Warren Buffett ’s 89th birthday is a good occasion to revisit a question that has been weighing on financial minds lately—what price to put on Greenland. As far as we know, President Trump hasn’t contacted the Oracle of Omaha on the question of valuation, much less negotiating tips. But one of Mr. Buffett’s earliest letters to investors has an interesting way to think about such outlays. He quipped that Queen Isabella of Spain, who gave Christopher Columbus the equivalent of $30,000 to find the New World, could have instead invested it at 4% interest and had $2 trillion by 1963—nearly $18 trillion today. Denmark spurned an offer from President Harry Truman of $100 million in 1946 to sell Greenland. It is unlikely that a then-17-year-old Buffett, already a budding value investor, would have made the offer. The same sum invested in the S&P 500 would have compounded since then, with dividends reinvested, to a whopping $163 billion.
Denmark may have missed a huge opportunity, but don’t judge too harshly—the future author of “The Art of the Deal” was only born that year.
I was thrilled to see that my upcoming book was reviewed this weekend in Fortune Magazine and even more so when I saw that the reviewer was none other than Roger Lowenstein. He’s one of the most accomplished financial journalists around, the author of several books I’ve enjoyed, and also a former Heard on the Street columnist like me.
I was perplexed when I started to read the review, though. The first 264 words – as long as some entire book reviews – were about Benjamin Graham, the father of value investing, mentor to Warren Buffett, and a man I mention several times in Heads I Win, Tails I Win. After that he finally got to my book and said a couple of nice things.
He wrote that “Jakab has plenty of sensible advice” and that my writing is “anecdotal and witty.” But that’s where the praise ends. Lowenstein laments that the author, “a former security (sic) analyst … spends many pages debunking the idea that investors should try to time market breaks (he aptly likens this to astrology). He devotes not a paragraph to how one might estimate the future profitability of a business…One does not learn how to evaluate stocks. One learns that value investing has worked, but not why.”
While a more positive review would have made me happier, the weird thing was that Lowenstein really seemed to want to have read an entirely different book – one that taught my mostly mom and pop audience how to value stocks and beat the market. The premise of my book, though, is that this is mostly a wasted exercise, whether you try to do that yourself or pay some clever broker or stock picker to do it. My own work as a securities analyst and overwhelming academic evidence support this.
But the weird thing is that he invokes Graham. I guess Lowenstein isn’t familiar with the great man’s final interview in 1976 in the Financial Analyst’s Journal, the year he died. Here’s the money quote:
I am no longer an advocate of elaborate techniques of security analysis in order to find superior value opportunities. This was a rewarding activity, say, 40 years ago, when our textbook “Graham and Dodd” was first published; but the situation has changed a great deal since then. In the old days any well-trained security analyst could do a good professional job of selecting undervalued issues through detailed studies; but in the light of the enormous amount of research now being carried on, I doubt whether in most cases such extensive efforts will generate sufficiently superior selections to justify their cost. To that very limited extent I’m on the side of the “efficient market” school of thought now generally accepted by the professors.