdened by huge commitments to research
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“While the total
must invest in R&D to design new vehicles, or it risks losing market share. Wrigley
revenue number
alone tells us very has been selling essentially the same popular brand of chewing gum for decades. Which
little about the company has been a better investment? By 2008, an investor who bought $100,000 of
economics of the
business, its ratio to
stock in each company in 1990 would have GM shares worth $97,000 and Wrigley shares
net earnings can tell worth $547,000.
us a lot.” Buffett is not fond of heavy depreciation and interest expenses, either. Depreciation
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reflects the non-cash cost of wear and tear on operating assets, such as buildings and

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String that jumps equipment. Buffett likes to invest in companies with depreciation expenses that are low as
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“Making chewing expense, the less debt the firm is carrying.
gum is a much
better and a far
more profitable Rating Companies by Their Returns on Revenue
business for Profitable companies divide their net income by the number of their outstanding common
shareholders than
making cars.” shares to determine earnings per share, a financial metric that securities analysts widely
String that jumps use. However, Buffett pays more attention to net income in his appraisal of companies.
String that jumps He divides net income by revenue to calculate a firm’s return on revenue and, in turn,
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If its return on revenue is steadily below 10%, the firm likely operates in an intensely
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String that jumps
String that jumps
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“In the business The balance sheet shows a firm’s assets, liabilities and shareholders’ equity at a
world, durability
of a competitive
certain date. Total assets minus total liabilities equal equity. These three balance sheet
advantage is a lot components convey important information about a firm’s probable future. Current assets
like virginity – easier include cash and liquid investments as well as inventory and accounts receivable that the
to protect than it is
to get back. ”
firm can convert to cash within a year. These “working assets” and their amounts vary
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Buffett also calculates the net amount of accounts receivable, or receivables minus bad
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“The rule here is
simple: Little or The Liability Side of the Balance Sheet
No Long-Term Current liabilities are debts due within one year. These include accrued expenses, accounts
Debt Often Means
a Good Long-Term payable and short-term loans. Other classes of liabilities include long-term debt maturing
Bet.” in more than one year. In general, companies with an enduring edge over their rivals are
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String that jumps
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“Finding what one that lead their industries have higher debt-to-equity ratios because they use a big portion
is looking for is
always a good thing,
of their net income to repurchase stock or pay dividends. These two uses of earnings both
especially if one is affect the growth of shareholders’ equity, but neither indicates that a company is facing
looking to get rich.” fierce competitive pressure.
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String that jumps The Magic of Retained Earnings
String that jumps
String that jumps Retained earnings represent net income that a company reinvests in its operations
String that jumps instead of spending it on stock repurchases or dividend payments. Retained earnings
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String that jumps
String that jumps retained earnings increases shareholders’ equity, or the firm’s net worth. Buffett believes
“Occasionally even companies with rapidly growing retained earnings are also likely to have a long-term
a company with a advantage over their competitors.
durable competitive
advantage can
screw up and Buffett runs a publicly traded investment holding company called Berkshire Hathaway
do something that does not pay dividends to its shareholders. This policy has helped Berkshire
stupid...Think New accumulate a mountain of retained earnings, contributing to a significant, long-term
Coke.”
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String that jumps in 2007. Buffett prefers stock repurchases to dividend payments as a means of rewarding
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String that jumps he would have to pay income tax on them. Instead, he will accumulate capital gains on
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“To get rich, we on these paper profits.
first have to make
money, and it helps Buying, Holding and Selling “Equity Bonds”
if we can make lots
of money.” Because Berkshire Hathaway makes long-term investments in companies with
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with yields that rise over time. Buffett calls these stocks “equity bonds.” Instead of a
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bond. For instance, during the late 1980s, Buffett bought stock in Coca-Cola at prices
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Cola was earning $2.57 a share,” translating to a 39.9% return on his original investment.
String that jumps
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“Some men advantages because “the longer you hold on to them, the better you do.” Nevertheless,
read Playboy.
I read annual
three types of circumstances make selling a great stock advisable: if proceeds from the
reports.” (Warren sale could fund a better investment, if the company is ceding its competitive advantage or
Buffett) if the price of the firm’s shares soars in an overheated bull market. If the stock price of a
company is 40 times more than its annual earnings per share, “it just might be time to sell.”
But rather than buy another stock trading at 40 times earnings, Buffett prefers to hold
on to his cash until the market settles down and great equity bonds once again become
available at affordable prices. Clearly, the Buffett style of investing requires patience, but
the potential payoff is enormous.

About the Authors


Mary Buffett and David Clark have written four other books on how Warren Buffett
makes investment decisions. An author and speaker, she was Warren Buffett’s daughter-
in-law from 1981 to 1993. Clark is the managing partner of a private investment group.
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