A Lesson from the Modesty of Warren Buffett's Recent Returns

Mark Hulbert at MarketWatch highlights Warren Buffet’s annual letter (the link includes a short video summary), but mainly emphasizes one crucial point that he suggests is a broadly important lesson for investors to keep in mind: how modest Buffet’s returns have been recently. Berkshire’s one-year growth was just 6.4% and Buffet’s 15-year annualized return is also in the single digits. Hulbert says this “can teach us what is realistic in the investment arena.” He contrasts Berkshire’s modest returns with various outrageous claims that seek to reel in investors, such as a newsletter advertisement claiming a 4,096% annualized return.  Such claims, Hulbert asserts, often reflect “the bigger lie theory” – “making a claim that is so outrageous that no one would suspect that the person making it has little or no basis for it.” Even if enormous returns have some basis in fact, Hulbert observes, they are short-term, and will “inevitably fall back to earth – a process statisticians refer to as ‘regression to the mean.'” He continues that when “time periods are measured in decades rather than years, the best returns among those I monitor are less than 15% annualized.” “It’s this decades-long perspective that showcases Buffet’s real achievement” Hulbert says, noting that “his annualized returns since he took over Berkshire Hathaway in the 1960s is just shy of 20% — markedly better than not just the best investment newsletter, but the best mutual fund or institutional money manager.” And, Hulbert asks, “if the most successful investor alive today was able to deliver just single-digit gains annualized over a 15-year stretch, then what are the chances we can do better?”