Here’s a great excerpt from Warren Buffett’s 1979 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter in which he illustrates the impact that inflation can have on an investor’s returns, using what he calls – “the investor’s misery index”, saying:
If we should continue to achieve a 20% compounded gain – not an easy or certain result by any means – and this gain is translated into a corresponding increase in the market value of Berkshire Hathaway stock as it has been over the last fifteen years, your after-tax purchasing power gain is likely to be very close to zero at a 14% inflation rate. Most of the remaining six percentage points will go for income tax any time you wish to convert your twenty percentage points of nominal annual gain into cash.
That combination – the inflation rate plus the percentage of capital that must be paid by the owner to transfer into his own pocket the annual earnings achieved by the business (i.e., ordinary income tax on dividends and capital gains tax on retained earnings) – can be thought of as an “investor’s misery index”. When this index exceeds the rate of return earned on equity by the business, the investor’s purchasing power (real capital) shrinks even though he consumes nothing at all. We have no corporate solution to this problem; high inflation rates will not help us earn higher rates of return on equity.
You can read the entire 1979 shareholder letter here: 1979 Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter.
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