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Sunday, June 22, 2008

Running on a treadmill to stay at the same place

Inflation is back in the news in India (Refer the shared article link). In this context, I was reading Warren Buffett's old article in Fortune from 1977. (Try this pdf for scanned version and this link). The clarity of thought is amazing and the ability to link capital deployment and social justice in one single context is a rare find for me. In the part titled "Five ways to improve earnings", he goes through the Dupont Model with impeccable clarity of thought. Here are some key extracts:-

"Stocks are quite properly thought of as riskier than bonds. While that equity coupon is more or less fixed over periods of time, it does fluctuate somewhat from year to year. Investors' attitudes about the future can be affected substantially, although frequently erroneously, by those yearly changes. Stocks are also riskier because they come equipped with infinite maturities. (Even your friendly broker wouldn't have the nerve to peddle a 100-year bond, if he had any available, as "safe.") Because of the additional risk, the natural reaction of investors is to expect an equity return that is comfortably above the bond return - and 12 percent on equity versus, say, 10 percent on bonds issued py the same corporate universe does not seem to qualify as comfortable. As the spread narrows, equity investors start looking for the exits.
But, of course, as a group they can't get out. All they can achieve is a lot of movement, substantial frictional costs, and a new, much lower level of valuation, reflecting the lessened attractiveness of the 12 percent equity coupon under inflationary conditions. Bond investors have had a succession of shocks over the past decade in the course of discovering that there is no magic attached to any given coupon level - at 6 percent, or 8 percept, or 10 percent, bonds can still collapse in price. Stock investors, who are in general not aware that they too have a "coupon", are still receiving their education on this point."
"What widows don't notice
The arithmetic makes it plain that inflation is a far more devastating tax than anything that has been enacted by our legislatures. The inflation tax has a fantastic ability to simply consume capital. It makes no difference to a widow with her savings in a 5 percent passbook account whether she pays 100 percent income tax on her interest income during a period of zero inflation, or pays no income taxes during years of 5 percent inflation. Either way, she is "taxed" in a manner that leaves her no real income whatsoever. Any money she spends comes right out of capital. She would find outrageous a 120 percent income tax, but doesn't seem to notice that 6 percent inflation is the economic equivalent."

"In the next ten years, the Dow would be doubled just by a combination of the 12 percent equity coupon, a 40 percent payout ratio, and the present 110 percent ratio of market to book value. And with 7 percent inflation, investors who sold at 1800 would still be considerably worse off than they are today after paying their capital-gains taxes.

I can almost hear the reaction of some investors to these downbeat thoughts. It will be to assume that, whatever the difficulties presented by the new investment era, they will somehow contrive to turn in superior results for themselves. Their success is most unlikely. And, in aggregate, of course, impossible. If you feel you can dance in and out of securities in a way that defeats the inflation tax, I Would like to be your broker - but not your partner."
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