Li Lu’s 2010 Lecture at Columbia

I was really worried about my student loan debt at the time and a friend told me about this class and said I need to see a lecture from Warren Buffett.

What I heard that night changed my life. He said three things:

1. A stock is not a piece of paper, it is a piece of ownership in a company.

2. You need a margin of safety so if you are wrong you don’t lose much.

3. In the market, most people are in it for the short term. It allows you a framework for dealing with the day to day volatility.

Being a value investor means you look at the downside before looking at the upside. Before becoming an investor you need to look at how you can fail at this game. There are all sorts of ways you can fail.

This concept of margin of safety is an essential concept to be a good investor. The future is unpredictable, you will always be dealt surprises, some positive most negative. You need to build in a level of safety so that whatever happens, you will not get crushed. If you can really successfully know what you are getting into, you can pretty much navigate. Most people are troubled by what they don’t know. The world is divided by those who know and those who don’t know. If you really know — you will not pull triggers like Wall St. traders. If you are truly intellectually honest, you would not do anything.

The game of investment is really continuous learning. Everything affects an investment, it constantly changes. You are not investing in the past but the accumulative cash flow of the future. You have to want to find a certain set up where you can know something that most people don’t know. There are plenty of things I don’t know but they don’t factor into the purchase because I am using a huge margin of safety. Buying a dollar at 50 cents. So if things turn against you, you will be okay. That is not easy. This business is brutally competitive. It is so impossible to know everything and know exactly what is going to happen to a business from now till the end that you really have to accept that what you don’t know.

Finding an edge really only comes from a right frame of mind and years of continuous study. But when you find those insights along the road of study, you need to have the guts and courage to back up the truck and ignore the opinions of everyone else. To be a better investor, you have to stand on your own. You just can’t copy other people’s insights. Sooner or later, the position turns against you. If you don’t have any insights into the business, when it goes from $100 to $50 you aren’t going to know if it will back to $100 or $200.

So how do you really understand and gain that great insight? Pick one business. Any business. And truly understand it. I tell my interns to work through this exercise – imagine a distant relative passes away and you find out that you have inherited 100% of a business they owned. What are you going to do about it? That is the mentality to take when looking at any business. I strongly encourage you to start and understand 1 business, inside out. That is better than any training possible. It does not have to be a great business, it could be any business. You need to be able to get a feel for how you would do as a 100% owner. If you can do that, you will have a tremendous leg up against the competition. Most people don’t take that first concept correctly and it is quite sad. People view it as a piece of paper and just trade because it is easy to trade. But if it was a business you inherited, you would not be trading. You would really seek out knowledge on how it should be run, how it works. If you start with that, you will eventually know how much that business is worth.

Every time it goes against you, your net worth or value of your investments might go down 50%. This is really where that insight and temperament comes in. In a sense, you have to have a certain confidence in your own judgement and not be swayed by other people’s views. It is not easy. But that is life. It is just a given. It happens to everyone. Berkshire had at least three times when the stock went down 50%. It happened to Carnegie too. It happened to Rockefeller. It happens to everyone. If you really made a mistake, it would not stop at 50% but go to 0.

You have to think of something they haven’t thought of, see things they miss or bring insight they don’t possess. You have to react differently and behave differently. The bottom line is that first-level thinkers see what’s on the surface, react to it simplistically, and buying or sell on the basis of their reactions. They don’t understand their setting as a marketplace where asset prices reflect and depend on the expectations of the participants. They ignore the part that others play in how prices change. And they fail to understand the implications of all of this for the route to success.

So for those of you that have curiosity and the temperament, this game couldn’t be better. Capitalism rewards people who are talented at capital allocator. So if you have the aptitude and temperament, it is the great game. If you don’t have that then I urge you not to go and become a nuisance. That is really what Wall Street did, they don’t really create anything they just move money around. Letting the financial industry get too big is bad for the economy, it is just as bad as getting addicted to casinos, drugs, and alcohol. None of them are really useful, they just transfer wealth. That is what I think happened on Wall Street over the last several decades. So avoid being harmful.


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