William L. Silber: Invest Like Buffett…Buy Silver When It’s Cheap, but Don’t Repeat his Mistake

The global economy in 2019 may seem unsettled because of trade wars and friction in the European Union, but it is nothing compared with the Great Recession. Few worry today about the collapse of the world financial system, a serious concern ten years ago, and the decline of precious metal prices since then confirms that most investors do not expect a return of that sentiment. Which makes it the perfect time for Americans to learn a lesson from the recent history of the country’s most famous investor: Warren Buffett. He bought silver after it had collapsed in value but left more than four billion dollars on the table by selling too soon. 

Buffett is a contrarian, making investments that are unpopular and waiting for them to return to favor. He says: “You pay a very high price…for a cheery consensus…pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels.” This approach suggests that now is a good time to buy precious metals and to keep them for the long haul. Gold and silver are not popular today, but they should be viewed as insurance policies for everyday Americans. Both metals work when nothing else does, like during the Great Recession, when silver quadrupled in value between 2008 and 2011, and gold rose by 250 percent. Those increases mirrored the performance of precious metals 30 years earlier, in 1979, at the peak of the Great Inflation, when fear of runaway consumer prices had taken hold.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, bought silver in 1997 because it was cheap. The white metal had dropped more than 90 percent from its record price of $50 an ounce in January 1980. It was almost twenty years after Paul Volcker, Chairman of the Federal Reserve System, had cured the inflationary spiral that had griped the U.S. economy and Buffett pounced. He bought at the right time but sold much too soon and said, “I bought it very early and sold it very early.” Buffett’s experience provides guidelines for how to see precious metals today.

Buffett’s purchase of more than 100 million ounces of silver, about 25 percent of the world’s annual production of the white metal in 1997, was deeply out of character. The white metal did not belong among his investments. He had prided himself on picking companies that are “understandable, possess excellent economics, and are run by outstanding people.” Buffett traditionally dismissed owning assets like precious metals that “will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else…will pay more for them in the future.” His least favorite investment is gold which he said would “remain lifeless forever.”

The CEO of Berkshire Hathaway gave silver a reprieve because the white metal is a cross between precious and industrial, a store of wealth for millions and productive in electronics and medicine. He explained his reasons for the investment, which totaled about two percent of Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio: “I concluded that a higher price would be needed to establish equilibrium between supply and demand.” Buffett liked silver because annual consumption by industry outpaced mine production.

And Buffett was ideally positioned to benefit from silver’s low prices. The Berkshire Hathaway CEO had long understood the power of patience, having told his stockholders when he first bought Coca Cola stock in 1988, “Our favorite holding period is forever.” Patience is key to maximizing value from precious metals.

As it turned out, however, Buffett failed to stick to his principles, with serious consequences. An expanding U.S. economy spurred prices to about $7.50 in 2005 and Buffett began to worry about excess speculation. A year later he told his investors at their annual meeting that Berkshire Hathaway had sold all its silver. Buffett said “We made a few dollars,” but he was not pleased. Berkshire had earned about $275 million on an investment of $560 million in 1997, about a five percent annual return over the eight years, less than they would have earned investing in U.S. Treasury bonds. Buffett’s partner, Charlie Munger deadpanned, “I think we’ve demonstrated our expertise in commodities, if you look at our activities in silver.” Buffett added “We’re not good at figuring out when a speculative game will end.”

He did not realize the party was about to begin.

On September 15, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. It was the largest Chapter 11 filing in American history, and turned a mild recession into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The failure destroyed trust in financial assets, triggered panicked withdrawals from money market mutual funds, until then considered the equivalent of cash, and forced the U.S Treasury to guarantee their safety.

The exploding financial chaos eventually sparked gold prices to an all-time record of $1,900 an ounce on September 5, 2011, an increase of 250 percent in the three years since Lehman’s collapse. Silver hit $42.92 that same day, for a 400 percent increase, almost twice the move in gold. Buffett’s uncharacteristic impatience, therefore, cost him dearly. Had Berkshire Hathaway sold at $42.92 on September 5, 2011, well below the $48 crisis peak, he would have made $4.2 billion on his investment of $560 million. His 14-year silver speculation would have earned a respectable 16.5 percent annual return.

No one expects to sell at the top so precious metals should remain in an investor’s portfolio forever, just like Warren Buffett’s Coca Cola. His allocation of two percent to silver makes sense — not too much to cause insomnia, but enough to provide for food, clothing and a driverless car during the next crisis. Today, we have recovered from the Great Recession, and precious metals are out of favor, a prime time for a contrarian purchase. Silver has declined to about $15 an ounce, one-third its 2011 peak, so it is relatively cheap to insure against the next financial upheaval. Once you’ve bought it, don’t touch it. Selling would be like cancelling insurance after an accident.

William L. Silber is the Marcus Nadler Professor of Finance and Economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. His many books include When Washington Shut Down Wall Street (Princeton) and Volcker (Bloomsbury). He lives in Teaneck, New Jersey.