Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Buffett on Taxes and Trading

One point Buffett fails to mention is that it is much easier to achieve such doubling through buying and selling – the foundation of his early career – than it is to find an investment that internally compounds at the same rate.

Through my favorite comic strip, Li'l Abner, I got a chance during my youth to see the benefits of delayed taxes, though I missed the lesson at the time. Making his readers feel superior, Li'l Abner bungled happily, but moronically, through life in Dogpatch. At one point he became infatuated with a New York temptress, Appassionatta Van Climax, but despaired of marrying her because he had only a single silver dollar and she was interested solely in millionaires. Dejected, Abner took his problem to Old Man Mose, the font of all knowledge in Dogpatch. Said the sage: Double your money 20 times and Appassionatta will be yours (1, 2, 4, 8 . . . . 1,048,576).

My last memory of the strip is Abner entering a roadhouse, dropping his dollar into a slot machine, and hitting a jackpot that spilled money all over the floor. Meticulously following Mose's advice, Abner picked up two dollars and went off to find his next double. Whereupon I dumped Abner and began reading Ben Graham.

Mose clearly was overrated as a guru: Besides failing to anticipate Abner's slavish obedience to instructions, he also forgot about taxes. Had Abner been subject, say, to the 35% federal tax rate that Berkshire pays, and had he managed one double annually, he would after 20 years only have accumulated $22,370. Indeed, had he kept on both getting his annual doubles and paying a 35% tax on each, he would have needed 7 1/2 years more to reach the $1 million required to win Appassionatta.

But what if Abner had instead put his dollar in a single investment and held it until it doubled the same 27 1/2 times? In that case, he would have realized about $200 million pre-tax or, after paying a $70 million tax in the final year, about $130 million after-tax. For that, Appassionatta would have crawled to Dogpatch. Of course, with 27 1/2 years having passed, how Appassionatta would have looked to a fellow sitting on $130 million is another question.

What this little tale tells us is that tax-paying investors will realize a far, far greater sum from a single investment that compounds internally at a given rate than from a succession of investments compounding at the same rate. But I suspect many Berkshire shareholders figured that out long ago.

Warren E. Buffett, 1994

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This work by Nicholas E. Radice is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.