Warren Buffett is arguably the greatest living investor. He went from buying his first stock at age 11 to owning multiple companies at the top of the Fortune 500 list. Buffett's personal wealth ballooned to over $80 billion as of October 2019, making him the third-wealthiest person on Earth at the time.
Given his decades-long track record in the market, many investors want to learn how to pick stocks like Buffett. But for individual investors, including his own wife, Buffett offers a different investment strategy—and it's one that has nothing to do with picking individual stocks.
Advice for His Wife
In his 2013 annual letter to shareholders, Buffett addressed his own mortality and offered clear instructions to the trustee charged with managing his vast estate for his wife.
“My advice to the trustee could not be more simple. Put 10 percent of the cash in short‐term government bonds and 90 percent in a very low‐cost S&P 500 index fund. I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors—whether pension funds, institutions, individuals—who employ high-fee managers.”
And it's advice he's repeated. At the 2016 annual meeting of Berkshire Hathaway shareholders, often called the “Woodstock of Capitalism,” Buffett reportedly responded to a question about how an average investor should manage their funds by saying “Just buy an S&P index fund and sit for the next 50 years.”
Buffett’s disdain for expensive investment managers is clear. And he doesn’t suggest his trust hold a single stock—not even in his own company, Berkshire Hathaway. Instead, he suggests funneling stock investments into an S&P 500 index fund, a type of mutual fund that follows the performance of 500 of the largest public companies in America.
Buffett’s belief in the S&P 500 is so strong that he bet $1 million that the S&P 500 would outperform a selection of top hedge funds over time.
Buffett and Value Investing
You might be wondering why Buffett's own company doesn’t follow his advice. After all, Berkshire Hathaway was built on investing in individual companies, and its portfolio contains billions of dollars of stock investments in companies including Wells Fargo, American Express, and Coca-Cola.
It's a portfolio built on a philosophy called value investing, which was pioneered by Benjamin Graham, Buffett’s mentor and professor at Columbia Business School. Value investing ignores swings in the markets and focuses on a company's intrinsic value. Buffett and his team look for companies that have a competitive advantage, great management, and a higher true value than the current stock price.
If you wanted to pick stocks, value investing would be a fine strategy to follow. Still, keep in mind that Buffett and his investment team manage billions of dollars in assets and have the ability to make massive investments and influence the operations of the companies in the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio. Individual investors are typically working with thousands of dollars and do not have the time, assets, or expertise to mimic Buffett’s success.
Keep in mind also that individual investors, unlike a huge institutional investor like Berkshire Hathaway, are less able to handle the big losses that come with investing in the market. And make no mistake: those inevitable losses will come.
How to Structure Your Portfolio
If you want to follow Buffett's advice for individual investors, here's one way you might go about it. These examples include Vanguard mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), but whatever fund family or brokerage you use will have similar options.
For that "very low‐cost S&P 500 index fund” that Buffett refers to in his letter, plenty of fund options are available. Most investors would start with the Vanguard S&P 500 ETF, ticker symbol VOO, or the Admiral Shares S&P 500 mutual fund, ticker symbol VFIAX, which has a minimum investment requirement of $3,000.
As with the S&P 500, you can buy a mutual fund or ETF to invest in a basket of short-term government bonds. Vanguard offers its own Short-Term Government Bond ETF with the ticker symbol VGSH. It also offers an Admiral Shares short-term bond mutual fund under ticker symbol VSBSX, which also has a $3,000 minimum investment requirement.
The Benefits of Index Funds
Investing in index funds has several advantages over picking stocks.
Instant diversification: When buying individual stocks, you need quite a bit of time and money to build up a diverse portfolio. Diversifying across companies and industries is also important. An investment in an S&P 500 index fund gives you 500 companies at once.
A bet on the U.S. economy: Betting on the 500 biggest public companies in the United States is comparable to a bet on the overall U.S. economy. While a company may follow the fate of Enron now and again, these companies are generally stable, blue-chip firms that will experience long-term stability.
Easier to control emotions: The best investment plan is to contribute little by little over time. When you buy and sell individual stocks, you are always in the mindset of buying and selling. This inevitably leads many investors to buy and sell at the wrong time. Timing the markets is virtually impossible. Instead, follow a tried-and-true course of periodically buying index fund shares.
Lower trade fees: Buying and selling stocks to build a portfolio can be costly in terms of trading fees and commissions. However, most fund firms offer access to their own S&P 500 index fund for no fee.