It turns out that in my zeal for seeking quality information, I found that Mr. Buffett had written an article in Fortune Magazine back in May of 1977 titled “How Inflation Swindles The Equity Investor.” If you didn’t know who the author was you’d probably think that the articles were written by two entirely different people.
In the article “How Inflation Swindles The Equity Investor,” Warren Buffett states in significant detail many reasons why and how inflation is the bane of equity investors. One such reason is that in order for companies to get through an inflationary period they are forced to issue new shares to service liabilities that had been accrued in prior years. This method of dealing with inflation was used to offset the payment of dividends.
In essence, a company would pay a dividend “…of $3.3 billion and asked investors to return $3.4 billion” (in the issuance of new stock). According to Mr. Buffett, the act of paying dividends and then issuing new stock exceeding the value dividend payments is among the problems that are part of the equity swindle. It should be known that Mr. Buffett’s article was extensive and left no doubt about the impact that inflation has on corporations.
Fast forward 31 years later, Mr. Buffett writes a concise op-ed piece in the New York Times titled “Buy American. I Am.” Published in the throes of a banking crisis, Mr. Buffett’s words were intended to provide assurance to a public that couldn’t trust either the banks, the government or regulators assigned to ensure stability in the financial system. Mr. Buffett points out that government policy to deal with the financial crisis “…will probably prove inflationary and therefore accelerate declines in the real value of cash…” Mr. Buffett goes on to suggest that individuals would be wise to invest in stocks.
I begin to wonder how an investor is supposed to make sense of the two articles. In the one case, Mr. Buffett offers an elaborate explanation for why equity investors are getting "swindled" during inflationary periods. In the other case, Mr. Buffett suggests that over the next ten years stocks will beat cash in a high inflation environment.
Is the only distinction that Mr. Buffett is making is the comparison between cash and stocks during inflation? If this is the case then we have to wonder which is the bigger swindle, cash that is being debased or stocks, where the management of a company can arbitrarily increase the number of shares denominated in a debased currency.
- Ellis, Charles. Classics: An Investor's Anthology. The Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts. 1989. p. 483.
- Buffett, Warren. "Buy American. I Am." New York Times. October 16, 2008. accessed online August 21, 2009.