Warren Buffett, chairman of the board of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK-B), is surprisingly open about his mistakes, chronicling them for all to read -- and learn from -- in his annual shareholder letters.
The Cigar Stubs
The textile mill that gave Berkshire Hathaway its name turned out to be an albatross for more than two decades as Buffett dithered over shutting it down. Located in Massachusetts, far from the new textile and cotton hubs down South, it was a money-loser from the start. He has since admitted his stubborn attachment to it probably cost Berkshire $200 billion in lost opportunity costs to invest in better companies. Back then, Buffett was more a proponent of the "cigar stub" theory of investing -- buying a downtrodden company or stock and smoking out the last few puffs of profit.
Another iteration of this thesis gone wrong was his purchase of Blue Chip Stamp Co. in the late '60s. It was a lesser rival of the Sperry & Hutchinson Green Stamps Co. Both involved an early form of loyalty program in which shoppers collected stamps that could be redeemed for merchandise. "When I was told that even certain brothels and mortuaries gave stamps to their patrons, I felt I had finally found a sure thing," Buffett said in his 2006 shareholder letter.
However, Blue Chip revenues declined by more than 80 percent from 1970 to 1980 and by almost 99 percent by 1990 as credit-card loyalty programs and increasing affluence made shoppers reluctant to waste time pasting stamps in books. What Buffett learned became a new leg of his investing stool: to only buy businesses for their demonstrated profitability.
The Economic Moat
Buffett coined the term "economic moat" to describe the competitive and hopefully monopolistic advantages that will help a company thrive. He has long said he regrets buying Dexter Shoes in 1993, purchasing it with Berkshire Hathaway stock then worth $433 million for an estimated loss of $3.5 billion. He admits now it didn't have the brand loyalty or moat he expected.
Since then Buffett has hunted for big elephants like Heinz and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and investing more every year in his "Big Four" stocks: Wells Fargo (WFC), IBM (IBM), American Express (AXP) and Coca-Cola (KO).
Fear and Greed
He purchased US Airways preferred stock in 1989 when optimism about the airline was at its zenith -- just in time for competitors to undercut its prices. He soon found there is no brand loyalty among the flying public. %VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Airlines in general have a tendency to accelerate debt growth at the same time as their revenue growth. In this case, he basically broke even.
In 2008, he bought high into ConocoPhillips (COP), expecting oil prices (then more than $100 per barrel) to go even higher, violating his own precept to buy when others are fearful and sell when others are greedy. The loss he took on that gamble amounted to more than $1 billion.
Still, this didn't deter him from a blunder detailed in the 2013 annual shareholder letter -- buying $2 billion worth of bonds in Energy Futures Holdings, an electric utility that has suffered from a decline in natural gas prices. Buffett wrote with his usual candor,"Most of you have never heard of Energy Future Holdings. Consider yourselves lucky; I certainly wish I hadn't," adding the company is likely headed for bankruptcy.
Buffett has had many more big wins than losses, including some out-of-the-park hits like American Express in the 1960s when it was embroiled in a small subsidiary's salad oil scandal, his purchase of Geico and an annual compounded gain of 19.7 percent in Berkshire Hathaway's book value since 1965. In a seven-decade career dating from age 11 when he bought his first stock, Buffett's mistakes have grown fewer and farther between. Even better for investors, when he chooses poorly, he explains where he went wrong, so we can all learn from his mistakes.
14 Money Mistakes to Avoid in 2014
Buffett's Biggest Blunders and What You Can Learn from Them
Interest rates are low, but that's no excuse to accept 0.01 percent interest rates on your savings. Just a little shopping can find you many FDIC-insured savings accounts paying as much as 1 percent in interest, usually with no fees and easy availability to your money through electronic funds transfers. Compared to the near-zero rates that uninsured money-market mutual funds and other alternatives pay, high-interest savings accounts are a much safer way to save.
Banks still try to get customers to pay more for less, with one recent threat to charge fees for basic deposit accounts if the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates further. But many online banks not only offer fee-free options on their checking and savings accounts but also pay interest, and many have extensive fee-free ATM networks or reimbursement arrangements. If your bank follows through on threats to raise fees, taking your business elsewhere is your best move.
Bankrate reports that the average credit card charges around 16 percent in interest. That's a guaranteed money-maker for the banks that issue cards, but a big loser for those who carry balances on their cards. With many cards offering promotional interest rates as low as 0 percent, using them to get rid of high-interest cards is a no-brainer move and can help you pay your debt down faster.
Mistakes on your credit history can keep you from getting a loan that you want to buy your next home or car, but they can also have consequences you'd never imagine. Increasingly, insurance companies, apartment rental agents, and even prospective employers order copies of your credit report to see if you're financially responsible. Be sure to take advantage of your free credit check at the government's annualcreditreport.com website to make sure the three big credit-rating agencies have everything right before mistakes come back to bite you.
Payday loans have gotten more tightly regulated recently, but banks and other financial institutions still offer ways to let you get quicker access at your cash -- for a hefty fee. Resorting to short-term money fixes can land you in even more problematic situations down the road, because those solutions often create debt spirals from which it's hard to emerge unscathed. Set up an emergency fund instead and be prepared in advance for the money woes that life throws your way.
Interest rates have risen during the last half of 2013, with a typical 30-year mortgage carrying a 4.5 percent interest rate. But many homeowners still carry higher-interest mortgages from before the financial crisis. Now that home prices have risen, you might be able to refinance for the first time, and many homeowners have used lower rates to cut hundreds from their mortgage payment or shift to a shorter-term 15-year mortgage to pay off their debt faster.
Too many people never update their insurance coverage to deal with changes in their coverage needs, whether it comes from changes in family status for life insurance, health conditions for health-care or long-term care insurance, or even what types of property you own for homeowners' insurance. Don't wait for disaster to strike; check with your insurer or agent to see if your current coverage meets your needs.
In the past, investors had to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars just to make a simple stock purchase. Now, though, the rise of discount brokers, low-fee index funds and exchange-traded funds, and freely available investment news and advice have made it silly to spend large amounts to get access to the financial markets. If you're still paying your broker too much to invest, look into alternatives that can help you avoid cutting serious money out of your retirement nest egg.
Everyone likes a tax break, and one of the best ones for you to use involves making contributions to a tax-favored retirement account. By putting money in an IRA or 401(k), you can reduce your current taxable income and save on your taxes while also preparing for the future. With 401(k)s, your employer might even chip in a bit on your behalf. Even when times are tough, finding even small amounts to save can put time on your side and make a big difference down the road.
Many investors found out the hard way this year that bonds aren't as safe as they thought, with some major bond funds posting double-digit percentage losses in 2013. Despite those losses, bonds still carry substantial risk in 2014, with many calling for imminent interest-rate hikes that would erode their value further. Even now, bond rates are so low that they don't compensate you much for their risk.
If you pay full price for just about anything these days, you're paying too much. The rise of deep-discount stores has led to falling prices at stores and shopping malls. Moreover, online tools like coupon sites, daily-deal offers, discounted gift cards, and cash-back credit-card deals can cut your costs as well. With all these tools, you won't find many situations in which you have no chance of getting a bargain on the items you want.
In the past, many young adults focused on getting into as strong a college as they could, figuring that their degree would pay them enough to make up for the costs they incurred. With college graduates facing a more challenging job environment than ever, smart students are thinking about college costs before they make a decision on a school. By maximizing financial aid and looking at lower-tuition schools with nearly as strong educational quality, you can avoid creating a big debt hole that you'll struggle with for years into the future.
If you don't have a will, a power of attorney for financial and health-care matters, and an advance directive to tell medical professionals whether you want certain life-preserving measures taken if something happens to you, then you're putting your family at risk. Many people don't have even these basic estate-planning documents, but getting them in place is easier and less expensive than most believe. Get your affairs taken care of in 2014 and save your loved ones some big future hassles.
Resolving to be more financially astute and to avoid common mistakes will help you get your finances in order more quickly. These tips should give you more money to help you meet all your financial goals.