Warren Buffet: Dow 24,000,000. Impossible Returns in an Impossible Stock Market. California Housing $3.4 Million Median.

Many of you I am sure have followed the investment advice from the richest man in the world, Mr. Warren Buffet. There is good reason to follow the Oracle from Omaha. Take a look at historical returns from his Berkshire Hathaway:

Compounded Annual Gain: 1965-2007 21.1%

Overall Gain: 1964-2007: 400,863%

S&P 500 Compounded Annual Gain: 1965-2007: 10.3%

Overall Gain: 1964-2007: 6,840%

Anyone would be hard pressed to argue with amazing results such as the above. Yet Buffet in his annual letter to shareholders expresses concerns over continued growth given the current state of the economy. The Pollyanna expectation of many investors may not come to materialize in a market that is seeing severe corrections. Buffet in his letter points out that over a century, the Dow hasn’t been such a great performer:

“How realistic is this expectation? Let’s revisit some data I mentioned two years ago: During the 20th Century, the Dow advanced from 66 to 11,497. This gain, though it appears huge, shrinks to 5.3% when compounded annually. An investor who owned the Dow throughout the century would also have received generous dividends for much of the period, but only about 2% or so in the final years. It was a wonderful century.”

So over a century, the Dow only returned a compounded annual return of 5.3%. Not bad by any standards but again nothing to come home to brag about. But the idea that stock markets can continue to yield such high returns especially in the current climate is somewhat unwarranted. Buffet explains to us using simple math how preposterous this is:

“Think now about this century. For investors to merely match that 5.3% market-value gain, the Dow – recently below 13,000 – would need to close at about 2,000,000 on December 31, 2099. We are now eight years into this century, and we have racked up less than 2,000 of the 1,988,000 Dow points the market needed to travel in this hundred years to equal the 5.3% of the last.”

Given the current market it is very hard to envision a Dow at 2,000,000 but aren’t we reminded of the 30,000 Dow being prognosticated during the tech boom? Does that seem like a realistic number anytime soon? We can learn a lot from what is being told in the market simply by looking at the numbers:

“I should mention that people who expect to earn 10% annually from equities during this century – envisioning that 2% of that will come from dividends and 8% from price appreciation – are implicitly forecasting a level of about 24,000,000 on the Dow by 2100. If your adviser talks to you about doubledigit returns from equities, explain this math to him – not that it will faze him. Many helpers are apparently direct descendants of the queen in Alice in Wonderland, who said: “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Beware the glib helper who fills your head with fantasies while he fills his pockets with fees.”

Even a modest 10 percent annual gain would bring the Dow to a 24,000,000 mark in 2100. This math test seems to fail in so many different sectors in our economy. Let us use this simple math on real estate in the state of California. Last January, the median price for a home in California hit $551,000. For over 3 years straight, prices in California where appreciating by 20+ percent each year. Let us run two different scenarios going out 10 years into the future:

20 Percent Annual Gains – California Median Home Price

Jan-07

$551,000

Jan-08

$661,200.0

Jan-09

$793,440.0

Jan-10

$952,128.0

Jan-11

$1,142,553.6

Jan-12

$1,371,064.3

Jan-13

$1,645,277.2

Jan-14

$1,974,332.6

Jan-15

$2,369,199.1

Jan-16

$2,843,039.0

Jan-17

$3,411,646.8

Doesn’t seem very likely does it? But again, even in the midst of the bubble people rationalized that 20 percent year-over-year gains were some how rational. Let us look at 10 percent annual gains:

10 Percent Annual Gains – California Median Home Price

Jan-07

$551,000

Jan-08

$606,100.0

Jan-09

$666,710.0

Jan-10

$733,381.0

Jan-11

$806,719.1

Jan-12

$887,391.0

Jan-13

$976,130.1

Jan-14

$1,073,743.1

Jan-15

$1,181,117.4

Jan-16

$1,299,229.2

Jan-17

$1,429,152.1

Again, even this scenario seems highly unlikely. We also know that the median home price in California is now $430,370 for January of 2008, a decline of 21.9%. Let us run these scenarios except with a 5 percent declines and 10 percent declines:

5 Percent Annual Declines

Jan-07

$551,000

Jan-08

$523,450.0

Jan-09

$497,277.5

Jan-10

$472,413.6

Jan-11

$448,792.9

Jan-12

$426,353.3

Jan-13

$405,035.6

Jan-14

$384,783.9

Jan-15

$365,544.7

Jan-16

$347,267.4

Jan-17

$329,904.1

This of course seems more realistic. Yet the 21.9 percent decline brought us down to the January 2012 price in one year. Clearly prices cannot continue to drop at this rate forever. Let us run the 10 percent decline scenario:

10 Percent Annual Declines

Jan-07

$551,000

Jan-08

$495,900.0

Jan-09

$446,310.0

Jan-10

$401,679.0

Jan-11

$361,511.1

Jan-12

$325,360.0

Jan-13

$292,824.0

Jan-14

$263,541.6

Jan-15

$237,187.4

Jan-16

$213,468.7

Jan-17

$192,121.8

With this model, we seem to reach more realistic conclusions. But you can see how tunnel vision captivated many investors and they forgot to run fundamental analysis on investments to demonstrate basic economics. For housing, prices have to have some connection to area incomes and the health of the economy. Like Buffet is saying, expecting ridiculous returns forever simply does not coincide with the math.  And losing 63,000 jobs in one month is not exactly going to send stocks skyrocketing to the moon.

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2 Comments on this post

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  1. master your card said:

    This makes lots of sense. It is well worthwhile finding a mentor and following them when you are investing. Unless we are a specialist ourselves it can be tricky findig a good investment so taking advice fron gurus such as Buffet is a great plan.

    March 10th, 2008 at 3:19 am
  2. mybudget360 said:

    It’ll be interesting to see what he does this year. Some of his exposure isn’t immune to the credit market downturn (i.e., American Express and Wells Fargo for example). Berkshire may hold up better than the overall market but still, unless he hedges against a dollar decline the stock may also decline.

    March 10th, 2008 at 5:50 am

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