Wise Wealth Advisors

D.Muthukrishnan (Muthu), Certified Financial Planner- Personal Financial Advisor

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Buffett, Bacteria & Compounding

Posted by Muthu on February 26, 2015

It’s 50 years since Warren Buffett has been running Berkshire Hathaway. Soon, he would be publishing his 50th annual letter. I thought of sharing with you some portions from his 25th annual letter written in 1990.


We face another obstacle: In a finite world, high growth rates must self-destruct. If the base from which the growth is taking place is tiny, this law may not operate for a time. But when the base balloons, the party ends: A high growth rate eventually forges its own anchor.

Carl Sagan has entertainingly described this phenomenon, musing about the destiny of bacteria that reproduce by dividing into two every 15 minutes. Says Sagan: “That means four doublings an hour, and 96 doublings a day. Although a bacterium weighs only about a trillionth of a gram, its descendants, after a day of wild asexual abandon, will collectively weigh as much as a mountain…in two days, more than the sun – and before very long, everything in the universe will be made of bacteria.” Not to worry, says Sagan: Some obstacle always impedes this kind of exponential growth. “The bugs run out of food, or they poison each other, or they are shy about reproducing in public.”

Even on bad days, Charlie Munger (Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner) and I do not think of Berkshire as a bacterium. Nor, to our unending sorrow, have we found a way to double its net worth every 15 minutes. Furthermore, we are not the least bit shy about reproducing – financially – in public. Nevertheless, Sagan’s observations apply. From Berkshire’s present base of $4.9 billion in net worth, we will find it much more difficult to average 15% annual growth in book value than we did to average 23.8% from the $22 million we began with.


Imagine that Berkshire had only $1, which we put in a security that doubled by year end and was then sold. Imagine further that we used the after-tax proceeds to repeat this process in each of the next 19 years, scoring a double each time. At the end of the 20 years, the 34% capital gains tax that we would have paid on the profits from each sale would have delivered about $13,000 to the government and we would be left with about $25,250. Not bad. If, however, we made a single fantastic investment that itself doubled 20 times during the 20 years, our dollar would grow to $1,048,576. Were we then to cash out, we would pay a 34% tax of roughly $356,500 and be left with about $692,000.

The sole reason for this staggering difference in results would be the timing of tax payments. Interestingly, the government would gain from Scenario 2 in exactly the same 27:1 ratio as we – taking in taxes of $356,500 vs. $13,000 – though, admittedly, it would have to wait for its money.


We hope in another 25 years to report on the mistakes of the first 50. If we are around in 2015 to do that, you can count on this section occupying many more pages than it does here.

(Source: http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/1989.html)

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