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Rule No. 1: Never Lose Money
It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. - Warren Buffett
The words greatest of all time are used in multiple fields and often too flippantly. However, when someone says who is the greatest basketball player of all time many will say Michael Jordan, this is similar to the investing field where many will say Warren Buffett. Why is that? Buffett is not the richest man on the planet, although at times he has sat at the top, it is because Buffett has held an amazing track record of investing over half a century.
He along with Charlie Munger not only invest better than most people in history, they also have an uncanny ability to process information, distill it in a way that is manageable, and then take action against the highest signal inputs. They have done this for decades. This is not an easy thing to do when humans are naturally attracted to the next shiny thing or over valuing the interests of their peers. No, not for Buffett and Munger. These two keep their heads in the research so that their wealth and knowledge can continually compound.
In the realm of finance and investing, few names command as much respect and admiration as Warren Buffett. Often referred to as the "Oracle of Omaha," Buffett has built a remarkable track record over the years, amassing immense wealth and gaining a cult-like following of investors worldwide. So, what sets Warren Buffett apart? What makes him great? Let's delve into the characteristics and strategies that have made Warren Buffett an investment legend.
1. Long-Term Vision:
One of the distinguishing traits that have contributed to Warren Buffett's success is his unwavering focus on long-term investments. Buffett famously said, "Our favorite holding period is forever." He looks for fundamentally strong companies with durable competitive advantages and holds onto them for years, even decades. By eschewing short-term market noise, Buffett has demonstrated the power of patience and compounding wealth over time.
2. Value Investing:
Warren Buffett is a staunch advocate of value investing, a strategy that involves identifying undervalued companies and buying their stocks at a discount. He seeks out companies with solid fundamentals, strong management teams, and attractive growth prospects. Buffett famously analyzes a company's intrinsic value and aims to buy it at a significant discount to its true worth. His focus on value has been a cornerstone of his investment philosophy.
3. Moat Investing:
Buffett emphasizes the importance of investing in companies with economic moats, referring to sustainable competitive advantages that protect a business from competitors. These moats can include brand strength, patents, high switching costs, or network effects. By investing in businesses with durable moats, Buffett aims to identify companies that can maintain their competitive edge and generate consistent profits over the long haul.
4. Patient Opportunism:
While Buffett is known for his patience, he also possesses a keen eye for seizing investment opportunities when they arise. He has capitalized on market downturns and financial crises by deploying substantial capital into undervalued assets. By being patient but opportunistic, Buffett has managed to generate substantial returns during challenging times, showcasing his ability to navigate the market's ups and downs effectively.
5. Humility and Simplicity:
Despite his immense wealth and success, Warren Buffett remains refreshingly humble and down-to-earth. He avoids complex financial instruments and prefers straightforward, understandable businesses. His annual letters to shareholders are renowned for their clarity and accessibility, emphasizing the importance of transparency and straightforward communication. Buffett's simplicity extends to his personal life as well, as he famously resides in the same Omaha home he bought in 1958.
6. Disciplined Approach:
Warren Buffett is known for his disciplined investment approach. He follows a set of well-defined investment principles and rarely deviates from them. This discipline helps him avoid impulsive or emotional decision-making and stick to his long-term strategy. Buffett's ability to remain focused and disciplined in the face of market fluctuations has been key to his success.
7. Focus on Quality Management:
Buffett places great importance on the quality of a company's management team. He believes that competent and trustworthy leaders are crucial for the long-term success of a business. Buffett carefully assesses the management team's track record, integrity, and ability to make sound decisions. His emphasis on investing in companies with exceptional leadership has proven to be a valuable criterion for his investment selection.
8. Aversion to Debt:
Buffett is famously conservative when it comes to debt. He prefers companies with strong balance sheets and minimal debt burdens. By avoiding heavily indebted companies, Buffett reduces the risk of bankruptcy or financial distress. This aversion to excessive leverage has served him well, especially during economic downturns when heavily indebted companies often face significant challenges.
9. Continuous Learning:
Warren Buffett is an avid learner and voracious reader. He devotes a considerable amount of time to studying and understanding businesses, industries, and economic trends. Buffett's insatiable intellectual curiosity enables him to make informed investment decisions based on a deep understanding of the companies he invests in. His commitment to continuous learning is a testament to his dedication and adaptability as an investor.
10. Philanthropy and Giving Back:
Beyond his investment prowess, Warren Buffett is admired for his philanthropic endeavors. In 2006, he pledged the majority of his wealth to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, making it one of the largest charitable donations in history. Buffett's commitment to giving back and his belief in using wealth for the greater good have earned him widespread admiration and respect.
11. Mentorship and Legacy:
Warren Buffett has also made significant contributions through mentorship and sharing his investment wisdom with others. His annual shareholder letters and interviews provide valuable insights into his investment philosophy, allowing aspiring investors to learn from his experiences. Buffett has also groomed successors within his investment firm, Berkshire Hathaway, ensuring that his investment principles and approach continue to guide the company in the future.
Warren Buffett's greatness as an investor is a culmination of these various factors, which include his disciplined approach, focus on quality management, aversion to debt, continuous learning, philanthropy, and the desire to leave a lasting legacy. His enduring success and philanthropic efforts have made him an iconic figure in the world of finance and investing, inspiring generations of investors to adopt a long-term, value-focused approach.
Whether you invest or not, the letters from Berkshire are worth your time. The ability to make complicated matters clear and easy to follow are good signs the person truly knows what they’re talking about. Richard Feynman made that one of his maximns. Buffett and Munger show transparency and clarity of thought which is enviable. Below are excerpts and highlights from letters spanning the last five decades. These two have been through several boom and busts and always emerged on the other side wealthier and wiser.
Most companies define “record” earnings as a new high in earnings per share. Since businesses customarily add from year to year to their equity base, we find nothing particularly noteworthy in a management performance combining, say, a 10% increase in equity capital and a 5% increase in earnings per share. After all, even a totally dormant savings account will produce steadily rising interest earnings each year because of compounding.
We believe a more appropriate measure of managerial economic performance to be return on equity capital.
It is comforting to be in a business where some mistakes can be made and yet a quite satisfactory overall performance can be achieved.
One of the lessons management has learned – and, unfortunately, sometimes re-learned – is the importance of being in businesses where tailwinds prevail rather than headwinds
Insurance companies offer standardized policies which can be copied by anyone. Their only products are promises. It is not difficult to be licensed, and rates are an open book. There are no important advantages from trademarks, patents, location, corporate longevity, raw material sources, etc., and very little consumer differentiation to produce insulation from competition. It is commonplace, in corporate annual reports, to stress the difference that people make. Sometimes this is true and sometimes it isn’t. But there is no question that the nature of the insurance business magnifies the effect which individual managers have on company performance. We are very fortunate to have the group of managers that are associated with us.
Our unrealized gain in stocks at yearend 1977 was approximately $74 million but this figure, like any other figure of a single date (we had an unrealized loss of $17 million at the end of 1974), should not be taken too seriously. Most of our large stock positions are going to be held for many years and the scorecard on our investment decisions will be provided by business results over that period, and not by prices on any given day. Just as it would be foolish to focus unduly on short-term prospects when acquiring an entire company, we think it equally unsound to become mesmerized by prospective near term earnings or recent trends in earnings when purchasing small pieces of a company; i.e., marketable common stocks.
Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates and Hathaway Manufacturing were merged in 1955 to form Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
We select our marketable equity securities in much the same way we would evaluate a business for acquisition in its entirety. We want the business to be (1) one that we can understand, (2) with favorable long-term prospects, (3) operated by honest and competent people, and (4) available at a very attractive price. We ordinarily make no attempt to buy equities for anticipated favorable stock price behavior in the short term. In fact, if their business experience continues to satisfy us, we welcome lower market prices of stocks we own as an opportunity to acquire even more of a good thing at a better price.
Our experience has been that pro-rata portions of truly outstanding businesses sometimes sell in the securities markets at very large discounts from the prices they would command in negotiated transactions involving entire companies. Consequently, bargains in business ownership, which simply are not available directly through corporate acquisition, can be obtained indirectly through stock ownership. When prices are appropriate, we are willing to take very large positions in selected companies, not with any intention of taking control and not foreseeing sell-out or merger, but with the expectation that excellent business results by corporations will translate over the long term into correspondingly excellent market value and dividend results for owners, minority as well as majority.
While control would give us the opportunity – and the responsibility – to manage operations and corporate resources, we would not be able to provide management in either of those respects equal to that now in place. In effect, we can obtain a better management result through non-control than control. This is an unorthodox view, but one we believe to be sound.
We make no attempt to predict how security markets will behave; successfully forecasting short term stock price movements is something we think neither we nor anyone else can do. In the longer run, however, we feel that many of our major equity holdings are going to be worth considerably more money than we paid, and that investment gains will add significantly to the operating returns of the insurance group.
Slow capital turnover, coupled with low profit margins on sales, inevitably produces inadequate returns on capital.
The textile industry illustrates in textbook style how producers of relatively undifferentiated goods in capital intensive businesses must earn inadequate returns except under conditions of tight supply or real shortage. As long as excess productive capacity exists, prices tend to reflect direct operating costs rather than capital employed. Such a supply-excess condition appears likely to prevail most of the time in the textile industry, and our expectations are for profits of relatively modest amounts in relation to capital.
It is very easy to fool yourself regarding underwriting results in reinsurance (particularly in casualty lines involving long delays in settlement), and we believe this situation prevails with many of our competitors. Unfortunately, self-delusion in company reserving almost always leads to inadequate industry rate levels. If major factors in the market don’t know their true costs, the competitive “fall-out” hits all – even those with adequate cost knowledge.
This program of acquisition of small fractions of businesses (common stocks) at bargain prices, for which little enthusiasm exists, contrasts sharply with general corporate acquisition activity, for which much enthusiasm exists. It seems quite clear to us that either corporations are making very significant mistakes in purchasing entire businesses at prices prevailing in negotiated transactions and takeover bids, or that we eventually are going to make considerable sums of money buying small portions of such businesses at the greatly discounted valuations prevailing in the stock market.
We are not concerned with whether the market quickly revalues upward securities that we believe are selling at bargain prices. In fact, we prefer just the opposite since, in most years, we expect to have funds available to be a net buyer of securities. And consistent attractive purchasing is likely to prove to be of more eventual benefit to us than any selling opportunities provided by a short-term run up in stock prices to levels at which we are unwilling to continue buying. Our policy is to concentrate holdings. We try to avoid buying a little of this or that when we are only lukewarm about the business or its price. When we are convinced as to attractiveness, we believe in buying worthwhile amounts.
We are not at all unhappy when our wholly-owned businesses retain all of their earnings if they can utilize internally those funds at attractive rates. Why should we feel differently about retention of earnings by companies in which we hold small equity interests, but where the record indicates even better prospects for profitable employment of capital? (This proposition cuts the other way, of course, in industries with low capital requirements, or if management has a record of plowing capital into projects of low profitability; then earnings should be paid out or used to repurchase shares – often by far the most attractive option for capital utilization.)
Our experience has been that the manager of an already high-cost operation frequently is uncommonly resourceful in finding new ways to add to overhead, while the manager of a tightly-run operation usually continues to find additional methods to curtail costs, even when his costs are already well below those of his competitors.
While unorthodox, these relationships have been exceptionally rewarding, both financially and personally. It is a real pleasure to work with managers who enjoy coming to work each morning and, once there, instinctively and unerringly think like owners. We are associated with some of the very best.
We continue to feel that the ratio of operating earnings (before securities gains or losses) to shareholders’ equity with all securities valued at cost is the most appropriate way to measure any single year’s operating performance.
“Earnings per share” will rise constantly on a dormant savings account or on a U.S. Savings Bond bearing a fixed rate of return simply because “earnings” (the stated interest rate) are continuously plowed back and added to the capital base. Thus, even a “stopped clock” can look like a growth stock if the dividend payout ratio is low.
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.
Both our operating and investment experience cause us to conclude that “turnarounds” seldom turn, and that the same energies and talent are much better employed in a good business purchased at a fair price than in a poor business purchased at a bargain price.
So simple but difficult to implement – We would rather have some slack in the organization from time to time than keep everyone terribly busy writing business on which we are going to lose money.
You do not adequately protect yourself by being half awake while others are sleeping.
Overall, we opt for Polonius (slightly restated): “Neither a short-term borrower nor a long-term lender be.”
Furthermore, perhaps 90% of our shares are owned by investors for whom Berkshire is their largest security holding, very often far and away the largest. Many of these owners are willing to spend a significant amount of time with the annual report, and we attempt to provide them with the same information we would find useful if the roles were reversed.
We feel that you, as owners, are entitled to the same sort of reporting by your manager as we feel is owed to us at Berkshire Hathaway by managers of our business units.
The reasoning of managements that seek large trading activity in their shares puzzles us. In effect, such managements are saying that they want a good many of the existing clientele continually to desert them in favor of new ones – because you can’t add lots of new owners (with new expectations) without losing lots of former owners.
Your company is run on the principle of centralization of financial decisions at the top (the very top, it might be added), and rather extreme delegation of operating authority to a number of key managers at the individual company or business unit level. We could just field a basketball team with our corporate headquarters group (which utilizes only about 1500 square feet of space). This approach produces an occasional major mistake that might have been eliminated or minimized through closer operating controls. But it also eliminates large layers of costs and dramatically speeds decision-making. Because everyone has a great deal to do, a very great deal gets done. Most important of all, it enables us to attract and retain some extraordinarily talented individuals – people who simply can’t be hired in the normal course of events – who find working for Berkshire to be almost identical to running their own show. We have placed much trust in them – and their achievements have far exceeded that trust.
Return on beginning equity capital is the most appropriate measure of single-year managerial economic performance
The value to Berkshire Hathaway of retained earnings is not determined by whether we own 100%, 50%, 20% or 1% of the businesses in which they reside. Rather, the value of those retained earnings is determined by the use to which they are put and the subsequent level of earnings produced by that usage. This is true whether we determine the usage, or whether managers we did not hire – but did elect to join – determine that usage. (It’s the act that counts, not the actors.) And the value is in no way affected by the inclusion or non-inclusion of those retained earnings in our own reported operating earnings. If a tree grows in a forest partially owned by us, but we don’t record the growth in our financial statements, we still own part of the tree.
We can’t resist pausing here for a short commercial. One usage of retained earnings we often greet with special enthusiasm when practiced by companies in which we have an investment interest is repurchase of their own shares. The reasoning is simple: if a fine business is selling in the market place for far less than intrinsic value, what more certain or more profitable utilization of capital can there be than significant enlargement of the interests of all owners at that bargain price?
Our long-term yardstick of performance, however, includes all capital gains or losses, realized or unrealized. We continue to achieve a long-term return on equity that considerably exceeds the average of our yearly returns. The major factor causing this pleasant result is a simple one: the retained earnings of those non-controlled holdings we discussed earlier have been translated into gains in market value.
High rates of inflation create a tax on capital that makes much corporate investment unwise – at least if measured by the criterion of a positive real investment return to owners. This “hurdle rate” the return on equity that must be achieved by a corporation in order to produce any real return for its individual owners – has increased dramatically in recent years. The average tax-paying investor is now running up a down escalator whose pace has accelerated to the point where his upward progress is nil. Inflation does not improve our return on equity.
For capital to be truly indexed, return on equity must rise, i.e., business earnings consistently must increase in proportion to the increase in the price level without any need for the business to add to capital – including working capital – employed. (Increased earnings produced by increased investment don’t count.) Only a few businesses come close to exhibiting this ability. And Berkshire Hathaway isn’t one of them.
Our conclusion is that, with few exceptions, when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.
We believe that short-term forecasts of stock or bond prices are useless. The forecasts may tell you a great deal about the forecaster; they tell you nothing about the future.
This ostrich-like behavior – selling the better assets and keeping the biggest losers – while less painful in the short term, is unlikely to be a winner in the long term.
Unlike most businesses, Berkshire did not finance because of any specific immediate needs. Rather, we borrowed because we think that, over a period far shorter than the life of the loan, we will have many opportunities to put the money to good use. The most attractive opportunities may present themselves at a time when credit is extremely expensive – or even unavailable. At such a time we want to have plenty of financial firepower.
Under all circumstances we plan to operate with plenty of liquidity, with debt that is moderate in size and properly structured, and with an abundance of capital strength. Our return on equity is penalized somewhat by this conservative approach, but it is the only one with which we feel comfortable.
Small portions of exceptionally good businesses are usually available in the securities markets at reasonable prices. But such businesses are available for purchase in their entirety only rarely, and then almost always at high prices.
Our acquisition decisions will be aimed at maximizing real economic benefits, not at maximizing either managerial domain or reported numbers for accounting purposes. (In the long run, managements stressing accounting appearance over economic substance usually achieve little of either.)
Regardless of the impact upon immediately reportable earnings, we would rather buy 10% of Wonderful Business T at X per share than 100% of T at 2X per share. Most corporate managers prefer just the reverse, and have no shortage of stated rationales for their behavior. However, we suspect three motivations – usually unspoken – to be, singly or in combination, the important ones in most high-premium takeovers: (1) Leaders, business or otherwise, seldom are deficient in animal spirits and often relish increased activity and challenge. At Berkshire, the corporate pulse never beats faster than when an acquisition is in prospect. (2) Most organizations, business or otherwise, measure themselves, are measured by others, and compensate their managers far more by the yardstick of size than by any other yardstick. (Ask a Fortune 500 manager where his corporation stands on that famous list and, invariably, the number responded will be from the list ranked by size of sales; he may well not even know where his corporation places on the list Fortune just as faithfully compiles ranking the same 500 corporations by profitability.) (3) Many managements apparently were overexposed in impressionable childhood years to the story in which the imprisoned handsome prince is released from a toad’s body by a kiss from a beautiful princess. Consequently, they are certain their managerial kiss will do wonders for the profitability of Company (Target). Such optimism is essential. Absent that rosy view,
In fairness, we should acknowledge that some acquisition records have been dazzling. Two major categories stand out. The first involves companies that, through design or accident, have purchased only businesses that are particularly well adapted to an inflationary environment. Such favored business must have two characteristics: (1) an ability to increase prices rather easily (even when product demand is flat and capacity is not fully utilized) without fear of significant loss of either market share or unit volume, and (2) an ability to accommodate large dollar volume increases in business (often produced more by inflation than by real growth) with only minor additional investment of capital. Managers of ordinary ability, focusing solely on acquisition possibilities meeting these tests, have achieved excellent results in recent decades. However, very few enterprises possess both characteristics, and competition to buy those that do has now become fierce to the point of being self-defeating. The second category involves the managerial superstars – men who can recognize that rare prince who is disguised as a toad, and who have managerial abilities that enable them to peel away the disguise.
We may very well pay a fairly fancy price for a Category 1 business if we are reasonably confident of what we are getting. But we will not normally pay a lot in any purchase for what we are supposed to bring to the party – for we find that we ordinarily don’t bring a lot.
Currently, we find values most easily obtained through the open-market purchase of fractional positions in companies with excellent business franchises and competent, honest managements. We never expect to run these companies, but we do expect to profit from them.
In past reports we have explained how inflation has caused our apparently satisfactory long-term corporate performance to be illusory as a measure of true investment results for our owners. We applaud the efforts of Federal Reserve Chairman Volcker and note the currently more moderate increases in various price indices. Nevertheless, our views regarding long-term inflationary trends are as negative as ever. Like virginity, a stable price level seems capable of maintenance, but not of restoration.
The lessons learned during its existence are difficult to discard. While investors and managers must place their feet in the future, their memories and nervous systems often remain plugged into the past. It is much easier for investors to utilize historic p/e ratios or for managers to utilize historic business valuation yardsticks than it is for either group to rethink their premises daily. When change is slow, constant rethinking is actually undesirable; it achieves little and slows response time. But when change is great, yesterday’s assumptions can be retained only at great cost. And the pace of economic change has become breathtaking.
Facts do not cease to exist, either because they are unpleasant or because they are ignored. Inflationary experience and expectations will be major (but
not the only) factors affecting the height of the crossbar in future years. If the causes of long-term inflation can be tempered, passive returns are likely to fall and the intrinsic position of American equity capital should significantly improve
When prices continuously rise, the “bad” business must retain every nickel that it can. Not because it is attractive as a repository for equity capital, but precisely because it is so unattractive, the low-return business must follow a high retention policy. If it wishes to continue operating in the future as it has in the past – and most entities, including businesses, do – it simply has no choice.
Charlie and I work as partners in managing all controlled companies. To almost a sinful degree, we enjoy our work as managing partners. And we enjoy having you as our financial partners.
It was only a few years ago that we told you that the operating earnings/equity capital percentage, with proper allowance for a few other variables, was the most important yardstick of single-year managerial performance. While we still believe this to be the case with the vast majority of companies, we believe its utility in our own case has greatly diminished. You should be suspicious of such an assertion. Yardsticks seldom are discarded while yielding favorable readings. But when results deteriorate, most managers favor disposition of the yardstick rather than disposition of the manager.
We prefer a concept of “economic” earnings that includes all undistributed earnings, regardless of ownership percentage. In our view, the value to all owners of the retained earnings of a business enterprise is determined by the effectiveness with which those earnings are used – and not by the size of one’s ownership percentage.
The unevenness and irregularity offers advantages to the value-oriented purchaser of fractional portions of businesses. This investor may select from almost the entire array of major American corporations, including many far superior to virtually any of the businesses that could be bought in their entirety in a negotiated deal. And fractional-interest purchases can be made in an auction market where prices are set by participants with behavior patterns that sometimes resemble those of an army of manic-depressive lemmings.
For the investor, a too-high purchase price for the stock of an excellent company can undo the effects of a subsequent decade of favorable business developments.
Should the stock market advance to considerably higher levels, our ability to utilize capital effectively in partial-ownership positions will be reduced or eliminated. This will happen periodically: just ten years ago, at the height of the two-tier market mania (with high-return-on-equity businesses bid to the sky by institutional investors), Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries owned only $18 million in market value of equities, excluding their interest in Blue Chip Stamps. At that time, such equity holdings amounted to about 15% of our insurance company investments versus the present 80%. There were as many good businesses around in 1972 as in 1982, but the prices the stock market placed upon those businesses in 1972 looked absurd. While high stock prices in the future would make our performance look good temporarily, they would hurt our long-term business prospects rather than help them. We currently are seeing early traces of this problem.
Berkshire’s economic goal remains to produce a long-term rate of return well above the return achieved by the average large American corporation. Our willingness to purchase either partial or total ownership positions in favorably-situated businesses, coupled with reasonable discipline about the prices we are willing to pay, should give us a good chance of achieving our goal.
Year-to-year variances, however, cannot consistently be in our favor. Even if our partially-owned businesses continue to perform well in an economic sense, there will be years when they perform poorly in the market. At such times our net worth could shrink significantly. We will not be distressed by such a shrinkage; if the businesses continue to look attractive and we have cash available, we simply will add to our holdings at even more favorable prices.
Jack Byrne and Bill Snyder are achieving the most elusive of human goals – keeping things simple and remembering what you set out to do.
Our share issuances follow a simple basic rule: we will not issue shares unless we receive as much intrinsic business value as we give. Such a policy might seem axiomatic. Why, you might ask, would anyone issue dollar bills in exchange for fifty-cent pieces? Unfortunately, many corporate managers have been willing to do just that.
There are three ways to avoid destruction of value for old owners when shares are issued for acquisitions. One is to have a true business-value-for-business-value merger, The second route presents itself when the acquirer’s stock sells at or above its intrinsic business value. In that situation, the use of stock as currency actually may enhance the wealth of the acquiring company’s owners. The third solution is for the acquirer to go ahead with the acquisition, but then subsequently repurchase a quantity of shares equal to the number issued in the merger. In this manner, what originally was a stock-for-stock merger can be converted, effectively, into a cash-for-stock acquisition.
In a trade, what you are giving is just as important as what you are getting. This remains true even when the final tally on what is being given is delayed.
Managers and directors might sharpen their thinking by asking themselves if they would sell 100% of their business on the same basis they are being asked to sell part of it. And if it isn’t smart to sell all on such a basis, they should ask themselves why it is smart to sell a portion. A cumulation of small managerial stupidities will produce a major stupidity – not a major triumph. (Las Vegas has been built upon the wealth transfers that occur when people engage in seemingly-small disadvantageous capital transactions.)
This destruction could not happen if management and directors would assess the fairness of any transaction by using the same yardstick in the measurement of both businesses.
Other things being equal, the highest stock market prices relative to intrinsic business value are given to companies whose managers have demonstrated their unwillingness to issue shares at any time on terms unfavorable to the owners of the business.
This annual report is read by a varied audience, and it is possible that some members of that audience may be helpful to us in our acquisition program. We prefer: (1) large purchases (at least $5 million of after-tax earnings), (2) demonstrated consistent earning power (future projections are of little interest to us, nor are “turn-around” situations), (3) businesses earning good returns on equity while employing little or no debt,(4) management in place (we can’t supply it), (5) simple businesses (if there’s lots of technology, we won’t understand it), (6) an offering price (we don’t want to waste our time or that of the seller by talking, even preliminarily, about a transaction when price is unknown). We will not engage in unfriendly transactions. We can promise complete confidentiality and a very fast answer as to possible interest – customarily within five minutes. Cash purchases are preferred, but we will consider the use of stock when it can be done on the basis described in the previous section.
Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. (Because of the size of our shareholdings we also are, for better or worse, controlling partners.) We do not view the company itself as the ultimate owner of our business assets but, instead, view the company as a conduit through which our shareholders own the assets.
In line with this owner-orientation, our directors are all major shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. In the case of at least four of the five, over 50% of family net worth is represented by holdings of Berkshire. We eat our own cooking.
Our long-term economic goal (subject to some qualifications mentioned later) is to maximize the average annual rate of gain in intrinsic business value on a per-share basis. We do not measure the economic significance or performance of Berkshire by its size; we measure by per-share progress.
We rarely use much debt and, when we do, we attempt to structure it on a long-term fixed rate basis. We will reject interesting opportunities rather than over-leverage our balance sheet. This conservatism has penalized our results but it is the only behavior that leaves us comfortable, considering our fiduciary obligations to policyholders, depositors, lenders and the many equity holders who have committed unusually large portions of their net worth to our care.
We feel noble intentions should be checked periodically against results. We test the wisdom of retaining earnings by assessing whether retention, over time, delivers shareholders at least $1 of market value for each $1 retained. To date, this test has been met. We will continue to apply it on a five-year rolling basis. As our net worth grows, it is more difficult to use retained earnings wisely
You should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I share that hurts our financial performance: regardless of price, we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns, and are very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations.
The high point of 1983 – the acquisition of a majority interest in Nebraska Furniture Mart and our association with Rose Blumkin and her family.
One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled personnel, to compete with it. I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than compete with Mrs. B and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they operate at expense ratios competitors don’t even dream about, and they then pass on to their customers much of the savings. It’s the ideal business – one built upon exceptional value to the customer that in turn translates into exceptional economics for its owners.
During 1983 our book value increased from $737.43 per share to $975.83 per share, or by 32%. We never take the one-year figure very seriously. After all, why should the time required for a planet to circle the sun synchronize precisely with the time required for business actions to pay off? Instead, we recommend not less than a five-year test as a rough yardstick of economic performance. Red lights should start flashing if the five-year average annual gain falls much below the return on equity earned over the period by American industry in aggregate. (Watch out for our explanation if that occurs as Goethe observed, “When ideas fail, words come in very handy.”)
We report our progress in terms of book value because in our case (though not, by any means, in all cases) it is a conservative but reasonably adequate proxy for growth in intrinsic business value – the measurement that really counts. Book value’s virtue as a score-keeping measure is that it is easy to calculate and doesn’t involve the subjective (but important) judgments employed in calculation of intrinsic business value. It is important to understand, however, that the two terms – book value and intrinsic business value – have very different meanings. Book value is an accounting concept, recording the accumulated financial input from both contributed capital and retained earnings. Intrinsic business value is an economic concept, estimating future cash output discounted to present value. Book value tells you what has been put in; intrinsic business value estimates what can be taken out
In candy, as in stocks, price and value can differ; price is what you give, value is what you get.
In large part, however, we feel that high quality ownership can be attracted and maintained if we consistently communicate our business and ownership philosophy – along with no other conflicting messages – and then let self selection follow its course. For example, self selection will draw a far different crowd to a musical event advertised as an opera than one advertised as a rock concert even though anyone can buy a ticket to either.
Were we to split the stock or take other actions focusing on stock price rather than business value, we would attract an entering class of buyers inferior to the exiting class of sellers. At $1300, there are very few investors who can’t afford a Berkshire share. Would a potential one-share purchaser be better off if we split 100 for 1 so he could buy 100 shares? Those who think so and who would buy the stock because of the split or in anticipation of one would definitely downgrade the quality of our present shareholder group. (Could we really improve our shareholder group by trading some of our present clear-thinking members for impressionable new ones who, preferring paper to value, feel wealthier with nine $10 bills than with one $100 bill?) People who buy for non-value reasons are likely to sell for non-value reasons. Their presence in the picture will accentuate erratic price swings unrelated to underlying business developments.
If 100 million-share days persist for a year and the average cost on each purchase and sale is 15 cents a share, the chair-changing tax for investors in aggregate would total about $7.5 billion – an amount roughly equal to the combined 1982 profits of Exxon, General Motors, Mobil and Texaco, the four largest companies in the Fortune 500. These companies had a combined net worth of $75 billion at yearend 1982 and accounted for over 12% of both net worth and net income of the entire Fortune 500 list. Under our assumption investors, in aggregate, every year forfeit all earnings from this staggering sum of capital merely to satisfy their penchant for “financial flip-flopping”. In addition, investment management fees of over $2 billion annually – sums paid for chair-changing advice – require the forfeiture by investors of all earnings of the five largest banking organizations (Citicorp, Bank America, Chase Manhattan, Manufacturers Hanover and J. P. Morgan). These expensive activities may decide who eats the pie, but they don’t enlarge it.
Our view is that casino-type markets and hair-trigger investment management act as an invisible foot that trips up and slows down a forward-moving economy.
And that fact, of course, has been hard for many people to grasp. For years the traditional wisdom – long on tradition, short on wisdom – held that inflation protection was best provided by businesses laden with natural resources, plants and machinery, or other tangible assets (“In Goods We Trust”). It doesn’t work that way. Asset-heavy businesses generally earn low rates of return – rates that often barely provide enough capital to fund the inflationary needs of the existing business, with nothing left over for real growth, for distribution to owners, or for acquisition of new businesses
During inflation, Goodwill is the gift that keeps giving.
We believe managers and investors alike should view intangible assets from two perspectives: In analysis of operating results – that is, in evaluating the underlying economics of a business unit – amortization charges should be ignored. What a business can be expected to earn on unleveraged net tangible assets, excluding any charges against earnings for amortization of Goodwill, is the best guide to the economic attractiveness of the operation. It is also the best guide to the current value of the operation’s economic Goodwill. In evaluating the wisdom of business acquisitions, amortization charges should be ignored also. They should be deducted neither from earnings nor from the cost of the business. This means forever viewing purchased Goodwill at its full cost, before any amortization. Furthermore, cost should be defined as including the full intrinsic business value – not just the recorded accounting value – of all consideration given, irrespective of market prices of the securities involved at the time of merger and irrespective of whether pooling treatment was allowed. For example, what we truly paid in the Blue Chip merger for 40% of the Goodwill of See’s and the News was considerably more than the $51.7 million entered on our books. This disparity exists because the market value of the Berkshire shares given up in the merger was less than their intrinsic business value, which is the value that defines the true cost to us. Operations that appear to be winners based upon perspective (1) may pale when viewed from perspective (2). A good business is not always a good purchase – although it’s a good place to look for one.
There are all kinds of businesses where we have no idea what they’ll earn this year, let alone any future year. Look for boring investments, sexy is usually complicated and full of competition. Look for what’s staying the same. - Warren Buffett
The gain in per-share intrinsic business value is the economic measurement that really counts. But calculations of intrinsic business value are subjective. In our case, book value serves as a useful, although somewhat understated, proxy.
We regard any annual figure for realized capital gains or losses as meaningless, but we regard the aggregate realized and unrealized capital gains over a period of years as very important.
When companies with outstanding businesses and comfortable financial positions find their shares selling far below intrinsic value in the marketplace, no alternative action can benefit shareholders as surely as repurchases
The other benefit of repurchases is less subject to precise measurement but can be fully as important over time. By making repurchases when a company’s market value is well below its business value, management clearly demonstrates that it is given to actions that enhance the wealth of shareholders, rather than to actions that expand management’s domain but that do nothing for (or even harm) shareholders. Seeing this, shareholders and potential shareholders increase their estimates of future returns from the business. This upward revision, in turn, produces market prices more in line with intrinsic business value. These prices are entirely rational. Investors should pay more for a business that is lodged in the hands of a manager with demonstrated pro-shareholder leanings than for one in the hands of a self-interested manager marching to a different drummer.
It’s been over ten years since it has been as difficult as now to find equity investments that meet both our qualitative standards and our quantitative standards of value versus price. We try to avoid compromise of these standards, although we find doing nothing the most difficult task of all. (One English statesman attributed his country’s greatness in the nineteenth century to a policy of “masterly inactivity”. This is a strategy that is far easier for historians to commend than for participants to follow.)
I have been asked by a number of people just what secrets the Blumkins bring to their business. These are not very esoteric. All members of the family: (1) apply themselves with an enthusiasm and energy that would make Ben Franklin and Horatio Alger look like dropouts; (2) define with extraordinary realism their area of special competence and act decisively on all matters within it; (3) ignore even the most enticing propositions failing outside of that area of special competence; and, (4) unfailingly behave in a high-grade manner with everyone they deal with. (Mrs. B boils it down to “sell cheap and tell the truth”.)
as in all of our investments, we look to business performance, not market performance. If we are correct in expectations regarding the business, the market eventually will follow along.
This ceiling on upside potential is an important minus. It should be realized, however, that the great majority of operating businesses have a limited upside potential also unless more capital is continuously invested in them. That is so because most businesses are unable to significantly improve their average returns on equity – even under inflationary conditions, though these were once thought to automatically raise returns.
Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike. - Ben Graham
The first point to understand is that all earnings are not created equal. In many businesses particularly those that have high asset/profit ratios – inflation causes some or all of the reported earnings to become ersatz. The ersatz portion – let’s call these earnings “restricted” – cannot, if the business is to retain its economic position, be distributed as dividends. Were these earnings to be paid out, the business would lose ground in one or more of the following areas: its ability to maintain its unit volume of sales, its long-term competitive position, its financial strength. No matter how conservative its payout ratio, a company that consistently distributes restricted earnings is destined for oblivion unless equity capital is otherwise infused.
But we believe there is only one valid reason for retention. Unrestricted earnings should be retained only when there is a reasonable prospect – backed preferably by historical evidence or, when appropriate, by a thoughtful analysis of the future – that for every dollar retained by the corporation, at least one dollar of market value will be created for owners. This will happen only if the capital retained produces incremental earnings equal to, or above, those generally available to investors
In judging whether managers should retain earnings, shareholders should not simply compare total incremental earnings in recent years to total incremental capital because that relationship may be distorted by what is going on in a core business. During an inflationary period, companies with a core business characterized by extraordinary economics can use small amounts of incremental capital in that business at very high rates of return (as was discussed in last year’s section on Goodwill). But, unless they are experiencing tremendous unit growth, outstanding businesses by definition generate large amounts of excess cash. If a company sinks most of this money in other businesses that earn low returns, the company’s overall return on retained capital may nevertheless appear excellent because of the extraordinary returns being earned by the portion of earnings incrementally invested in the core business.
Payments, therefore, should reflect long-term expectations for both earnings and returns on incremental capital. Since the long-term corporate outlook changes only infrequently, dividend patterns should change no more often. But over time distributable earnings that have been withheld by managers should earn their keep. If earnings have been unwisely retained, it is likely that managers, too, have been unwisely retained.
as long as prospective returns are above the rate required to produce a dollar of market value per dollar retained, we will continue to retain all earnings. Should our estimate of future returns fall below that point, we will distribute all unrestricted earnings that we believe can not be effectively used. In making that judgment, we will look at both our historical record and our prospects. Because our year-to-year results are inherently volatile, we believe a five-year rolling average to be appropriate for judging the historical record.
Two factors make anything approaching this rate of gain unachievable in the future. One factor probably transitory – is a stock market that offers very little opportunity compared to the markets that prevailed throughout much of the 1964-1984 period. Today’s valuations mean that our insurance companies have no chance for future portfolio gains on the scale of those achieved in the past. The second negative factor, far more telling, is our size. Our equity capital is more than twenty times what it was only ten years ago. And an iron law of business is that growth eventually dampens exceptional economics.
We have several things going for us: (1) we don’t have to worry about quarterly or annual figures but, instead, can focus on whatever actions will maximize long-term value; (2) we can expand the business into any areas that make sense – our scope is not circumscribed by history, structure, or concept; and (3) we love our work. All of these help. Even so, we will also need a full measure of good fortune to average our hoped-for 15% – far more good fortune than was required for our past 23.2%.
Management cannot determine market prices, although it can, by its disclosures and policies, encourage rational behavior by market participants. My own preference, as perhaps you’d guess, is for a market price that consistently approximates business value. Given that relationship, all owners prosper precisely as the business prospers during their period of ownership. Wild swings in market prices far above and below business value do not change the final gains for owners in aggregate; in the end, investor gains must equal business gains. But long periods of substantial undervaluation and/or overvaluation will cause the gains of the business to be inequitably distributed among various owners, with the investment result of any given owner largely depending upon how lucky, shrewd, or foolish he happens to be.
Over the long term there has been a more consistent relationship between Berkshire’s market value and business value than has existed for any other publicly-traded equity with which I am familiar. This is a tribute to you. Because you have been rational, interested, and investment-oriented, the market price for Berkshire stock has almost always been sensible. This unusual result has been achieved by a shareholder group with unusual demographics: virtually all of our shareholders are individuals, not institutions. No other public company our size can claim the same.
We thus benefited from four factors: a bargain purchase price, a business with fine underlying economics, an able management concentrating on the interests of shareholders, and a buyer willing to pay full business value. While that last factor is the only one that produces reported earnings, we consider identification of the first three to be the key to building value for Berkshire shareholders. In selecting common stocks, we devote our attention to attractive purchases, not to the possibility of attractive sales. Munger has always emphasized the study of mistakes rather than successes, both in business and in life
Closed their textile mills and Buffett blames himself for not doing it sooner as the economics were pretty clear for years. I ignored Comte’s advice – “the intellect should be the servant of the heart, but not its slave”
This devastating outcome for the shareholders indicates what can happen when much brain power and energy are applied to a faulty premise. The situation is suggestive of Samuel Johnson’s horse: “A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse – not a remarkable mathematician.” Likewise, a textile company that allocates capital brilliantly within its industry is a remarkable textile company – but not a remarkable business.
My conclusion from my own experiences and from much observation of other businesses is that a good managerial record (measured by economic returns) is far more a function of what business boat you get into than it is of how effectively you row (though intelligence and effort help considerably, of course, in any business, good or bad). Some years ago I wrote: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.”
While an increase in earnings from $8 million to $72 million sounds terrific – and usually is – you should not automatically assume that to be the case. You must first make sure that earnings were not severely depressed in the base year. If they were instead substantial in relation to capital employed, an even more important point must be examined: how much additional capital was required to produce the additional earnings?
Despite their shortcomings, options can be appropriate under some circumstances. My criticism relates to their indiscriminate use and, in that connection, I would like to emphasize three points: First, stock options are inevitably tied to the overall performance of a corporation. Logically, therefore, they should be awarded only to those managers with overall responsibility. Managers with limited areas of responsibility should have incentives that pay off in relation to results under their control. The .350 hitter expects, and also deserves, a big payoff for his performance – even if he plays for a cellar-dwelling team. And the .150 hitter should get no reward – even if he plays for a pennant winner. Only those with overall responsibility for the team should have their rewards tied to its results. Second, options should be structured carefully. Absent special factors, they should have built into them a retained-earnings or carrying-cost factor. Equally important, they should be priced realistically. When managers are faced with offers for their companies, they unfailingly point out how unrealistic market prices can be as an index of real value. But why, then, should these same depressed prices be the valuations at which managers sell portions of their businesses to themselves? (They may go further: officers and directors sometimes consult the Tax Code to determine the lowest prices at which they can, in effect, sell part of the business to insiders. While they’re at it, they often elect plans that produce the worst tax result for the company.) Except in highly unusual cases, owners are not well served by the sale of part of their business at a bargain price – whether the sale is to outsiders or to insiders. The obvious conclusion: options should be priced at true business value. Third, I want to emphasize that some managers whom I admire enormously – and whose operating records are far better than mine disagree with me regarding fixed-price options. They have built corporate cultures that work, and fixed-price options have been a tool that helped them. By their leadership and example, and by the use of options as incentives, these managers have taught their colleagues to think like owners. Such a Culture is rare and when it exists should perhaps be left intact – despite inefficiencies and inequities that may infest the option program. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is preferable to “purity at any price”. At Berkshire, however, we use an incentive compensation system that rewards key managers for meeting targets in their own bailiwicks. If See’s does well, that does not produce incentive compensation at the News – nor vice versa. Neither do we look at the price of Berkshire stock when we write bonus checks. We believe good unit performance should be rewarded whether Berkshire stock rises, falls, or stays even. Similarly, we think average performance should earn no special rewards even if our stock should soar. “Performance”, furthermore, is defined in different ways depending upon the underlying economics of the business: in some our managers enjoy tailwinds not of their own making, in others they fight unavoidable headwinds
Inevitably, of course, business errors will occur and the wise manager will try to find the proper lessons in them. But the trick is to learn most lessons from the experiences of others. Managers who have learned much from personal experience in the past usually are destined to learn much from personal experience in the future.
Charlie Munger, our Vice Chairman, and I really have only two jobs. One is to attract and keep outstanding managers to run our various operations. This hasn’t been all that difficult. Usually the managers came with the companies we bought, having demonstrated their talents throughout careers that spanned a wide variety of business circumstances. They were managerial stars long before they knew us, and our main contribution has been to not get in their way. This approach seems elementary: if my job were to manage a golf team – and if Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer were willing to play for me – neither would get a lot of directives from me about how to swing. The second job Charlie and I must handle is the allocation of capital, which at Berkshire is a considerably more important challenge than at most companies. Three factors make that so: we earn more money than average; we retain all that we earn; and, we are fortunate to have operations that, for the most part, require little incremental capital to remain competitive and to grow.
“If each of us hires people who are smaller than we are, we shall become a company of dwarfs. But, if each of us hires people who are bigger than we are, we shall become a company of giants.”
We intend to continue our practice of working only with people whom we like and admire. This policy not only maximizes our chances for good results, it also ensures us an extraordinarily good time. On the other hand, working with people who cause your stomach to churn seems much like marrying for money – probably a bad idea under any circumstances, but absolute madness if you are already rich.
We will continue to look for operating businesses that meet our tests and, with luck, will acquire such a business every couple of years. But an acquisition will have to be large if it is to help our performance materially
We have no idea – and never have had – whether the market is going to go up, down, or sideways in the near- or intermediate term future. What we do know, however, is that occasional outbreaks of those two super-contagious diseases, fear and greed, will forever occur in the investment community. The timing of these epidemics will be unpredictable. And the market aberrations produced by them will be equally unpredictable, both as to duration and degree. Therefore, we never try to anticipate the arrival or departure of either disease. Our goal is more modest: we simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful.
We should note that we expect to keep permanently our three primary holdings, Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., GEICO Corporation, and The Washington Post. Even if these securities were to appear significantly overpriced, we would not anticipate selling them, just as we would not sell See’s or Buffalo Evening News if someone were to offer us a price far above what we believe those businesses are worth. This attitude may seem old-fashioned in a corporate world in which activity has become the order of the day. The modern manager refers to his “portfolio” of businesses – meaning that all of them are candidates for “restructuring” whenever such a move is dictated by Wall Street preferences, operating conditions or a new corporate “concept.” (Restructuring is defined narrowly, however: it extends only to dumping offending businesses, not to dumping the officers and directors who bought the businesses in the first place. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” is a theology as popular with the Fortune 500 as it is with the Salvation Army.) Investment managers are even more hyperkinetic: their behavior during trading hours makes whirling dervishes appear sedated by comparison. Indeed, the term “institutional investor” is becoming one of those self-contradictions called an oxymoron, comparable to “jumbo shrimp,” “lady mudwrestler” and “inexpensive lawyer.” Despite the enthusiasm for activity that has swept business and financial America, we will stick with our ‘ til-death-do-us-part policy. It’s the only one with which Charlie and I are comfortable, it produces decent results, and it lets our managers and those of our investees run their businesses free of distractions.
Our conclusion is that in some cases the benefits of lower corporate taxes fall exclusively, or almost exclusively, upon the corporation and its shareholders, and that in other cases the benefits are entirely, or almost entirely, passed through to the customer. What determines the outcome is the strength of the corporation’s business franchise and whether the profitability of that franchise is regulated.
In the case of unregulated businesses blessed with strong franchises, however, it’s a different story: the corporation and its shareholders are then the major beneficiaries of tax cuts. These companies benefit from a tax cut much as the electric company would if it lacked a regulator to force down prices. Many of our businesses, both those we own in whole and in part, possess such franchises. Consequently, reductions in their taxes largely end up in our pockets rather than the pockets of our customers. While this may be impolitic to state, it is impossible to deny.
Managers and owners need to remember, however, that accounting is but an aid to business thinking, never a substitute for it.
At Berkshire, however, my appraisal of our operating managers is, if anything, understated. If these seven business units had operated as a single company, their 1987 after-tax earnings would have been approximately $100 million – a return of about 57% on equity capital. You’ll seldom see such a percentage anywhere, let alone at large, diversified companies with nominal leverage. Here’s a benchmark: In its 1988 Investor’s Guide issue, Fortune reported that among the 500 largest industrial companies and 500 largest service companies, only six had averaged a return on equity of over 30% during the previous decade. The best performer among the 1000 was Commerce Clearing House at 40.2%.
There’s not a lot new to report about these businesses – and that’s good, not bad. Severe change and exceptional returns usually don’t mix. Most investors, of course, behave as if just the opposite were true. That is, they usually confer the highest price-earnings ratios on exotic-sounding businesses that hold out the promise of feverish change. That prospect lets investors fantasize about future profitability rather than face today’s business realities. For such investor-dreamers, any blind date is preferable to one with the girl next door, no matter how desirable she may be. Experience, however, indicates that the best business returns are usually achieved by companies that are doing something quite similar today to what they were doing five or ten years ago. That is no argument for managerial complacency. Businesses always have opportunities to improve service, product lines, manufacturing techniques, and the like, and obviously these opportunities should be seized. But a business that constantly encounters major change also encounters many chances for major error. Furthermore, economic terrain that is forever shifting violently is ground on which it is difficult to build a fortress-like business franchise. Such a franchise is usually the key to sustained high returns.
The Fortune study I mentioned earlier supports our view. Only 25 of the 1,000 companies met two tests of economic excellence – an average return on equity of over 20% in the ten years, 1977 through 1986, and no year worse than 15%. These business superstars were also stock market superstars: During the decade, 24 of the 25 outperformed the S&P 500. The Fortune champs may surprise you in two respects. First, most use very little leverage compared to their interest-paying capacity. Really good businesses usually don’t need to borrow. Second, except for one company that is “high-tech” and several others that manufacture ethical drugs, the companies are in businesses that, on balance, seem rather mundane. Most sell non-sexy products or services in much the same manner as they did ten years ago (though in larger quantities now, or at higher prices, or both). The record of these 25 companies confirms that making the most of an already strong business franchise, or concentrating on a single winning business theme, is what usually produces exceptional economics. Berkshire’s experience has been similar. Our managers have produced extraordinary results by doing rather ordinary things – but doing them exceptionally well. Our managers protect their franchises, they control costs, they search for new products and markets that build on their existing strengths and they don’t get diverted. They work exceptionally hard at the details of their businesses, and it shows.
Charlie and I do not believe in flexible operating budgets, as in “Non-direct expenses can be X if revenues are Y, but must be reduced if revenues are Y – 5%.” Should we really cut our news hole at the Buffalo News, or the quality of product and service at See’s, simply because profits are down during a given year or quarter? Or, conversely, should we add a staff economist, a corporate strategist, an institutional advertising campaign or something else that does Berkshire no good simply because the money currently is rolling in? That makes no sense to us. We neither understand the adding of unneeded people or activities because profits are booming, nor the cutting of essential people or activities because profitability is shrinking. That kind of yo-yo approach is neither business-like nor humane. Our goal is to do what makes sense for Berkshire’s customers and employees at all times, and never to add the unneeded. (“But what about the corporate jet?” you rudely ask. Well, occasionally a man must rise above principle.)
When shortages exist, however, even commodity businesses flourish. The insurance industry enjoyed that kind of climate for a while but it is now gone. One of the ironies of capitalism is that most managers in commodity industries abhor shortage conditions – even though those are the only circumstances permitting them good returns. Whenever shortages appear, the typical manager simply can’t wait to expand capacity and thereby plug the hole through which money is showering upon him. This is precisely what insurance managers did in 1985-87, confirming again Disraeli’s observation: “What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” At Berkshire, we work to escape the industry’s commodity economics in two ways. First, we differentiate our product by our financial strength, which exceeds that of all others in the industry. Our second method of differentiating ourselves is the total indifference to volume that we maintain.
In our opinion, the 1986 Act was the most important economic event affecting the insurance industry over the past decade. The 1987 Bill further reduced the intercorporate dividends-received credit from 80% to 70%, effective January 1, 1988, except for cases in which the taxpayer owns at least 20% of an investee. Investors who have owned stocks or bonds through corporate intermediaries other than qualified investment companies have always been disadvantaged in comparison to those owning the same securities directly. The penalty applying to indirect ownership was greatly increased by the 1986 Tax Bill and, to a lesser extent, by the 1987 Bill, particularly in instances where the intermediary is an insurance company. We have no way of offsetting this increased level of taxation. It simply means that a given set of pre-tax investment returns will now translate into much poorer after-tax results for our shareholders.
Whenever Charlie and I buy common stocks for Berkshire’s insurance companies (leaving aside arbitrage purchases, discussed later) we approach the transaction as if we were buying into a private business. We look at the economic prospects of the business, the people in charge of running it, and the price we must pay. We do not have in mind any time or price for sale. Indeed, we are willing to hold a stock indefinitely so long as we expect the business to increase in intrinsic value at a satisfactory rate. When investing, we view ourselves as business analysts – not as market analysts, not as macroeconomic analysts, and not even as security analysts.
Our approach makes an active trading market useful, since it periodically presents us with mouth-watering opportunities. But by no means is it essential: a prolonged suspension of trading in the securities we hold would not bother us any more than does the lack of daily quotations on World Book or Fechheimer. Eventually, our economic fate will be determined by the economic fate of the business we own, whether our ownership is partial or total.
Ben Graham, my friend and teacher, long ago described the mental attitude toward market fluctuations that I believe to be most conducive to investment success. He said that you should imagine market quotations as coming from a remarkably accommodating fellow named Mr. Market who is your partner in a private business. Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his. Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood, he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him. Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: He doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today, he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you. But, like Cinderella at the ball, you must heed one warning or everything will turn into pumpkins and mice: Mr. Market is there to serve you, not to guide you. It is his pocketbook, not his wisdom, that you will find useful. If he shows up some day in a particularly foolish mood, you are free to either ignore him or to take advantage of him, but it will be disastrous if you fall under his influence. Indeed, if you aren’t certain that you understand and can value your business far better than Mr. Market, you don’t belong in the game. As they say in poker, “If you’ve been in the game 30 minutes and you don’t know who the patsy is, you’re the patsy.”
In my opinion, investment success will not be produced by arcane formulae, computer programs or signals flashed by the price behavior of stocks and markets. Rather an investor will succeed by coupling good business judgment with an ability to insulate his thoughts and behavior from the super-contagious emotions that swirl about the marketplace. In my own efforts to stay insulated, I have found it highly useful to keep Ben’s Mr. Market concept firmly in mind.
Following Ben’s teachings, Charlie and I let our marketable equities tell us by their operating results – not by their daily, or even yearly, price quotations – whether our investments are successful. The market may ignore business success for a while, but eventually will confirm it. As Ben said: “In the short run, the market is a voting machine but in the long run it is a weighing machine.” The speed at which a business’s success is recognized, furthermore, is not that important as long as the company’s intrinsic value is increasing at a satisfactory rate. In fact, delayed recognition can be an advantage: It may give us the chance to buy more of a good thing at a bargain price.
Sometimes, of course, the market may judge a business to be more valuable than the underlying facts would indicate it is. In such a case, we will sell our holdings. Sometimes, also, we will sell a security that is fairly valued or even undervalued because we require funds for a still more undervalued investment or one we believe we understand better. We need to emphasize, however, that we do not sell holdings just because they have appreciated or because we have held them for a long time. (Of Wall Street maxims the most foolish may be “You can’t go broke taking a profit.”) We are quite content to hold any security indefinitely, so long as the prospective return on equity capital of the underlying business is satisfactory, management is competent and honest, and the market does not overvalue the business.
Our goal is to find an outstanding business at a sensible price, not a mediocre business at a bargain price
The disadvantages of owning marketable securities are sometimes offset by a huge advantage: Occasionally the stock market offers us the chance to buy non-controlling pieces of extraordinary businesses at truly ridiculous prices – dramatically below those commanded in negotiated transactions that transfer control.
After buying a farm, would a rational owner next order his real estate agent to start selling off pieces of it whenever a neighboring property was sold at a lower price? Or would you sell your house to whatever bidder was available at 9:31 on some morning merely because at 9:30 a similar house sold for less than it would have brought on the previous day? Moves like that, however, are what portfolio insurance tells a pension fund or university to make when it owns a portion of enterprises such as Ford or General Electric. The less these companies are being valued at, says this approach, the more vigorously they should be sold. As a “logical” corollary, the approach commands the institutions to repurchase these companies – I’m not making this up – once their prices have rebounded significantly. Considering that huge sums are controlled by managers following such Alice-in-Wonderland practices, is it any surprise that markets sometimes behave in aberrational fashion? Many commentators, however, have drawn an incorrect conclusion upon observing recent events: They are fond of saying that the small investor has no chance in a market now dominated by the erratic behavior of the big boys. This conclusion is dead wrong: Such markets are ideal for any investor – small or large – so long as he sticks to his investment knitting. Volatility caused by money managers who speculate irrationally with huge sums will offer the true investor more chances to make intelligent investment moves. He can be hurt by such volatility only if he is forced, by either financial or psychological pressures, to sell at untoward times.
Berkshire’s past rates of gain in both book value and business value were achieved under circumstances far different from those that now exist. Anyone ignoring these differences makes the same mistake that a baseball manager would were he to judge the future prospects of a 42-year-old center fielder on the basis of his lifetime batting average. Important negatives affecting our prospects today are: (1) a less attractive stock market than generally existed over the past 24 years; (2) higher corporate tax rates on most forms of investment income; (3) a far more richly-priced market for the acquisition of businesses;
To evaluate arbitrage situations you must answer four questions: (1) How likely is it that the promised event will indeed occur? (2) How long will your money be tied up? (3) What chance is there that something still better will transpire – a competing takeover bid, for example? and (4) What will happen if the event does not take place because of anti-trust action, financing glitches, etc.?
Berkshire’s arbitrage activities differ from those of many arbitrageurs. First, we participate in only a few, and usually very large, transactions each year. Most practitioners buy into a great many deals perhaps 50 or more per year. With that many irons in the fire, they must spend most of their time monitoring both the progress of deals and the market movements of the related stocks. This is not how Charlie nor I wish to spend our lives. (What’s the sense in getting rich just to stare at a ticker tape all day?) Because we diversify so little, one particularly profitable or unprofitable transaction will affect our yearly result from arbitrage far more than it will the typical arbitrage operation. So far, Berkshire has not had a really bad experience. But we will – and when it happens we’ll report the gory details to you. The other way we differ from some arbitrage operations is that we participate only in transactions that have been publicly announced. We do not trade on rumors or try to guess takeover candidates. We just read the newspapers, think about a few of the big propositions, and go by our own sense of probabilities.
Considering Berkshire’s good results in 1988, you might expect us to pile into arbitrage during 1989. Instead, we expect to be on the sidelines. One pleasant reason is that our cash holdings are down -because our position in equities that we expect to hold for a very long time is substantially up. As regular readers of this report know, our new commitments are not based on a judgment about short-term prospects for the stock market. Rather, they reflect an opinion about long-term business prospects for specific companies. We do not have, never have had, and never will have an opinion about where the stock market, interest rates, or business activity will be a year from now
Abhors the efficient market theory! An investor cannot obtain superior profits from stocks by simply committing to a specific investment category or style. He can earn them only by carefully evaluating facts and continuously exercising discipline. Investing in arbitrage situations, per se, is no better a strategy than selecting a portfolio by throwing darts.
In other words, our performance to date has benefited from a double-dip: (1) the exceptional gains in intrinsic value that our portfolio companies have achieved; (2) the additional bonus we realized as the market appropriately “corrected” the prices of these companies, raising their valuations in relation to those of the average business. We will continue to benefit from good gains in business value that we feel confident our portfolio companies will make.
In effect, this deferred tax liability is equivalent to a very large transfer tax that is payable only if we elect to move from one asset to another. Indeed, we sold some relatively small holdings in 1989, incurring about $76 million of “transfer” tax on $224 million of gains. Because of the way the tax law works, the Rip Van Winkle style of investing that we favor – if successful – has an important mathematical edge over a more frenzied approach. Let’s look at an extreme comparison. Imagine that Berkshire had only $1, which we put in a security that doubled by yearend and was then sold. Imagine further that we used the after-tax proceeds to repeat this process in each of the next 19 years, scoring a double each time. At the end of the 20 years, the 34% capital gains tax that we would have paid on the profits from each sale would have delivered about $13,000 to the government and we would be left with about $25,250. Not bad. If, however, we made a single fantastic investment that itself doubled 20 times during the 20 years, our dollar would grow to $1,048,576. Were we then to cash out, we would pay a 34% tax of roughly $356,500 and be left with about $692,000. The sole reason for this staggering difference in results would be the timing of tax payments. Interestingly, the government would gain from Scenario 2 in exactly the same 27:1 ratio as we – taking in taxes of $356,500 vs. $13,000 – though, admittedly, it would have to wait for its money.
The question you must decide is whether these undistributed earnings are as valuable to us as those we report. We believe they are – and even think they may be more valuable. The reason for this a-bird-in-the-bush-may-be-worth-two-in-the-hand conclusion is that earnings retained by these investees will be deployed by talented, owner-oriented managers who sometimes have better uses for these funds in their own businesses than we would have in ours. I would not make such a generous assessment of most managements, but it is appropriate in these cases.
NFM and Borsheim’s follow precisely the same formula for success: (1) unparalleled depth and breadth of merchandise at one location; (2) the lowest operating costs in the business; (3) the shrewdest of buying, made possible in part by the huge volumes purchased; (4) gross margins, and therefore prices, far below competitors’; and (5) friendly personalized service with family members on hand at all times.
We will accept more reinsurance risk for our own account than any other company because of two factors: (1) by the standards of regulatory accounting, we have a net worth in our insurance companies of about $6 billion – the second highest amount in the United States; and (2) we simply don’t care what earnings we report quarterly, or even annually, just as long as the decisions leading to those earnings (or losses) were reached intelligently.
Our method of operation, incidentally, makes us a stabilizing force in the industry. We add huge capacity when capacity is short and we become less competitive only when capacity is abundant. Of course, we don’t follow this policy in the interest of stabilization – we follow it because we believe it to be the most sensible and profitable course of action. Nevertheless, our behavior steadies the market. In this case, Adam Smith’s invisible hand works as advertised.
As I mentioned earlier, the yearend prices of our major investees were much higher relative to their intrinsic values than theretofore. While those prices may not yet cause nosebleeds, they are clearly vulnerable to a general market decline. A drop in their prices would not disturb us at all – it might in fact work to our eventual benefit – but it would cause at least a one-year reduction in Berkshire’s net worth. We think such a reduction is almost certain in at least one of the next three years. Indeed, it would take only about a 10% year-to-year decline in the aggregate value of our portfolio investments to send Berkshire’s net worth down.
However, we have no ability to forecast the economics of the investment banking business (in which we have a position through our 1987 purchase of Salomon convertible preferred), the airline industry, or the paper industry. This does not mean that we predict a negative future for these industries: we’re agnostics, not atheists. Our lack of strong convictions about these businesses, however, means that we must structure our investments in them differently from what we do when we invest in a business appearing to have splendid economic characteristics. In one major respect, however, these purchases are not different: We only want to link up with people whom we like, admire, and trust.
Soon borrowers found even the new, lax standards intolerably binding. To induce lenders to finance even sillier transactions, they introduced an abomination, EBDIT – Earnings Before Depreciation, Interest and Taxes – as the test of a company’s ability to pay interest. Using this sawed-off yardstick, the borrower ignored depreciation as an expense on the theory that it did not require a current cash outlay. Such an attitude is clearly delusional. At 95% of American businesses, capital expenditures that over time roughly approximate depreciation are a necessity and are every bit as real an expense as labor or utility costs. Even a high school dropout knows that to finance a car he must have income that covers not only interest and operating expenses, but also realistically-calculated depreciation. He would be laughed out of the bank if he started talking about EBDIT.
If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the “cigar butt” approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit. Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish. First, the original “bargain” price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces – never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns. For example, if you buy a business for $8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return. But the investment will disappoint if the business is sold for $10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost. Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.
A further related lesson: Easy does it. After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers
My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call “the institutional imperative.” In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative’s existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn’t so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play. For example: (1) As if governed by Newton’s First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated. Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem
So humble and gives his managers all the credit – And that sums up my contribution to the performance of Berkshire’s business magicians – the Blumkins, the Friedman family, Mike Goldberg, the Heldmans, Chuck Huggins, Stan Lipsey and Ralph Schey. They deserve your applause.
Equally important, our return was not earned from industries, such as cigarettes or network television stations, possessing spectacular economics for all participating in them. Instead it came from a group of businesses operating in such prosaic fields as furniture retailing, candy, vacuum cleaners, and even steel warehousing. The explanation is clear: Our extraordinary returns flow from outstanding operating managers, not fortuitous industry economics.
Some idea of NFM’s merchandising power can be gleaned from a recent report of consumer behavior in Des Moines, which showed that NFM was Number 3 in popularity among 20 furniture retailers serving that city. That may sound like no big deal until you consider that 19 of those retailers are located in Des Moines, whereas our store is 130 miles away.
Last year at the Mart there occurred an historic event: I experienced a counterrevelation. Regular readers of this report know that I have long scorned the boasts of corporate executives about synergy, deriding such claims as the last refuge of scoundrels defending foolish acquisitions. But now I know better: In Berkshire’s first synergistic explosion, NFM put a See’s candy cart in the store late last year and sold more candy than that moved by some of the full-fledged stores See’s operates in California. This success contradicts all tenets of retailing. With the Blumkins, though, the impossible is routine.
Most important of all, the number of both print and electronic advertising channels has substantially increased. As a consequence, advertising dollars are more widely dispersed and the pricing power of ad vendors has diminished. These circumstances materially reduce the intrinsic value of our major media investments and also the value of our operating unit, Buffalo News – though all remain fine businesses.
Cutting product quality is not a proper response to adversity.
The volatility I predict reflects the fact that we have become a large seller of insurance against truly major catastrophes (“super-cats”), which could for example be hurricanes, windstorms or earthquakes. The buyers of these policies are reinsurance companies that themselves are in the business of writing catastrophe coverage for primary insurers and that wish to “lay off,” or rid themselves, of part of their exposure to catastrophes of special severity. Because the need for these buyers to collect on such a policy will only arise at times of extreme stress – perhaps even chaos – in the insurance business, they seek financially strong sellers. And here we have a major competitive advantage: In the industry, our strength is unmatched.
We can take a different tack: Our business in primary property insurance is small and we believe that Berkshire shareholders, if properly informed, can handle unusual volatility in profits so long as the swings carry with them the prospect of superior long-term results. (Charlie and I always have preferred a lumpy 15% return to a smooth 12%.) We want to emphasize three points: (1) While we expect our super-cat business to produce satisfactory results over, say, a decade, we’re sure it will produce absolutely terrible results in at least an occasional year; (2) Our expectations can be based on little more than subjective judgments – for this kind of insurance, historical loss data are of very limited value to us as we decide what rates to charge today; and (3) Though we expect to write significant quantities of super-cat business, we will do so only at prices we believe to be commensurate with risk. If competitors become optimistic, our volume will fall. This insurance has, in fact, tended in recent years to be woefully underpriced; most sellers have left the field on stretchers.
Bought into Wells Fargo this year up – 10% since this is the max they can own without approval from the Fed
The most common cause of low prices is pessimism – some times pervasive, some times specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It’s optimism that is the enemy of the rational buyer.\None of this means, however, that a business or stock is an intelligent purchase simply because it is unpopular; a contrarian approach is just as foolish as a follow-the-crowd strategy. What’s required is thinking rather than polling. Unfortunately, Bertrand Russell’s observation about life in general applies with unusual force in the financial world: “Most men would rather die than think. Many do.”
Just as buying into the banking business is unusual for us, so is the purchase of below-investment-grade bonds. But opportunities that interest us and that are also large enough to have a worthwhile impact on Berkshire’s results are rare. Therefore, we will look at any category of investment, so long as we understand the business we’re buying into and believe that price and value may differ significantly.
In the final chapter of The Intelligent Investor Ben Graham forcefully rejected the dagger thesis: “Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety.” Forty-two years after reading that, I still think those are the right three words. The failure of investors to heed this simple message caused them staggering losses as the 1990s began.
I feel strongly that the fate of our businesses and their managers should not depend on my health – which, it should be added, is excellent – and I have planned accordingly. Neither my estate plan nor that of my wife is designed to preserve the family fortune; instead, both are aimed at preserving the character of Berkshire and returning the fortune to society. Were I to die tomorrow, you could be sure of three things: (1) None of my stock would have to be sold; (2) Both a controlling shareholder and a manager with philosophies similar to mine would follow me; and (3) Berkshire’s earnings would increase by $1 million annually, since Charlie would immediately sell our corporate jet, The Indefensible (ignoring my wish that it be buried with me).
An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company’s ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise’s profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.
In contrast, “a business” earns exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low-cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management.
Most managers talk the talk but don’t walk the walk, choosing instead to employ compensation systems that are long on carrots but short on sticks (and that almost invariably treat equity capital as if it were cost-free). The arrangement at Brown, in any case, has served both the company and its managers exceptionally well, which should be no surprise: Managers eager to bet heavily on their abilities usually have plenty of ability to bet on.
We continually search for large businesses with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements. This focus doesn’t guarantee results: We both have to buy at a sensible price and get business performance from our companies that validates our assessment. But this investment approach – searching for the superstars – offers us our only chance for real success. Charlie and I are simply not smart enough, considering the large sums we work with, to get great results by adroitly buying and selling portions of far-from-great businesses. Nor do we think many others can achieve long-term investment success by flitting from flower to flower. Indeed, we believe that according the name “investors” to institutions that trade actively is like calling someone who repeatedly engages in one-night stands a romantic
As time goes on, I get more and more convinced that the right method in investment is to put fairly large sums into enterprises which one thinks one knows something about and in the management of which one thoroughly believes. It is a mistake to think that one limits one’s risk by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence. . . . One’s knowledge and experience are definitely limited and there are seldom more than two or three enterprises at any given time in which I personally feel myself entitled to put full confidence.”
You should keep at least three points in mind as you evaluate this data. The first point concerns the many businesses we operate whose annual earnings are unaffected by changes in stock market valuations. The impact of these businesses on both our absolute and relative performance has changed over the years. Early on, returns from our textile operation, which then represented a significant portion of our net worth, were a major drag on performance, averaging far less than would have been the case if the money invested in that business had instead been invested in the S&P 500. In more recent years, as we assembled our collection of exceptional businesses run by equally exceptional managers, the returns from our operating businesses have been high – usually well in excess of the returns achieved by the S&P. A second important factor to consider – and one that significantly hurts our relative performance – is that both the income and capital gains from our securities are burdened by a substantial corporate tax liability whereas the S&P returns are pre-tax. This is a structural disadvantage we simply have to live with; there is no antidote for it. The third point incorporates two predictions: Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner, and I are virtually certain that the return over the next decade from an investment in the S&P index will be far less than that of the past decade, and we are dead certain that the drag exerted by Berkshire’s expanding capital base will substantially reduce our historical advantage relative to the index.
Making the first prediction goes somewhat against our grain: We’ve long felt that the only value of stock forecasters is to make fortune tellers look good. Even now, Charlie and I continue to believe that short-term market forecasts are poison and should be kept locked up in a safe place, away from children and also from grown-ups who behave in the market like children. However, it is clear that stocks cannot forever overperform their underlying businesses, as they have so dramatically done for some time, and that fact makes us quite confident of our forecast that the rewards from investing in stocks over the next decade will be significantly smaller than they were in the last. Our second conclusion – that an increased capital base will act as an anchor on our relative performance – seems incontestable. The only open question is whether we can drag the anchor along at some tolerable, though slowed, pace.
Last June, I stepped down as Interim Chairman of Salomon Inc after ten months in the job. You can tell from Berkshire’s 1991-92 results that the company didn’t miss me while I was gone. But the reverse isn’t true: I missed Berkshire and am delighted to be back full-time. There is no job in the world that is more fun than running Berkshire and I count myself lucky to be where I am. The Salomon post, though far from fun, was interesting and worthwhile: In Fortune’s annual survey of America’s Most Admired Corporations, conducted last September, Salomon ranked second among 311 companies in the degree to which it improved its reputation.
Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.” And thereafter I revised my strategy and tried to buy good businesses at fair prices rather than fair businesses at good prices.
We do not, however, see this long-term focus as eliminating the need for us to achieve decent short-term results as well. After all, we were thinking long-range thoughts five or ten years ago, and the moves we made then should now be paying off. If plantings made confidently are repeatedly followed by disappointing harvests, something is wrong with the farmer. (Or perhaps with the farm: Investors should understand that for certain companies, and even for some industries, there simply is no good long-term strategy.) Just as you should be suspicious of managers who pump up short-term earnings by accounting maneuvers, asset sales and the like, so also should you be suspicious of those managers who fail to deliver for extended periods and blame it on their long-term focus.
Because of both market conditions and our size, we now substitute “an attractive price” for “a very attractive price.” But how, you will ask, does one decide what’s “attractive”? In answering this question, most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: “value” and “growth.” Indeed, many investment professionals see any mixing of the two terms as a form of intellectual cross-dressing. We view that as fuzzy thinking (in which, it must be confessed, I myself engaged some years ago). In our opinion, the two approaches are joined at the hip: Growth is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive.
Leaving the question of price aside, the best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return. The worst business to own is one that must, or will, do the opposite – that is, consistently employ ever-greater amounts of capital at very low rates of return. Unfortunately, the first type of business is very hard to find: Most high-return businesses need relatively little capital. Shareholders of such a business usually will benefit if it pays out most of its earnings in dividends or makes significant stock repurchases.
If a business is complex or subject to constant change, we’re not smart enough to predict future cash flows. Incidentally, that shortcoming doesn’t bother us. What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don’t know. An investor needs to do very few things right as long as he or she avoids big mistakes. Second, and equally important, we insist on a margin of safety in our purchase price. If we calculate the value of a common stock to be only slightly higher than its price, we’re not interested in buying. We believe this margin-of-safety principle, so strongly emphasized by Ben Graham, to be the cornerstone of investment success.
In the case of our commitment to USAir, industry economics had soured before the ink dried on our check. As I’ve previously mentioned, it was I who happily jumped into the pool; no one pushed me. Yes, I knew the industry would be ruggedly competitive, but I did not expect its leaders to engage in prolonged kamikaze behavior. In the last two years, airline companies have acted as if they are members of a competitive tontine, which they wish to bring to its conclusion as rapidly as possible. Amidst this turmoil, Seth Schofield, CEO of USAir, has done a truly extraordinary job in repositioning the airline. He was particularly courageous in accepting a strike last fall that, had it been lengthy, might well have bankrupted the company. Capitulating to the striking union, however, would have been equally disastrous: The company was burdened with wage costs and work rules that were considerably more onerous than those encumbering its major competitors, and it was clear that over time any high-cost producer faced extinction. Happily for everyone, the strike was settled in a few days. A competitively-beset business such as USAir requires far more managerial skill than does a business with fine economics. Unfortunately, though, the near-term reward for skill in the airline business is simply survival, not prosperity. In early 1993, USAir took a major step toward assuring survival – and eventual prosperity – by accepting British Airways’ offer to make a substantial, but minority, investment in the company. In connection with this transaction, Charlie and I were asked to join the USAir board. We agreed, though this makes five outside board memberships for me, which is more than I believe advisable for an active CEO. Even so, if an tontine management and directors believe it particularly important that Charlie and I join its board, we are glad to do so. We expect the managers of our investees to work hard to increase the value of the businesses they run, and there are times when large owners should do their bit as well.
Managers thinking about accounting issues should never forget one of Abraham Lincoln’s favorite riddles: “How many legs does a dog have if you call his tail a leg?” The answer: “Four, because calling a tail a leg does not make it a leg.” It behooves managers to remember that Abe’s right even if an auditor is willing to certify that the tail is a leg.
At some companies, corporate expense runs 10% or more of operating earnings. The tithing that operations thus makes to headquarters not only hurts earnings, but more importantly slashes capital values. If the business that spends 10% on headquarters’ costs achieves earnings at its operating levels identical to those achieved by the business that incurs costs of only 1%, shareholders of the first enterprise suffer a 9% loss in the value of their holdings simply because of corporate overhead. Charlie and I have observed no correlation between high corporate costs and good corporate performance. In fact, we see the simpler, low-cost operation as more likely to operate effectively than its bureaucratic brethren. We’re admirers of the Wal-Mart, Nucor, Dover, GEICO, Golden West Financial and Price Co. models.
In general, we continue to have an aversion to debt, particularly the short-term kind. But we are willing to incur modest amounts of debt when it is both properly structured and of significant benefit to shareholders
At Berkshire, we have no view of the future that dictates what businesses or industries we will enter. Indeed, we think it’s usually poison for a corporate giant’s shareholders if it embarks upon new ventures pursuant to some grand vision. We prefer instead to focus on the economic characteristics of businesses that we wish to own and the personal characteristics of managers with whom we wish to associate – and then to hope we get lucky in finding the two in combination
We’ve previously discussed look-through earnings, which we believe more accurately portray the earnings of Berkshire than does our GAAP result. As we calculate them, look-through earnings consist of: (1) the operating earnings reported in the previous section, plus; (2) the retained operating earnings of major investees that, under GAAP accounting, are not reflected in our profits, less; (3) an allowance for the tax that would be paid by Berkshire if these retained earnings of investees had instead been distributed to us. The “operating earnings” of which we speak here exclude capital gains, special accounting items and major restructuring charges.
Directly and indirectly, Berkshire’s 1993 federal income tax payments will be about 1/2 of 1% of the total paid last year by all American corporations. Speaking for our own shares, Charlie and I have absolutely no complaint about these taxes. We know we work in a market-based economy that rewards our efforts far more bountifully than it does the efforts of others whose output is of equal or greater benefit to society. Taxation should, and does, partially redress this inequity. But we still remain extraordinarily well-treated.
Insurance business not nearly as good of an industry as when they got into it and even through the 80’s but still love GEICO and the industry overall
An investor should ordinarily hold a small piece of an outstanding business with the same tenacity that an owner would exhibit if he owned all of that business.
Charlie and I decided long ago that in an investment lifetime it’s just too hard to make hundreds of smart decisions. That judgment became ever more compelling as Berkshire’s capital mushroomed and the universe of investments that could significantly affect our results shrank dramatically. Therefore, we adopted a strategy that required our being smart – and not too smart at that only a very few times. Indeed, we’ll now settle for one good idea a year. (Charlie says it’s my turn.)Academics, however, like to define investment “risk” differently, averring that it is the relative volatility of a stock or portfolio of stocks – that is, their volatility as compared to that of a large universe of stocks. Employing data bases and statistical skills, these academics compute with precision the “beta” of a stock – its relative volatility in the past – and then build arcane investment and capital-allocation theories around this calculation. In their hunger for a single statistic to measure risk, however, they forget a fundamental principle: It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.
Moreover, both Coke and Gillette have actually increased their worldwide shares of market in recent years. The might of their brand names, the attributes of their products, and the strength of their distribution systems give them an enormous competitive advantage, setting up a protective moat around their economic castles. The average company, in contrast, does battle daily without any such means of protection. As Peter Lynch says, stocks of companies selling commodity-like products should come with a warning label: “Competition may prove hazardous to human wealth.”
The competitive strengths of a Coke or Gillette are obvious to even the casual observer of business. Yet the beta of their stocks is similar to that of a great many run-of-the-mill companies who possess little or no competitive advantage. Should we conclude from this similarity that the competitive strength of Coke and Gillette gains them nothing when business risk is being measured? Or should we conclude that the risk in owning a piece of a company – its stock – is somehow divorced from the long-term risk inherent in its business operations? We believe neither conclusion makes sense and that equating beta with investment risk also makes no sense.
Another situation requiring wide diversification occurs when an investor who does not understand the economics of specific businesses nevertheless believes it in his interest to be a long-term owner of American industry. That investor should both own a large number of equities and space out his purchases. By periodically investing in an index fund, for example, the know-nothing investor can actually out-perform most investment professionals. Paradoxically, when “dumb” money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb.
A fat wallet, however, is the enemy of superior investment results.
Nevertheless, we will stick with the approach that got us here and try not to relax our standards. Ted Williams, in The Story of My Life, explains why: “My argument is, to be a good hitter, you’ve got to get a good ball to hit. It’s the first rule in the book. If I have to bite at stuff that is out of my happy zone, I’m not a .344 hitter. I might only be a .250 hitter.” Charlie and I agree and will try to wait for opportunities that are well within our own “happy zone.”
We achieved our gains through the efforts of a superb corps of operating managers who get extraordinary results from some ordinary-appearing businesses. Casey Stengel described managing a baseball team as “getting paid for home runs other fellows hit.” That’s my formula at Berkshire, also.
Ben Graham taught me 45 years ago that in investing it is not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results. In later life, I have been surprised to find that this statement holds true in business management as well. What a manager must do is handle the basics well and not get diverted. That’s precisely Ralph’s formula. He establishes the right goals and never forgets what he set out to do.
At Berkshire, our managers will continue to earn extraordinary returns from what appear to be ordinary businesses. As a first step, these managers will look for ways to deploy their earnings advantageously in their businesses. What’s left, they will send to Charlie and me. We then will try to use those funds in ways that build per-share intrinsic value. Our goal will be to acquire either part or all of businesses that we believe we understand, that have good, sustainable underlying economics, and that are run by managers whom we like, admire and trust.
In setting compensation, we like to hold out the promise of large carrots, but make sure their delivery is tied directly to results in the area that a manager controls. When capital invested in an operation is significant, we also both charge managers a high rate for incremental capital they employ and credit them at an equally high rate for capital they release.
Since truly major catastrophes occur infrequently, our super-cat business can be expected to show large profits in most years but occasionally to record a huge loss. In other words, the attractiveness of our super-cat business will take many years to measure. Certainly 1994 should be regarded as close to a best-case.
Generally, brokers attempt to place coverage for large amounts by spreading the burden over a number of small policies. But, at best, coverage of that sort takes considerable time to arrange. In the meantime, the company desiring reinsurance is left holding a risk it doesn’t want and that may seriously threaten its well-being. At Berkshire, on the other hand, we will quote prices for coverage as great as $500 million on the same day that we are asked to bid. No one else in the industry will do the same. By writing coverages in large lumps, we obviously expose Berkshire to lumpy financial results. That’s totally acceptable to us: Too often, insurers (as well as other businesses) follow sub-optimum strategies in order to “smooth” their reported earnings. By accepting the prospect of volatility, we expect to earn higher long-term returns than we would by pursuing predictability.
In each case, we pondered what the business was likely to do, not what the Dow, the Fed, or the economy might do. If we see this approach as making sense in the purchase of businesses in their entirety, why should we change tack when we are purchasing small pieces of wonderful businesses in the stock market? Before looking at new investments, we consider adding to old ones. If a business is attractive enough to buy once, it may well pay to repeat the process. We would love to increase our economic interest in See’s or Scott Fetzer, but we haven’t found a way to add to a 100% holding. In the stock market, however, an investor frequently gets the chance to increase his economic interest in businesses he knows and likes. Last year we went that direction by enlarging our holdings in Coca-Cola and American Express.
So honest and open about his mistakes
There’s no reason to do handsprings over 1995’s gains. This was a year in which any fool could make a bundle in the stock market. And we did. To paraphrase President Kennedy, a rising tide lifts all yachts.
Putting aside the financial results, there was plenty of good news at Berkshire last year: We negotiated three acquisitions of exactly the type we desire. Two of these, Helzberg’s Diamond Shops and R.C. Willey Home Furnishings, are included in our 1995 financial statements, while our largest transaction, the purchase of GEICO, closed immediately after the end of the year.
Specifically, sellers and their representatives invariably present financial projections having more entertainment value than educational value. In the production of rosy scenarios, Wall Street can hold its own against Washington. In any case, why potential buyers even look at projections prepared by sellers baffles me. Charlie and I never give them a glance, but instead keep in mind the story of the man with an ailing horse. Visiting the vet, he said: “Can you help me? Sometimes my horse walks just fine and sometimes he limps.” The vet’s reply was pointed: “No problem – when he’s walking fine, sell him.” In the world of mergers and acquisitions, that horse would be peddled as Secretariat.
Even so, we do have a few advantages, perhaps the greatest being that we don’t have a strategic plan. Thus we feel no need to proceed in an ordained direction (a course leading almost invariably to silly purchase prices) but can instead simply decide what makes sense for our owners. In doing that, we always mentally compare any move we are contemplating with dozens of other opportunities open to us, including the purchase of small pieces of the best businesses in the world via the stock market. Our practice of making this comparison – acquisitions against passive investments – is a discipline that managers focused simply on expansion seldom use. Talking to Time Magazine a few years back, Peter Drucker got to the heart of things: “I will tell you a secret: Dealmaking beats working. Dealmaking is exciting and fun, and working is grubby. Running anything is primarily an enormous amount of grubby detail work . . . dealmaking is romantic, sexy. That’s why you have deals that make no sense.” In making acquisitions, we have a further advantage: As payment, we can offer sellers a stock backed by an extraordinary collection of outstanding businesses. An individual or a family wishing to dispose of a single fine business, but also wishing to defer personal taxes indefinitely, is apt to find Berkshire stock a particularly comfortable holding. I believe, in fact, that this calculus played an important part in the two acquisitions for which we paid shares in 1995.
Buying a retailer without good management is like buying the Eiffel Tower without an elevator
We prefer a lumpy 15% to a smooth 12%. Since most managers opt for smoothness, we are left with a competitive advantage that we try to maximize. We do, though, monitor our aggregate exposure in order to keep our “worst case” at a level that leaves us comfortable.
At the Annual Meeting you will be asked to approve a recapitalization of Berkshire, creating two classes of stock. If the plan is adopted, our existing common stock will be designated as Class A Common Stock and a new Class B Common Stock will be authorized. Each share of the “B” will have the rights of 1/30th of an “A” share with these exceptions: First, a B share will have 1/200th of the vote of an A share (rather than 1/30th of the vote). Second, the B will not be eligible to participate in Berkshire’s shareholder-designated charitable contributions program. When the recapitalization is complete, each share of A will become convertible, at the holder’s option and at any time, into 30 shares of B. This conversion privilege will not extend in the opposite direction. That is, holders of B shares will not be able to convert them into A shares. We expect to list the B shares on the New York Stock Exchange, where they will trade alongside the A stock. To create the shareholder base necessary for a listing – and to ensure a liquid market in the B stock – Berkshire expects to make a public offering for cash of at least $100 million of new B shares. The offering will be made only by means of a prospectus. The market will ultimately determine the price of the B shares. Their price, though, should be in the neighborhood of 1/30th of the price of the A shares. Class A shareholders who wish to give gifts may find it convenient to convert a share or two of their stock into Class B shares. Additionally, arbitrage-related conversions will occur if demand for the B is strong enough to push its price to slightly above 1/30th of the price of A.
What Berkshire will incur by way of the B stock are certain added costs, including those involving the mechanics of handling a larger number of shareholders. On the other hand, the stock should be a convenience for people wishing to make gifts. And those of you who have hoped for a split have gained a do-it-yourself method of bringing one about. We are making this move, though, for other reasons – having to do with the appearance of expense-laden unit trusts purporting to be low-priced “clones” of Berkshire and sure to be aggressively marketed. The idea behind these vehicles is not new: In recent years, a number of people have told me about their wish to create an “all-Berkshire” investment fund to be sold at a low dollar price. But until recently, the promoters of these investments heard out my objections and backed off. I did not discourage these people because I prefer large investors over small. Were it possible, Charlie and I would love to turn $1,000 into $3,000 for multitudes of people who would find that gain an important answer to their immediate problems.
Our expectations, however, are tempered by two realities. First, our past rates of growth cannot be matched nor even approached: Berkshire’s equity capital is now large – in fact, fewer than ten businesses in America have capital larger – and an abundance of funds tends to dampen returns. Second, whatever our rate of progress, it will not be smooth: Year-to-year moves in the first column of the table above will be influenced in a major way by fluctuations in securities markets; the figures in the second column will be affected by wide swings in the profitability of our catastrophe-reinsurance business.
Acquired FlightSafety as well as Kansas Bankers Surety (KBS)
As we’ve explained in past reports, what counts in our insurance business is, first, the amount of “float” we generate and, second, its cost to us. These are matters that are important for you to understand because float is a major component of Berkshire’s intrinsic value that is not reflected in book value. To begin with, float is money we hold but don’t own. In an insurance operation, float arises because premiums are received before losses are paid. Secondly, the premiums that an insurer takes in typically do not cover the losses and expenses it eventually must pay. that leaves it running an “underwriting loss,” which is the cost of float. An insurance business has value if its cost of float over time is less than the cost the company would otherwise incur to obtain funds. But the business is an albatross if the cost of its float is higher than market rates for money.
Since 1967, when we entered the insurance business, our float has grown at an annual compounded rate of 22.3%. In more years than not, our cost of funds has been less than nothing. This access to “free” money has boosted Berkshire’s performance in a major way. Moreover, our acquisition of GEICO materially increases the probability that we can continue to obtain “free” funds in increasing amounts
What you must understand, however, is that a truly terrible year in the super-cat business is not a possibility – it’s a certainty. The only question is when it will come. I emphasize this lugubrious point because I would not want you to panic and sell your Berkshire stock upon hearing that some large catastrophe had cost us a significant amount. If you would tend to react that way, you should not own Berkshire shares now, just as you should entirely avoid owning stocks if a crashing market would lead you to panic and sell. Selling fine businesses on “scary” news is usually a bad decision. (Robert Woodruff, the business genius who built Coca-Cola over many decades and who owned a huge position in the company, was once asked when it might be a good time to sell Coke stock. Woodruff had a simple answer: “I don’t know. I’ve never sold any.”)
There’s nothing esoteric about GEICO’s success: The company’s competitive strength flows directly from its position as a low-cost operator. Low costs permit low prices, and low prices attract and retain good policyholders. The final segment of a virtuous circle is drawn when policyholders recommend us to their friends. GEICO gets more than one million referrals annually and these produce more than half of our new business, an advantage that gives us enormous savings in acquisition expenses – and that makes our costs still lower.
Taxes – In 1961, President Kennedy said that we should ask not what our country can do for us, but rather ask what we can do for our country. Last year we decided to give his suggestion a try – and who says it never hurts to ask? We were told to mail $860 million in income taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Here’s a little perspective on that figure: If an equal amount had been paid by only 2,000 other taxpayers, the government would have had a balanced budget in 1996 without needing a dime of taxes – income or Social Security or what have you – from any other American. Berkshire shareholders can truly say, “I gave at the office.” Charlie and I believe that large tax payments by Berkshire are entirely fitting. The contribution we thus make to society’s well-being is at most only proportional to its contribution to ours. Berkshire prospers in America as it would nowhere else.
Our portfolio shows little change: We continue to make more money when snoring than when active. Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior. Neither we nor most business managers would dream of feverishly trading highly-profitable subsidiaries because a small move in the Federal Reserve’s discount rate was predicted or because some Wall Street pundit had reversed his views on the market. Why, then, should we behave differently with our minority positions in wonderful businesses? The art of investing in public companies successfully is little different from the art of successfully acquiring subsidiaries. In each case you simply want to acquire, at a sensible price, a business with excellent economics and able, honest management. Thereafter, you need only monitor whether these qualities are being preserved.
When carried out capably, an investment strategy of that type will often result in its practitioner owning a few securities that will come to represent a very large portion of his portfolio. This investor would get a similar result if he followed a policy of purchasing an interest in, say, 20% of the future earnings of a number of outstanding college basketball stars. A handful of these would go on to achieve NBA stardom, and the investor’s take from them would soon dominate his royalty stream. To suggest that this investor should sell off portions of his most successful investments simply because they have come to dominate his portfolio is akin to suggesting that the Bulls trade Michael Jordan because he has become so important to the team. In studying the investments we have made in both subsidiary companies and common stocks, you will see that we favor businesses and industries unlikely to experience major change. The reason for that is simple: Making either type of purchase, we are searching for operations that we believe are virtually certain to possess enormous competitive strength ten or twenty years from now. A fast-changing industry environment may offer the chance for huge wins, but it precludes the certainty we seek. I should emphasize that, as citizens, Charlie and I welcome change: Fresh ideas, new products, innovative processes and the like cause our country’s standard of living to rise, and that’s clearly good. As investors, however, our reaction to a fermenting industry is much like our attitude toward space exploration: We applaud the endeavor but prefer to skip the ride.
I was recently studying the 1896 report of Coke (and you think that you are behind in your reading!). At that time Coke, though it was already the leading soft drink, had been around for only a decade. But its blueprint for the next 100 years was already drawn. Reporting sales of $148,000 that year, Asa Candler, the company’s president, said: “We have not lagged in our efforts to go into all the world teaching that Coca-Cola is the article, par excellence, for the health and good feeling of all people.” Though “health” may have been a reach, I love the fact that Coke still relies on Candler’s basic theme today – a century later. Candler went on to say, just as Roberto could now, “No article of like character has ever so firmly entrenched itself in public favor.” Sales of syrup that year, incidentally, were 116,492 gallons versus about 3.2 billion in 1996.
Of course, Charlie and I can identify only a few Inevitables, even after a lifetime of looking for them. Leadership alone provides no certainties: Witness the shocks some years back at General Motors, IBM and Sears, all of which had enjoyed long periods of seeming invincibility. Though some industries or lines of business exhibit characteristics that endow leaders with virtually insurmountable advantages, and that tend to establish Survival of the Fattest as almost a natural law, most do not. Thus, for every Inevitable, there are dozens of Impostors, companies now riding high but vulnerable to competitive attacks. Considering what it takes to be an Inevitable, Charlie and I recognize that we will never be able to come up with a Nifty Fifty or even a Twinkling Twenty. To the Inevitables in our portfolio, therefore, we add a few “Highly Probables.” You can, of course, pay too much for even the best of businesses. The overpayment risk surfaces periodically and, in our opinion, may now be quite high for the purchasers of virtually all stocks, The Inevitables included. Investors making purchases in an overheated market need to recognize that it may often take an extended period for the value of even an outstanding company to catch up with the price they paid.
A far more serious problem occurs when the management of a great company gets sidetracked and neglects its wonderful base business while purchasing other businesses that are so-so or worse. When that happens, the suffering of investors is often prolonged. Unfortunately, that is precisely what transpired years ago at both Coke and Gillette. (Would you believe that a few decades back they were growing shrimp at Coke and exploring for oil at Gillette?) Loss of focus is what most worries Charlie and me when we contemplate investing in businesses that in general look outstanding. All too often, we’ve seen value stagnate in the presence of hubris or of boredom that caused the attention of managers to wander. That’s not going to happen again at Coke and Gillette, however – not given their current and prospective managements.
Let me add a few thoughts about your own investments. Most investors, both institutional and individual, will find that the best way to own common stocks is through an index fund that charges minimal fees. Those following this path are sure to beat the net results (after fees and expenses) delivered by the great majority of investment professionals. Should you choose, however, to construct your own portfolio, there are a few thoughts worth remembering. Intelligent investing is not complex, though that is far from saying that it is easy. What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word “selected”: You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital. To invest successfully, you need not understand beta, efficient markets, modern portfolio theory, option pricing or emerging markets. You may, in fact, be better off knowing nothing of these. That, of course, is not the prevailing view at most business schools, whose finance curriculum tends to be dominated by such subjects. In our view, though, investment students need only two well-taught courses – How to Value a Business, and How to Think About Market Prices. Your goal as an investor should simply be to purchase, at a rational price, a part interest in an easily-understandable business whose earnings are virtually certain to be materially higher five, ten and twenty years from now. Over time, you will find only a few companies that meet these standards – so when you see one that qualifies, you should buy a meaningful amount of stock. You must also resist the temptation to stray from your guidelines: If you aren’t willing to own a stock for ten years, don’t even think about owning it for ten minutes. Put together a portfolio of companies whose aggregate earnings march upward over the years, and so also will the portfolio’s market value.
Over the last 33 years (that is, since present management took over) per-share book value has grown from $19 to $25,488, a rate of 24.1% compounded annually.
Given our gain of 34.1%, it is tempting to declare victory and move on. But last year’s performance was no great triumph: Any investor can chalk up large returns when stocks soar, as they did in 1997. In a bull market, one must avoid the error of the preening duck that quacks boastfully after a torrential rainstorm, thinking that its paddling skills have caused it to rise in the world. A right-thinking duck would instead compare its position after the downpour to that of the other ducks on the pond.
When the market booms, we tend to suffer in comparison with the S&P Index.
Under these circumstances, we try to exert a Ted Williams kind of discipline. In his book The Science of Hitting, Ted explains that he carved the strike zone into 77 cells, each the size of a baseball. Swinging only at balls in his “best” cell, he knew, would allow him to bat .400; reaching for balls in his “worst” spot, the low outside corner of the strike zone, would reduce him to .230. In other words, waiting for the fat pitch would mean a trip to the Hall of Fame; swinging indiscriminately would mean a ticket to the minors. If they are in the strike zone at all, the business “pitches” we now see are just catching the lower outside corner. If we swing, we will be locked into low returns. But if we let all of today’s balls go by, there can be no assurance that the next ones we see will be more to our liking. Perhaps the attractive prices of the past were the aberrations, not the full prices of today. Unlike Ted, we can’t be called out if we resist three pitches that are barely in the strike zone; nevertheless, just standing there, day after day, with my bat on my shoulder is not my idea of fun.
We had three non-traditional positions at yearend. The first was derivative contracts for 14.0 million barrels of oil, Our second non-traditional commitment is in silver. Last year, we purchased 111.2 million ounces, Finally, our largest non-traditional position at yearend was $4.6 billion, at amortized cost, of long-term zero-coupon obligations of the U.S. Treasury. These securities pay no interest. Instead, they provide their holders a return by way of the discount at which they are purchased, a characteristic that makes their market prices move rapidly when interest rates change. If rates rise, you lose heavily with zeros, and if rates fall, you make outsized gains. Since rates fell in 1997, we ended the year with an unrealized pre-tax gain of $598.8 million in our zeros. Because we carry the securities at market value, that gain is reflected in yearend book value.
In purchasing zeros, rather than staying with cash-equivalents, we risk looking very foolish: A macro-based commitment such as this never has anything close to a 100% probability of being successful. However, you pay Charlie and me to use our best judgment — not to avoid embarrassment — and we will occasionally make an unconventional move when we believe the odds favor it. Try to think kindly of us when we blow one. Along with President Clinton, we will be feeling your pain: The Munger family has more than 90% of its net worth in Berkshire and the Buffetts more than 99%.
If you expect to be a net saver during the next five years, should you hope for a higher or lower stock market during that period? Many investors get this one wrong. Even though they are going to be net buyers of stocks for many years to come, they are elated when stock prices rise and depressed when they fall. In effect, they rejoice because prices have risen for the “hamburgers” they will soon be buying. This reaction makes no sense. Only those who will be sellers of equities in the near future should be happy at seeing stocks rise. Prospective purchasers should much prefer sinking prices.
As for Berkshire, Charlie and I attempt to be conservative in presenting its underwriting results to you, because we have found that virtually all surprises in insurance are unpleasant ones.
In 1997, we agreed to acquire Star Furniture and International Dairy Queen (a deal that closed early in 1998). Both businesses fully meet our criteria: They are understandable; possess excellent economics; and are run by outstanding people.
Though it hurts me to say it, when I’ve issued stock, I’ve cost you money. Be clear about one thing: This cost has not occurred because we were misled in any way by sellers or because they thereafter failed to manage with diligence and skill. On the contrary, the sellers were completely candid when we were negotiating our deals and have been energetic and effective ever since. Instead, our problem has been that we own a truly marvelous collection of businesses, which means that trading away a portion of them for something new almost never makes sense. When we issue shares in a merger, we reduce your ownership in all of our businesses — partly-owned companies such as Coca-Cola, Gillette and American Express, and all of our terrific operating companies as well. An example from sports will illustrate the difficulty we face: For a baseball team, acquiring a player who can be expected to bat .350 is almost always a wonderful event — except when the team must trade a .380 hitter to make the deal. Because our roster is filled with .380 hitters, we have tried to pay cash for acquisitions, and here our record has been far better.
You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus.” At that time skepticism and disappointment prevailed, and my point was that investors should be glad of the fact, since pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels. Now, however, we have a very cheery consensus. That does not necessarily mean this is the wrong time to buy stocks: Corporate America is now earning far more money than it was just a few years ago, and in the presence of lower interest rates, every dollar of earnings becomes more valuable. Today’s price levels, though, have materially eroded the “margin of safety” that Ben Graham identified as the cornerstone of intelligent investing.
Normally, a gain of 48.3% would call for handsprings — but not this year. Remember Wagner, whose music has been described as better than it sounds? Well, Berkshire’s progress in 1998 — though more than satisfactory — was not as good as it looks. That’s because most of that 48.3% gain came from our issuing shares in acquisitions. To explain: Our stock sells at a large premium over book value, which means that any issuing of shares we do — whether for cash or as consideration in a merger — instantly increases our per-share book-value figure, even though we’ve earned not a dime. What happens is that we get more per-share book value in such transactions than we give up. These transactions, however, do not deliver us any immediate gain in per-share intrinsic value, because in this respect what we give and what we get are roughly equal. And, as Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner, and I can’t tell you too often (though you may feel that we try), it’s the per-share gain in intrinsic value that counts rather than the per-share gain in book value. Though Berkshire’s intrinsic value grew very substantially in 1998, the gain fell well short of the 48.3% recorded for book value. Nevertheless, intrinsic value still far exceeds book value.
Today’s markets are not friendly to our search for “elephants,” but you can be sure that we will stay focused on the hunt. Whatever the future holds, I make you one promise: I’ll keep at least 99% of my net worth in Berkshire for as long as I am around. How long will that be? My model is the loyal Democrat in Fort Wayne who asked to be buried in Chicago so that he could stay active in the party. To that end, I’ve already selected a “power spot” at the office for my urn.
We have a new person in accounting, working four days a week.) Despite this alarming trend toward corporate bloat, our after-tax overhead last year was about $3.5 million, or well under one basis point (.01 of 1%) of the value of the assets we manage.
Writing checks to the IRS that include strings of zeros does not bother Charlie or me. Berkshire as a corporation, and we as individuals, have prospered in America as we would have in no other country. Indeed, if we lived in some other part of the world and completely escaped taxes, I’m sure we would be worse off financially (and in many other ways as well). Overall, we feel extraordinarily lucky to have been dealt a hand in life that enables us to write large checks to the government rather than one requiring the government to regularly write checks to us — say, because we are disabled or unemployed. Berkshire’s tax situation is sometimes misunderstood. First, capital gains have no special attraction for us: A corporation pays a 35% rate on taxable income, whether it comes from capital gains or from ordinary operations. This means that Berkshire’s tax on a long-term capital gain is fully 75% higher than what an individual would pay on an identical gain. Some people harbor another misconception, believing that we can exclude 70% of all dividends we receive from our taxable income. Indeed, the 70% rate applies to most corporations and also applies to Berkshire in cases where we hold stocks in non-insurance subsidiaries. However, almost all of our equity investments are owned by our insurance companies, and in that case the exclusion is 59.5%. That still means a dollar of dividends is considerably more valuable to us than a dollar of ordinary income, but not to the degree often assumed.
In 1999, we will again increase our marketing budget, spending at least $190 million. In fact, there is no limit to what Berkshire is willing to invest in GEICO’s new-business activity, as long as we can concurrently build the infrastructure the company needs to properly serve its policyholders. Because of the first-year costs, companies that are concerned about quarterly or annual earnings would shy from similar investments, no matter how intelligent these might be in terms of building long-term value. Our calculus is different: We simply measure whether we are creating more than a dollar of value per dollar spent — and if that calculation is favorable, the more dollars we spend the happier I am.
At Berkshire we feel that telling outstanding CEOs, such as Tony, how to run their companies would be the height of foolishness. Most of our managers wouldn’t work for us if they got a lot of backseat driving. (Generally, they don’t have to work for anyone, since 75% or so are independently wealthy.) Besides, they are the Mark McGwires of the business world and need no advice from us as to how to hold the bat or when to swing. Nevertheless, Berkshire’s ownership may make even the best of managers more effective. First, we eliminate all of the ritualistic and nonproductive activities that normally go with the job of CEO. Our managers are totally in charge of their personal schedules. Second, we give each a simple mission: Just run your business as if: 1) you own 100% of it; 2) it is the only asset in the world that you and your family have or will ever have; and 3) you can’t sell or merge it for at least a century. As a corollary, we tell them they should not let any of their decisions be affected even slightly by accounting considerations. We want our managers to think about what counts, not how it will be counted.
I believe the GEICO story demonstrates the benefits of Berkshire’s approach. Charlie and I haven’t taught Tony a thing — and never will — but we have created an environment that allows him to apply all of his talents to what’s important. He does not have to devote his time or energy to board meetings, press interviews, presentations by investment bankers or talks with financial analysts. Furthermore, he need never spend a moment thinking about financing, credit ratings or “Street” expectations for earnings per share. Because of our ownership structure, he also knows that this operational framework will endure for decades to come. In this environment of freedom, both Tony and his company can convert their almost limitless potential into matching achievements
On December 21, we completed our $22 billion acquisition of General Re Corp. In addition to owning 100% of General Reinsurance Corporation, the largest U.S. property-casualty re insurer, the company also owns (including stock it has an arrangement to buy) 82% of the oldest reinsurance company in the world, Cologne Re. The two companies together re insure all lines of insurance and operate in 124 countries.
What General Re gives us, however, is the distribution force, technical facilities and management that will allow us to employ our structural strength in every facet of the industry. In particular, General Re and Cologne Re can now accelerate their push into international markets, where the preponderance of industry growth will almost certainly occur. As the merger proxy statement spelled out, Berkshire also brings tax and investment benefits to General Re. But the most compelling reason for the merger is simply that General Re’s outstanding management can now do what it does best, unfettered by the constraints that have limited its growth.
Float is money we hold but don’t own. In an insurance operation, float arises because premiums are received before losses are paid, an interval that sometimes extends over many years. During that time, the insurer invests the money. Typically, this pleasant activity carries with it a downside: The premiums that an insurer takes in usually do not cover the losses and expenses it eventually must pay. That leaves it running an “underwriting loss,” which is the cost of float. An insurance business has value if its cost of float over time is less than the cost the company would otherwise incur to obtain funds. But the business is a lemon if its cost of float is higher than market rates for money. Impressive as the growth in our float has been — 25.4% compounded annually — what really counts is the cost of this item. If that becomes too high, growth in float becomes a curse rather than a blessing.
A few years ago we asked three questions in these pages to which we have not yet received an answer: “If options aren’t a form of compensation, what are they? If compensation isn’t an expense, what is it? And, if expenses shouldn’t go into the calculation of earnings, where in the world should they go?”
A big piece of news, however, is that the SEC, led by its chairman, Arthur Levitt, seems determined to get corporate America to clean up its act. In a landmark speech last September, Levitt called for an end to “earnings management.” He correctly observed, “Too many corporate managers, auditors and analysts are participants in a game of nods and winks.” And then he laid on a real indictment: “Managing may be giving way to manipulating; integrity may be losing out to illusion.”
We had the worst absolute performance of my tenure and, compared to the S&P, the worst relative performance as well. Relative results are what concern us: Over time, bad relative numbers will produce unsatisfactory absolute results.
Berkshire’s collection of managers is unusual in several important ways. As one example, a very high percentage of these men and women are independently wealthy, having made fortunes in the businesses that they run. They work neither because they need the money nor because they are contractually obligated to — we have no contracts at Berkshire. Rather, they work long and hard because they love their businesses. And I use the word “their” advisedly, since these managers are truly in charge — there are no show-and-tell presentations in Omaha, no budgets to be approved by headquarters, no dictums issued about capital expenditures. We simply ask our managers to run their companies as if these are the sole asset of their families and will remain so for the next century. Charlie and I try to behave with our managers just as we attempt to behave with Berkshire’s shareholders, treating both groups as we would wish to be treated if our positions were reversed. Though “working” means nothing to me financially, I love doing it at Berkshire for some simple reasons: It gives me a sense of achievement, a freedom to act as I see fit and an opportunity to interact daily with people I like and trust. Why should our managers — accomplished artists at what they do — see things differently?
Currently two trends are affecting acquisition costs. The bad news is that it has become more expensive to develop inquiries. Media rates have risen, and we are also seeing diminishing returns — that is, as both we and our competitors step up advertising, inquiries per ad fall for all of us. These negatives are partly offset, however, by the fact that our closure ratio — the percentage of inquiries converted to sales — has steadily improved. Overall, we believe that our cost of new business, though definitely rising, is well below that of the industry. Of even greater importance, our operating costs for renewal business are the lowest among broad-based national auto insurers. Both of these major competitive advantages are sustainable. Others may copy our model, but they will be unable to replicate our economics.
And now, brace yourself. Last year, EJA passed the ultimate test: Charlie signed up. No other endorsement could speak more eloquently to the value of the EJA service.
Naturally, I have persistently asked the Blumkins, Bill Child and Melvyn Wolff whether there are any more out there like you. Their invariable answer was the Tatelman brothers of New England and their remarkable furniture business, Jordan’s.
Now, for our second acquisition deal: It came to us through my good friend, Walter Scott, Jr., chairman of Level 3 Communications and a director of Berkshire. Walter has many other business connections as well, and one of them is with MidAmerican Energy, a utility company in which he has substantial holdings and on whose board he sits
In our purchase of Jordan’s, we followed a procedure that will maximize the cash produced for our shareholders but minimize the earnings we report to you. Berkshire purchased assets for cash, an approach that on our tax returns permits us to amortize the resulting goodwill over a 15-year period. Obviously, this tax deduction materially increases the amount of cash delivered by the business. In contrast, when stock, rather than assets, is purchased for cash, the resulting writeoffs of goodwill are not tax-deductible. The economic difference between these two approaches is substantial. From the economic standpoint of the acquiring company, the worst deal of all is a stock-for-stock acquisition. Here, a huge price is often paid without there being any step-up in the tax basis of either the stock of the acquiree or its assets. If the acquired entity is subsequently sold, its owner may owe a large capital gains tax (at a 35% or greater rate), even though the sale may truly be producing a major economic loss. We have made some deals at Berkshire that used far-from-optimal tax structures. These deals occurred because the sellers insisted on a given structure and because, overall, we still felt the acquisition made sense. We have never done an inefficiently-structured deal, however, in order to make our figures look better.
Right now, the prices of the fine businesses we already own are just not that attractive. In other words, we feel much better about the businesses than their stocks. That’s why we haven’t added to our present holdings. Nevertheless, we haven’t yet scaled back our portfolio in a major way: If the choice is between a questionable business at a comfortable price or a comfortable business at a questionable price, we much prefer the latter. What really gets our attention, however, is a comfortable business at a comfortable price.
There is only one combination of facts that makes it advisable for a company to repurchase its shares: First, the company has available funds — cash plus sensible borrowing capacity — beyond the near-term needs of the business and, second, finds its stock selling in the market below its intrinsic value, conservatively-calculated. To this we add a caveat: Shareholders should have been supplied all the information they need for estimating that value. Otherwise, insiders could take advantage of their uninformed partners and buy out their interests at a fraction of true worth. We have, on rare occasions, seen that happen. Usually, of course, chicanery is employed to drive stock prices up, not down.
Sometimes, too, companies say they are repurchasing shares to offset the shares issued when stock options granted at much lower prices are exercised. This “buy high, sell low” strategy is one many unfortunate investors have employed — but never intentionally! Managements, however, seem to follow this perverse activity very cheerfully.
Some of the letters we’ve received clearly imply that the writer is unconcerned about intrinsic value considerations but instead wants us to trumpet an intention to repurchase so that the stock will rise (or quit going down). If the writer wants to sell tomorrow, his thinking makes sense — for him! — but if he intends to hold, he should instead hope the stock falls and trades in enough volume for us to buy a lot of it. That’s the only way a repurchase program can have any real benefit for a continuing shareholder.
BRK up to this point averaged around 23.6% per year, beat the S&P from 1964-2000 by an average of 11.8% per year or 202,438% total!!! And, his numbers are after-tax whereas S&P is pre-tax!
Furthermore, we completed two significant acquisitions that we negotiated in 1999 and initiated six more. All told, these purchases have cost us about $8 billion, with 97% of that amount paid in cash and 3% in stock. The eight businesses we’ve acquired have aggregate sales of about $13 billion and employ 58,000 people. Still, we incurred no debt in making these purchases, and our shares outstanding have increased only 1/3 of 1%. Better yet, we remain awash in liquid assets and are both eager and ready for even larger acquisitions. I will tell you now that we have embraced the 21st century by entering such cutting-edge industries as brick, carpet, insulation and paint. Try to control your excitement.
At Berkshire, our all-stars have exactly the jobs they want, ones that they hope and expect to keep throughout their business lifetimes. They therefore concentrate solely on maximizing the long-term value of the businesses that they “own” and love. If the businesses succeed, they have succeeded. And they stick with us: In our last 36 years, Berkshire has never had a manager of a significant subsidiary voluntarily leave to join another business.
Acquisitions – CORT, US Liability, Ben Bridge Jeweler, Justin Industries, Shaw Industries, Benjamin Moore Paint, Johns Manville Corp
I knew nothing about CORT, but I immediately printed out its SEC filings and liked what I saw. That same day I told Bruce I had a possible interest and asked him to arrange a meeting with Paul Arnold, CORT’s CEO. Paul and I got together on November 29, and I knew at once that we had the right ingredients for a purchase: a fine though unglamorous business, an outstanding manager, and a price (going by that on the failed deal) that made sense. Operating out of 117 showrooms, CORT is the national leader in “rent-to-rent” furniture, primarily used in offices but also by temporary occupants of apartments. This business, it should be noted, has no similarity to “rent-to-own” operations, which usually involve the sale of home furnishings and electronics to people having limited income and poor credit. We quickly purchased CORT for Wesco, our 80%-owned subsidiary, paying about $386 million in cash. You will find more details about CORT’s operations in Wesco’s 1999 and 2000 annual reports. Both Charlie and I enjoy working with Paul, and CORT looks like a good bet to beat our original expectations.
I can’t resist pointing out that Berkshire ¾ whose top management has long been mired in the 19th century ¾ is now one of the very few authentic “clicks-and-bricks” businesses around. We went into 2000 with GEICO doing significant business on the Internet, and then we added Acme. You can bet this move by Berkshire is making them sweat in Silicon Valley
Two economic factors probably contributed to the rush of acquisition activity we experienced last year. First, many managers and owners foresaw near-term slowdowns in their businesses ¾ and, in fact, we purchased several companies whose earnings will almost certainly decline this year from peaks they reached in 1999 or 2000. The declines make no difference to us, given that we expect all of our businesses to now and then have ups and downs. (Only in the sales presentations of investment banks do earnings move forever upward.) We don’t care about the bumps; what matters are the overall results. But the decisions of other people are sometimes affected by the near-term outlook, which can both spur sellers and temper the enthusiasm of purchasers who might otherwise compete with us. A second factor that helped us in 2000 was that the market for junk bonds dried up as the year progressed. In the two preceding years, junk bond purchasers had relaxed their standards, buying the obligations of ever-weaker issuers at inappropriate prices. The effects of this laxity were felt last year in a ballooning of defaults. In this environment, “financial” buyers of businesses ¾ those who wish to buy using only a sliver of equity ¾ became unable to borrow all they thought they needed. What they could still borrow, moreover, came at a high price. Consequently, LBO operators became less aggressive in their bidding when businesses came up for sale last year. Because we analyze purchases on an all-equity basis, our evaluations did not change, which means we became considerably more competitive. Aside from the economic factors that benefited us, we now enjoy a major and growing advantage in making acquisitions in that we are often the buyer of choice for the seller. That fact, of course, doesn’t assure a deal ¾ sellers have to like our price, and we have to like their business and management ¾ but it does help.
We find it meaningful when an owner cares about whom he sells to. We like to do business with someone who loves his company, not just the money that a sale will bring him (though we certainly understand why he likes that as well). When this emotional attachment exists, it signals that important qualities will likely be found within the business: honest accounting, pride of product, respect for customers, and a loyal group of associates having a strong sense of direction. The reverse is apt to be true, also. When an owner auctions off his business, exhibiting a total lack of interest in what follows, you will frequently find that it has been dressed up for sale, particularly when the seller is a “financial owner.” And if owners behave with little regard for their business and its people, their conduct will often contaminate attitudes and practices throughout the company.
Our main business ¾ though we have others of great importance ¾ is insurance. To understand Berkshire, therefore, it is necessary that you understand how to evaluate an insurance company. The key determinants are: (1) the amount of float that the business generates; (2) its cost; and (3) most critical of all, the long-term outlook for both of these factors.
There are two factors affecting our cost of float that are very rare at other insurers but that now loom large at Berkshire. First, a few insurers that are currently experiencing large losses have offloaded a significant portion of these on us in a manner that penalizes our current earnings but gives us float we can use for many years to come. After the loss that we incur in the first year of the policy, there are no further costs attached to this business. An even more significant item in our numbers ¾ which, again, you won’t find much of elsewhere ¾ arises from transactions in which we assume past losses of a company that wants to put its troubles behind it.
Many people assume that marketable securities are Berkshire’s first choice when allocating capital, but that’s not true: Ever since we first published our economic principles in 1983, we have consistently stated that we would rather purchase businesses than stocks. (See number 4 on page 60.) One reason for that preference is personal, in that I love working with our managers. They are high-grade, talented and loyal. And, frankly, I find their business behavior to be more rational and owner-oriented than that prevailing at many public companies. But there’s also a powerful financial reason behind the preference, and that has to do with taxes. The tax code makes Berkshire’s owning 80% or more of a business far more profitable for us, proportionately, than our owning a smaller share. When a company we own all of earns $1 million after tax, the entire amount inures to our benefit. If the $1 million is upstreamed to Berkshire, we owe no tax on the dividend. And, if the earnings are retained and we were to sell the subsidiary ¾ not likely at Berkshire! ¾ for $1 million more than we paid for it, we would owe no capital gains tax. That’s because our “tax cost” upon sale would include both what we paid for the business and all earnings it subsequently retained. Contrast that situation to what happens when we own an investment in a marketable security. There, if we own a 10% stake in a business earning $10 million after tax, our $1 million share of the earnings is subject to additional state and federal taxes of (1) about $140,000 if it is distributed to us (our tax rate on most dividends is 14%); or (2) no less than $350,000 if the $1 million is retained and subsequently captured by us in the form of a capital gain (on which our tax rate is usually about 35%, though it sometimes approaches 40%). We may defer paying the $350,000 by not immediately realizing our gain, but eventually we must pay the tax. In effect, the government is our “partner” twice when we own part of a business through a stock investment, but only once when we own at least 80%.
The oracle was Aesop and his enduring, though somewhat incomplete, investment insight was “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” To flesh out this principle, you must answer only three questions. How certain are you that there are indeed birds in the bush? When will they emerge and how many will there be? What is the risk-free interest rate (which we consider to be the yield on long-term U.S. bonds)? If you can answer these three questions, you will know the maximum value of the bush ¾ and the maximum number of the birds you now possess that should be offered for it. And, of course, don’t literally think birds. Think dollars. Aesop’s investment axiom, thus expanded and converted into dollars, is immutable. It applies to outlays for farms, oil royalties, bonds, stocks, lottery tickets, and manufacturing plants. And neither the advent of the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity nor the creation of the automobile changed the formula one iota ¾ nor will the Internet. Just insert the correct numbers, and you can rank the attractiveness of all possible uses of capital throughout the universe. Common yardsticks such as dividend yield, the ratio of price to earnings or to book value, and even growth rates have nothing to do with valuation except to the extent they provide clues to the amount and timing of cash flows into and from the business. Indeed, growth can destroy value if it requires cash inputs in the early years of a project or enterprise that exceed the discounted value of the cash that those assets will generate in later years. Market commentators and investment managers who glibly refer to “growth” and “value” styles as contrasting approaches to investment are displaying their ignorance, not their sophistication. Growth is simply a component ¾ usually a plus, sometimes a minus ¾ in the value equation. Alas, though Aesop’s proposition and the third variable ¾ that is, interest rates ¾ are simple, plugging in numbers for the other two variables is a difficult task. Using precise numbers is, in fact, foolish; working with a range of possibilities is the better approach. Usually, the range must be so wide that no useful conclusion can be reached. Occasionally, though, even very conservative estimates about the future emergence of birds reveal that the price quoted is startlingly low in relation to value. (Let’s call this phenomenon the IBT ¾ Inefficient Bush Theory.) To be sure, an investor needs some general understanding of business economics as well as the ability to think independently to reach a well-founded positive conclusion. But the investor does not need brilliance nor blinding insights. At the other extreme, there are many times when the most brilliant of investors can’t muster a conviction about the birds to emerge, not even when a very broad range of estimates is employed. This kind of uncertainty frequently occurs when new businesses and rapidly changing industries are under examination. In cases of this sort, any capital commitment must be labeled speculative. Now, speculation ¾ in which the focus is not on what an asset will produce but rather on what the next fellow will pay for it ¾ is neither illegal, immoral nor un-American. But it is not a game in which Charlie and I wish to play. We bring nothing to the party, so why should we expect to take anything home? The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities ¾ that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future ¾ will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.
A pin lies in wait for every bubble. And when the two eventually meet, a new wave of investors learns some very old lessons: First, many in Wall Street ¾a community in which quality control is not prized ¾ will sell investors anything they will buy. Second, speculation is most dangerous when it looks easiest. At Berkshire, we make no attempt to pick the few winners that will emerge from an ocean of unproven enterprises. We’re not smart enough to do that, and we know it. Instead, we try to apply Aesop’s 2,600-year-old equation to opportunities in which we have reasonable confidence as to how many birds are in the bush and when they will emerge (a formulation that my grandsons would probably update to “A girl in a convertible is worth five in the phonebook.”). We applaud the work that Arthur Levitt, Jr., until recently Chairman of the SEC, has done in cracking down on the corporate practice of “selective disclosure” that had spread like cancer in recent years. Indeed, it had become virtually standard practice for major corporations to “guide” analysts or large holders to earnings expectations that were intended either to be on the nose or a tiny bit below what the company truly expected to earn. Through the selectively dispersed hints, winks and nods that companies engaged in, speculatively-minded institutions and advisors were given an information edge over investment-oriented individuals. This was corrupt behavior, unfortunately embraced by both Wall Street and corporate America.
Meeting with my seven founding limited partners that evening, I gave them a short paper titled “The Ground Rules” that included this sentence: “Whether we do a good job or a poor job is to be measured against the general experience in securities.” We initially used the Dow Jones Industrials as our benchmark, but shifted to the S&P 500 when that index became widely used
Our star-studded group grew in 2001. First, we completed the purchases of two businesses that we had agreed to buy in 2000 ¾ Shaw and Johns Manville. Then we acquired two others, MiTek and XTRA, and contracted to buy two more: Larson-Juhl, an acquisition that has just closed, and Fruit of the Loom, which will close shortly if creditors approve our offer.
Last year I told you that, barring a mega-catastrophe, our cost of float would probably drop from its 2000 level of 6%. I had in mind natural catastrophes when I said that, but instead we were hit by a man-made catastrophe on September 11th ¾ an event that delivered the insurance industry its largest loss in history. Our float cost therefore came in at a staggering 12.8%. It was our worst year in float cost since 1984, and a result that to a significant degree, as I will explain in the next section, we brought upon ourselves.
In short, all of us in the industry made a fundamental underwriting mistake by focusing on experience, rather than exposure, thereby assuming a huge terrorism risk for which we received no premium.
I’d say that the effects from telling a profit-challenged insurance CEO to lower reserves through discounting would be comparable to those that would ensue if a father told his 16-year-old son to have a normal sex life. Neither party needs that kind of push.
During 2001, we were somewhat more active than usual in “junk” bonds. These are not, we should emphasize, suitable investments for the general public, because too often these securities live up to their name. We have never purchased a newly-issued junk bond, which is the only kind most investors are urged to buy. When losses occur in this field, furthermore, they are often disastrous: Many issues end up at a small fraction of their original offering price and some become entirely worthless. Despite these dangers, we periodically find a few ¾ a very few ¾ junk securities that are interesting to us. And, so far, our 50-year experience in distressed debt has proven rewarding. In our 1984 annual report, we described our purchases of Washington Public Power System bonds when that issuer fell into disrepute. We’ve also, over the years, stepped into other apparent calamities such as Chrysler Financial, Texaco and RJR Nabisco ¾ all of which returned to grace. Still, if we stay active in junk bonds, you can expect us to have losses from time to time.
Unlike LBO operators and private equity firms, we have no “exit” strategy – we buy to keep. That’s one reason why Berkshire is usually the first – and sometimes the only – choice for sellers and their managers.
It’s simple – to be a winner, work with winners.
Berkshire’s operating CEOs are masters of their crafts and run their businesses as if they were their own. My job is to stay out of their way and allocate whatever excess capital their businesses generate. It’s easy
We added some sluggers to our lineup last year. Two acquisitions pending at yearend 2001 were completed: Albecca (which operates under the name Larson-Juhl), the U.S. leader in custom-made picture frames; and Fruit of the Loom, the producer of about 33.3% of the men’s and boy’s underwear sold in the U.S. and of other apparel as well. Also acquired CTB (equipment for poultry and hog product), Garan (a manufacturer of children’s apparel) and Pampered Chef
Despite the voting-control limitation – and the somewhat strange capital structure at MEHC it has engendered – the company is a key part of Berkshire. Already it has $18 billion of assets and delivers our largest stream of non-insurance earnings. It could well grow to be huge.
When 2001 began, Charlie and I had no idea that Berkshire would be moving into the pipeline business. But upon completion of the Kern River expansion, MEHC will transport about 8% of all gas used in the U.S. We continue to look for large energy-related assets, though in the electric utility field PUHCA constrains what we can do.
A few years ago, and somewhat by accident, MEHC found itself in the residential real estate brokerage business. It is no accident, however, that we have dramatically expanded the operation. Moreover, we are likely to keep on expanding in the future. We call this business HomeServices of America
When I agreed in 1998 to merge Berkshire with Gen Re, I thought that company stuck to the three rules I’ve enumerated. I had studied the operation for decades and had observed underwriting discipline that was consistent and reserving that was conservative. At merger time, I detected no slippage in Gen Re’s standards. When I agreed in 1998 to merge Berkshire with Gen Re, I thought that company stuck to the three rules I’ve enumerated. I had studied the operation for decades and had observed underwriting discipline that was consistent and reserving that was conservative. At merger time, I detected no slippage in Gen Re’s standards When the WTC disaster occurred, it exposed weaknesses in Gen Re’s operations that I should have detected earlier. But I was lucky: Joe and Tad were on hand, freshly endowed with increased authority and eager to rapidly correct the errors of the past. They knew what to do – and they did it. It takes time for insurance policies to run off, however, and 2002 was well along before we managed to reduce our aggregation of nuclear, chemical and biological risk (NCB) to a tolerable level. That problem is now behind us. On another front, Gen Re’s underwriting attitude has been dramatically altered: The entire organization now understands that we wish to write only properly-priced business, whatever the effect on volume. Joe and Tad judge themselves only by Gen Re’s underwriting profitability. Size simply doesn’t count. Finally, we are making every effort to get our reserving right. If we fail at that, we can’t know our true costs. And any insurer that has no idea what its costs are is heading for big trouble
Charlie and I are of one mind in how we feel about derivatives and the trading activities that go with them: We view them as time bombs, both for the parties that deal in them and the economic system. Essentially, these instruments call for money to change hands at some future date, with the amount to be determined by one or more reference items, such as interest rates, stock prices or currency values. If, for example, you are either long or short an S&P 500 futures contract, you are a party to a very simple derivatives transaction – with your gain or loss derived from movements in the index. Derivatives contracts are of varying duration (running sometimes to 20 or more years) and their value is often tied to several variables. Unless derivatives contracts are collateralized or guaranteed, their ultimate value also depends on the creditworthiness of the counterparties to them. In the meantime, though, before a contract is settled, the counterparties record profits and losses – often huge in amount – in their current earnings statements without so much as a penny changing hands.
In banking, the recognition of a “linkage” problem was one of the reasons for the formation of the Federal Reserve System. Before the Fed was established, the failure of weak banks would sometimes put sudden and unanticipated liquidity demands on previously-strong banks, causing them to fail in turn. The Fed now insulates the strong from the troubles of the weak. But there is no central bank assigned to the job of preventing the dominoes toppling in insurance or derivatives. In these industries, firms that are fundamentally solid can become troubled simply because of the travails of other firms further down the chain. When a “chain reaction” threat exists within an industry, it pays to minimize links of any kind. That’s how we conduct our reinsurance business, and it’s one reason we are exiting derivatives
Indeed, in 1998, the leveraged and derivatives-heavy activities of a single hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, caused the Federal Reserve anxieties so severe that it hastily orchestrated a rescue effort. In later Congressional testimony, Fed officials acknowledged that, had they not intervened, the outstanding trades of LTCM – a firm unknown to the general public and employing only a few hundred people – could well have posed a serious threat to the stability of American markets. In other words, the Fed acted because its leaders were fearful of what might have happened to other financial institutions had the LTCM domino toppled. And this affair, though it paralyzed many parts of the fixed-income market for weeks, was far from a worst-case scenario
When Charlie and I finish reading the long footnotes detailing the derivatives activities of major banks, the only thing we understand is that we don’t understand how much risk the institution is running.
We continue to do little in equities. Charlie and I are increasingly comfortable with our holdings in Berkshire’s major investees because most of them have increased their earnings while their valuations have decreased. But we are not inclined to add to them. Though these enterprises have good prospects, we don’t
yet believe their shares are undervalued. In our view, the same conclusion fits stocks generally. Despite three years of falling prices, which have significantly improved the attractiveness of common stocks, we still find very few that even mildly interest us. That dismal fact is testimony to the insanity of valuations reached during The Great Bubble. Unfortunately, the hangover may prove to be proportional to the binge
With short-term money returning less than 1% after-tax, sitting it out is no fun. But occasionally successful investing requires inactivity.
It’s almost impossible, for example, in a boardroom populated by well-mannered people, to raise the question of whether the CEO should be replaced. It’s equally awkward to question a proposed acquisition that has been endorsed by the CEO, particularly when his inside staff and outside advisors are present and unanimously support his decision. (They wouldn’t be in the room if they didn’t.) Finally, when the compensation committee – armed, as always, with support from a high-paid consultant – reports on a megagrant of options to the CEO, it would be like belching at the dinner table for a director to suggest that the committee reconsider
Doing so, we will add a test that we believe is important, but far from determinative, in fostering independence: We will select directors who have huge and true ownership interests (that is, stock that they or their family have purchased, not been given by Berkshire or received via options), expecting those interests to
influence their actions to a degree that dwarfs other considerations such as prestige and board fees.
Finally, we will continue to have members of the Buffett family on the board. They are not there to run the business after I die, nor will they then receive compensation of any kind. Their purpose is to ensure, for both our shareholders and managers, that Berkshire’s special culture will be nurtured when I’m succeeded by other CEOs
If the audit committee asks these questions, its composition – the focus of most reforms – is of minor importance. In addition, the procedure will save time and expense. When auditors are put on the spot, they will do their duty. If they are not put on the spot . . . well, we have seen the results of that
That loss of credibility has occurred. The job of CEOs is now to regain America’s trust – and for the country’s sake it’s important that they do so. They will not succeed in this endeavor, however, by way of fatuous ads, meaningless policy statements, or structural changes of boards and committees. Instead, CEOs
must embrace stewardship as a way of life and treat their owners as partners, not patsies. It’s time for CEOs to walk the walk.
Three suggestions for investors: First, beware of companies displaying weak accounting. If a company still does not expense options, or if its pension assumptions are fanciful, watch out. When managements take the low road in aspects that are visible, it is likely they are following a similar path behind the scenes. There is seldom just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, unintelligible footnotes usually indicate untrustworthy management. If you can’t
understand a footnote or other managerial explanation, it’s usually because the CEO doesn’t want you to. Enron’s descriptions of certain transactions still baffle me. Finally, be suspicious of companies that trumpet earnings projections and growth expectations. Businesses seldom operate in a tranquil, no-surprise environment, and earnings simply don’t advance smoothly (except, of course, in the offering books of investment bankers).
Our equity holdings, including convertible preferreds, have fallen considerably as a percentage of our net worth, from an average of 114% in the 1980s, for example, to an average of 50% in 2000-03. Therefore, yearly movements in the stock market now affect a much smaller portion of our net worth than was once the case
At Berkshire, neither history nor the demands of owners impede intelligent decision-making. When Charlie and I make mistakes, they are – in tennis parlance – unforced errors.
Today, the manufactured housing industry remains awash in problems. Delinquencies continue high, repossessed units still abound and the number of retailers has been halved. A different business model is required, one that eliminates the ability of the retailer and salesman to pocket substantial money up front by making sales financed by loans that are destined to default. Such transactions cause hardship to both buyer and lender and lead to a flood of repossessions that then undercut the sale of new units. Under a proper model – one requiring significant down payments and shorter-term loans – the industry will likely remain much smaller than it was in the 90s. But it will deliver to home buyers an asset in which they will have equity, rather than disappointment, upon resale.
Bought Clayton Homes in 2003, McLane from Walmart who distributes groceries and other nonfood items
In judging whether Corporate America is serious about reforming itself, CEO pay remains the acid test. To date, the results aren’t encouraging. A few CEOs, such as Jeff Immelt of General Electric, have led the way in initiating programs that are fair to managers and shareholders alike. Generally, however, his example has been more admired than followed.
the two key tasks board members should perform – whether at a mutual fund business or any other. These two all-important functions are, first, to obtain (or
retain) an able and honest manager and then to compensate that manager fairly. The reality is that neither the decades-old rules regulating investment company directors nor the new rules bearing down on Corporate America foster the election of truly independent directors. In both instances, an individual who is receiving 100% of his income from director fees – and who may wish to enhance his income through election to other boards – is deemed independent. That is nonsense.
True independence – meaning the willingness to challenge a forceful CEO when something is wrong or foolish – is an enormously valuable trait in a director. It is also rare. The place to look for it is among high-grade people whose interests are in line with those of rank-and-file shareholders – and are in line in a very big way.
Indeed, the more you know about derivatives, the less you will feel you can learn from the disclosures normally proffered you. In Darwin’s words, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
We believe it’s appropriate to finance a soundly-selected book of interest-bearing receivables almost entirely with debt (just as a bank would). Therefore, Berkshire will borrow money to finance Clayton’s portfolio and re-lend these funds to Clayton at our cost plus one percentage point. This markup fairly compensates Berkshire for putting its exceptional creditworthiness to work, but it still delivers money to Clayton at an attractive price. In 2003, Berkshire did $2 billion of such borrowing and re-lending, with Clayton using much of this money to fund several large purchases of portfolios from lenders exiting the business.
A portion of our loans to Clayton also provided “catch-up” funding for paper it had generated earlier in the year from its own operation and had found difficult to securitize
“Victory,” President Kennedy told us after the Bay of Pigs disaster, “has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
We bought some Wells Fargo shares last year. Otherwise, among our six largest holdings, we last changed our position in Coca-Cola in 1994, American Express in 1998, Gillette in 1989, Washington Post in 1973, and Moody’s in 2000. Brokers don’t love us. We are neither enthusiastic nor negative about the portfolio we hold. We own pieces of excellent businesses – all of which had good gains in intrinsic value last year – but their current prices reflect their excellence. The unpleasant corollary to this conclusion is that I made a big mistake in not selling several of our larger holdings during The Great Bubble. If these stocks are fully priced now, you may wonder what I was thinking four years ago when their intrinsic value was lower and their prices far higher. So do I.
Our equity holdings (including convertible preferreds) have fallen considerably as a percentage of our net worth, from an average of 114% in the 1980s, for
example, to less than 50% in recent years. Therefore, yearly movements in the stock market now affect a much smaller portion of our net worth than was once the case, a fact that will normally cause us to underperform in years when stocks rise substantially and overperform in years when they fall.
My hope was to make several multi-billion dollar acquisitions that would add new and significant streams of earnings to the many we already have. But I struck out. Additionally, I found very few attractive securities to buy. Berkshire therefore ended the year with $43 billion of cash equivalents, not a happy position. Charlie and I will work to translate some of this hoard into more interesting assets during 2005, though we can’t promise success.
There have been three primary causes for investors’ mediocre results : first, high costs, usually because investors traded excessively or spent far too much on investment management; second, portfolio decisions based on tips and fads rather than on thoughtful, quantified evaluation of businesses; and third, a start-and-stop approach to the market marked by untimely entries (after an advance has been long underway) and exits (after periods of stagnation or decline). Investors should remember that excitement and expenses are their enemies. And if they insist on trying to time their participation in equities, they should try to be fearful when others are greedy and greedy only when others are fearful.
Our failure here illustrates the importance of a guideline – stay with simple propositions – that we usually apply in investments as well as operations. If only one variable is key to a decision, and the variable has a 90% chance of going your way, the chance for a successful outcome is obviously 90%. But if ten independent variables need to break favorably for a successful result, and each has a 90% probability of success, the likelihood of having a winner is only 35%
Naturally, a business that follows a no-layoff policy [NICO] must be especially careful to avoid overstaffing when times are good. Thirty years ago Tom Murphy, then CEO of Cap Cities, drove this point home to me with a hypothetical tale about an employee who asked his boss for permission to hire an assistant. The employee assumed that adding $20,000 to the annual payroll would be inconsequential. But his boss told him the proposal should be evaluated as a $3 million decision, given that an additional person would probably cost at least that amount over his lifetime, factoring in raises, benefits and other expenses (more people, more toilet paper). And unless the company fell on very hard times, the employee added would be unlikely to be dismissed, however marginal his contribution to the business.
In April, Clayton completed the acquisition of Oakwood Homes and is now the industry’s largest producer and retailer of manufactured homes. We love putting more assets in the hands of Kevin Clayton, the company’s CEO. He is a prototype Berkshire manager. Today, Clayton has 11,837 employees, up from 7,136 when we purchased it, and Charlie and I are pleased that Berkshire has been useful in facilitating this growth.
Europe has been expensive for NetJets – far more expensive than I anticipated – but it is essential to building a flight operation that will forever be in a class by itself. Our U.S. owners already want a quality service wherever they travel and their wish for flight hours abroad is certain to grow dramatically in the decades ahead. Last year, U.S. owners made 2,003 flights in Europe, up 22% from the previous year and 137% from 2000. Just as important, our European owners made 1,067 flights in the U.S., up 65% from 2003 and 239% from 2000.
Let’s look at how the businesses of our “Big Four” – American Express, Coca-Cola, Gillette and Wells Fargo – have fared since we bought into these companies. As the table shows, we invested $3.83 billion in the four, by way of multiple transactions between May 1988 and October 2003. On a composite basis, our dollar-weighted purchase date is July 1992. By yearend 2004, therefore, we had held these “business interests,” on a weighted basis, about 12½ years. In 2004, Berkshire’s share of the group’s earnings amounted to $1.2 billion. These earnings might legitimately be considered “normal.” True, they were swelled because Gillette and Wells Fargo omitted option costs in their presentation of earnings; but on the other hand they were reduced because Coke had a non-recurring write-off. Our share of the earnings of these four companies has grown almost every year, and now amounts to about 31.3% of our cost. Their cash distributions to us have also grown consistently, totaling $434 million in 2004, or about 11.3% of cost. All in all, the Big Four have delivered us a satisfactory, though far from spectacular, business result.
You may be surprised to learn that Lou does not necessarily inform me about what he is doing. When Charlie and I assign responsibility, we truly hand over the baton – and we give it to Lou just as we do to our operating managers. Therefore, I typically learn of Lou’s transactions about ten days after the end of each month. Sometimes, it should be added, I silently disagree with his decisions. But he’s usually right.
But as I argued in a November 10, 2003 article in Fortune, (available at berkshirehathaway.com), our country’s trade practices are weighing down the dollar. The decline in its value has already been substantial, but is nevertheless likely to continue. Without policy changes, currency markets could even become disorderly and generate spillover effects, both political and financial. No one knows whether these problems will materialize. But such a scenario is a far-from-remote possibility that policymakers should be considering now.
The mention of trillions numbs most brains. A further source of confusion is that the current account deficit (the sum of three items, the most important by far being the trade deficit) and our national budget deficit are often lumped as “twins.” They are anything but. They have different causes and different consequences
John Maynard Keynes said in his masterful The General Theory: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it
is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” (Or, to put it in less elegant terms, lemmings as a class may be derided but never does an individual lemming get criticized.) From a reputational standpoint, Charlie and I run a clear risk with our foreign-exchange commitment. But we believe in managing Berkshire as if we owned 100% of it ourselves. And, were that the case, we would not be following a dollar-only policy.
the Berkshire board is a model: (a) every director is a member of a family owning at least $4 million of stock; (b) none of these shares were acquired from
Berkshire via options or grants; (c) no directors receive committee, consulting or board fees from the company that are more than a tiny portion of their annual income; and (d) although we have a standard corporate indemnity arrangement, we carry no liability insurance for directors. At Berkshire, board members travel the same road as shareholders
Now we own 68 distinct businesses with widely disparate operating and financial characteristics. This array of unrelated enterprises, coupled with our massive investment holdings, makes it impossible for you to simply examine our consolidated financial statements and arrive at an informed estimate of intrinsic value.
When growth rates are under discussion, it will pay you to be suspicious as to why the beginning and terminal years have been selected. If either year was aberrational, any calculation of growth will be distorted. In particular, a base year in which earnings were poor can produce a breathtaking, but meaningless, growth rate. In the table above, however, the base year of 1965 was abnormally good; Berkshire earned more money in that year than it did in all but one of the previous ten
That’s a crucial, but often ignored, point: When a management proudly acquires another company for stock, the shareholders of the acquirer are concurrently selling part of their interest in everything they own. I’ve made this kind of deal a few times myself – and, on balance, my actions have cost you money
Acquisitions – MedPro (medical malpractice insurer), Forest River (recreational vehicles), Business Wire (disseminates information), Applied Underwriters (provides payroll services and workers’ compensation insurance), PacifiCorp (major electric utility serving 6 western states),
It’s hard to overemphasize the importance of who is CEO of a company. Before Jim Kilts arrived at Gillette in 2001, the company was struggling, having particularly suffered from capital-allocation blunders. In the major example, Gillette’s acquisition of Duracell cost Gillette shareholders billions of dollars, a loss never made visible by conventional accounting. Quite simply, what Gillette received in business value in this acquisition was not equivalent to what it gave up. (Amazingly, this most fundamental of yardsticks is almost always ignored by both managements and their investment bankers when acquisitions are under discussion.)
Take, for instance, ten year, fixed-price options (and who wouldn’t?). If Fred Futile, CEO of Stagnant, Inc., receives a bundle of these – let’s say enough to give him an option on 1% of the company – his self-interest is clear: He should skip dividends entirely and instead use all of the company’s earnings to repurchase stock.
Take, for instance, ten year, fixed-price options (and who wouldn’t?). If Fred Futile, CEO of Stagnant, Inc., receives a bundle of these – let’s say enough to give him an option on 1% of the company – his self-interest is clear: He should skip dividends entirely and instead use all of the company’s earnings to repurchase stock.
(Let me pause for a brief confession: In criticizing comp committee behavior, I don’t speak as a true insider. Though I have served as a director of twenty public companies, only one CEO has put me on his comp committee. Hmmmm . . .)
The underlying factors affecting the U.S. current account deficit continue to worsen, and no letup is in sight. Not only did our trade deficit – the largest and most familiar item in the current account – hit an all-time high in 2005, but we also can expect a second item – the balance of investment income – to soon turn negative. As foreigners increase their ownership of U.S. assets (or of claims against us) relative to U.S. investments abroad, these investors will begin earning more on their holdings than we do on ours. Finally, the third component of the current account, unilateral transfers, is always negative
The explanation of how this is happening begins with a fundamental truth: With unimportant exceptions, such as bankruptcies in which some of a company’s losses are borne by creditors, the most that owners in aggregate can earn between now and Judgment Day is what their businesses in aggregate earn.
For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases.
We believe that $16.9 billion is a record for a one-year gain in net worth – more than has ever been booked by any American business, leaving aside boosts that have occurred because of mergers (e.g., AOL’s purchase of Time Warner). Of course, Exxon Mobil and other companies earn far more than Berkshire, but their earnings largely go to dividends and/or repurchases, rather than to building net worth
So I’ve taken the easy route, just sitting back and working through great managers who run their own shows. My only tasks are to cheer them on, sculpt and harden our corporate culture, and make major capital-allocation decisions. Our managers have returned this trust by working hard and effectively
Last year we had a good increase in non-insurance earnings – 38%. Large gains from here on in, though, will come only if we are able to make major, and sensible, acquisitions. That will not be easy. We do, however, have one advantage: More and more, Berkshire has become “the buyer of choice” for business owners and managers. Initially, we were viewed that way only in the U.S. (and more often than not by private companies). We’ve long wanted, nonetheless, to extend Berkshire’s appeal beyond U.S. borders. And last year, our globe-trotting finally got underway
Acquisitions – PacifiCorp, ISCAR (cutting tool business), TTI (distributor of electronic components), Fruit of the Loom bought Russell
In September, Charlie and I, along with five Berkshire associates, visited ISCAR in Israel. We – and I mean every one of us – have never been more impressed with any operation. At ISCAR, as throughout Israel, brains and energy are ubiquitous. Berkshire shareholders are lucky to have joined with Eitan, Jacob, Danny and their talented associates.
Last year – we are getting now to Equitas – Berkshire agreed to enter into a huge retroactive reinsurance contract, a policy that protects an insurer against losses that have already happened, but whose cost is not yet known.
Though many people believe Lloyd’s to be an insurance company, that is not the case. It is instead a place where many member-insurers transact business, just as they did centuries ago.
Because plenty of imponderables continue to exist, Berkshire could not provide Equitas, and its 27,972 names, unlimited protection. But we said – and I’m simplifying – that if Equitas would give us $7.12 billion in cash and securities (this is the float I spoke about), we would pay all of its future claims and expenses up to $13.9 billion. That amount was $5.7 billion above what Equitas had recently guessed its ultimate liabilities to be. Thus the names received a huge – and almost certainly sufficient – amount of future protection against unpleasant surprises. Indeed the protection is so large that Equitas plans a cash payment to its thousands of names, an event few of them had ever dreamed possible.
This motley group, which sells products ranging from lollipops to motor homes, earned a pleasing 25% on average tangible net worth last year. It’s noteworthy also that these operations used only minor financial leverage in achieving that return. Clearly we own some terrific businesses. We purchased many of them, however, at large premiums to net worth – a point reflected in the goodwill item shown on the balance sheet – and that fact reduces the earnings on our average carrying value to 10.8%
I want to emphasize that even though our course is unwise, Americans will live better ten or twenty years from now than they do today. Per-capita wealth will increase. But our citizens will also be forced every year to ship a significant portion of their current production abroad merely to service the cost of our huge debtor position. It won’t be pleasant to work part of each day to pay for the over-consumption of your ancestors. I believe that at some point in the future U.S. workers and voters will find this annual “tribute” so onerous that there will be a severe political backlash. How that will play out in markets is impossible to predict – but to expect a “soft landing” seems like wishful thinking.
Over time, markets will do extraordinary, even bizarre, things. A single, big mistake could wipe out a long string of successes. We therefore need someone genetically programmed to recognize and avoid serious risks, including those never before encountered. Certain perils that lurk in investment strategies
cannot be spotted by use of the models commonly employed today by financial institutions. Temperament is also important. Independent thinking, emotional stability, and a keen understanding of both human and institutional behavior is vital to long-term investment success. I’ve seen a lot of very smart people who have lacked these virtues.
When Walter and Edwin were asked in 1989 by Outstanding Investors Digest, “How would you summarize your approach?” Edwin replied, “We try to buy stocks cheap.” So much for Modern Portfolio Theory, technical analysis, macroeconomic thoughts and complex algorithms
Though these tables may help you gain historical perspective and be useful in valuation, they are completely misleading in predicting future possibilities. Berkshire’s past record can’t be duplicated or even approached. Our base of assets and earnings is now far too large for us to make outsized gains in the future
Acquired 60% of Marmon – Marmon, a company operating 125 businesses, managed through nine sectors. Marmon’s largest operation is Union Tank Car, which together with a Canadian counterpart owns 94,000 rail cars that are leased to various shippers. The original cost of this fleet is $5.1 billion. All told, Marmon has $7 billion in sales and about 20,000 employees. We will soon purchase 60% of Marmon and will acquire virtually all of the balance within six years. Our initial outlay will be $4.5 billion, and the price of our later purchases will be based on a formula tied to earnings.
Charlie and I look for companies that have a) a business we understand; b) favorable long-term economics; c) able and trustworthy management; and d) a sensible price tag. We like to buy the whole business or, if management is our partner, at least 80%. When control-type purchases of quality aren’t available, though, we are also happy to simply buy small portions of great businesses by way of stockmarket purchases. It’s better to have a part interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone.
Our criterion of “enduring” causes us to rule out companies in industries prone to rapid and continuous change. Though capitalism’s “creative destruction” is highly beneficial for society, it precludes investment certainty. A moat that must be continuously rebuilt will eventually be no moat at all.
But if a business requires a superstar to produce great results, the business itself cannot be deemed great.
There’s no rule that you have to invest money where you’ve earned it. Indeed, it’s often a mistake to do so: Truly great businesses, earning huge returns on tangible assets, can’t for any extended period reinvest a large portion of their earnings internally at high rates of return.
It’s far better to have an ever-increasing stream of earnings with virtually no major capital requirements. Ask Microsoft or Google.
Now let’s move to the gruesome. The worst sort of business is one that grows rapidly, requires significant capital to engender the growth, and then earns little or no money. Think airlines.
To sum up, think of three types of “savings accounts.” The great one pays an extraordinarily high interest rate that will rise as the years pass. The good one pays an attractive rate of interest that will be earned also on deposits that are added. Finally, the gruesome account both pays an inadequate interest rate and requires you to keep adding money at those disappointing returns
I made an even worse mistake when I said “yes” to Dexter, a shoe business I bought in 1993 for $433 million in Berkshire stock (25,203 shares of A). What I had assessed as durable competitive advantage vanished within a few years. But that’s just the beginning: By using Berkshire stock, I compounded this error hugely. That move made the cost to Berkshire shareholders not $400 million, but rather $3.5 billion. In essence, I gave away 1.6% of a wonderful business – one now valued at $220 billion – to buy a worthless business. To date, Dexter is the worst deal that I’ve made. But I’ll make more mistakes in the future – you can bet on that. A line from Bobby Bare’s country song explains what too often happens with acquisitions: “I’ve never gone to bed with an ugly woman, but I’ve sure woke up with a few.”
Since joining Berkshire in 1986, Ajit Jain has built a truly great specialty reinsurance operation from scratch. For one-of-a-kind mammoth transactions, the world now turns to him.
I should emphasize that we do not measure the progress of our investments by what their market prices do during any given year. Rather, we evaluate their performance by the two methods we apply to the businesses we own. The first test is improvement in earnings, with our making due allowance for industry conditions. The second test, more subjective, is whether their “moats” – a metaphor for the superiorities they possess that make life difficult for their competitors – have widened during the year. All of the “big four” scored positively on that test.
The U.S. dollar weakened further in 2007 against major currencies, and it’s no mystery why: Americans like buying products made elsewhere more than the rest of the world likes buying products made in the U.S. Inevitably, that causes America to ship about $2 billion of IOUs and assets daily to the rest of the world. And over time, that puts pressure on the dollar.
By the fourth quarter, the credit crisis, coupled with tumbling home and stock prices, had produced a paralyzing fear that engulfed the country. A freefall in business activity ensued, accelerating at a pace that I have never before witnessed. The U.S. – and much of the world – became trapped in a vicious negative-feedback cycle. Fear led to business contraction, and that in turn led to even greater fear
This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone “all in.” Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly. Whatever the downsides may be, strong and immediate action by government was essential last year if the financial system was to avoid a total breakdown. Had one occurred, the consequences for every area of our economy would have been cataclysmic. Like it or not, the inhabitants of Wall Street, Main Street and the various Side Streets of America were all in the same boat
In good years and bad, Charlie and I simply focus on four goals: (1) maintaining Berkshire’s Gibraltar-like financial position, which features huge amounts of
excess liquidity, near-term obligations that are modest, and dozens of sources of earnings and cash; (2) widening the “moats” around our operating businesses that give them durable competitive advantages; (3) acquiring and developing new and varied streams of earnings; (4) expanding and nurturing the cadre of outstanding operating managers who, over the years, have delivered Berkshire exceptional results.
Things also went well on the capital-allocation front last year. Berkshire is always a buyer of both businesses and securities, and the disarray in markets gave us a tailwind in our purchases. When investing, pessimism is your friend, euphoria the enemy
Additionally, the market value of the bonds and stocks that we continue to hold suffered a significant decline along with the general market. This does not bother Charlie and me. Indeed, we enjoy such price declines if we have funds available to increase our positions. Long ago, Ben Graham taught me that “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.” Whether we’re talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down.
Berkshire hopes to be the “buyer of choice” of regulators. It is they, rather than selling shareholders, who judge the fitness of purchasers when transactions are proposed.
Commentary about the current housing crisis often ignores the crucial fact that most foreclosures do not occur because a house is worth less than its mortgage (so-called “upside-down” loans). Rather, foreclosures take place because borrowers can’t pay the monthly payment that they agreed to pay. Homeowners who have made a meaningful down-payment – derived from savings and not from other borrowing – seldom walk away from a primary residence simply because its value today is less than the mortgage. Instead, they walk when they can’t make the monthly payments
Early in 2008, we activated Berkshire Hathaway Assurance Company (“ BHAC”) as an insurer of the tax-exempt bonds issued by states, cities and other local entities. BHAC insures these securities for issuers both at the time their bonds are sold to the public (primary transactions) and later, when the bonds are already owned by investors (secondary transactions).
Local governments are going to face far tougher fiscal problems in the future than they have to date. The pension liabilities I talked about in last year’s report will be a huge contributor to these woes. Many cities and states were surely horrified when they inspected the status of their funding at yearend 2008. The gap between assets and a realistic actuarial valuation of present liabilities is simply staggering
Indeed, the stupefying losses in mortgage-related securities came in large part because of flawed, history-based models used by salesmen, rating agencies and investors. These parties looked at loss experience over periods when home prices rose only moderately and speculation in houses was negligible. They then made this experience a yardstick for evaluating future losses. They blissfully ignored the fact that house prices had recently skyrocketed, loan practices had deteriorated and many buyers had opted for houses they couldn’t afford. In short, universe “past” and universe “current” had very different characteristics. But lenders, government and media largely failed to recognize this all-important fact
On the plus side last year, we made purchases totaling $14.5 billion in fixed-income securities issued by Wrigley, Goldman Sachs and General Electric. We very much like these commitments, which carry high current yields that, in themselves, make the investments more than satisfactory. But in each of these three
purchases, we also acquired a substantial equity participation as a bonus. To fund these large purchases, I had to sell portions of some holdings that I would have preferred to keep (primarily Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and ConocoPhillips). However, I have pledged – to you, the rating agencies and myself – to always run Berkshire with more than ample cash. We never want to count on the kindness of strangers in order to meet tomorrow’s obligations. When forced to choose, I will not trade even a night’s sleep for the chance of extra profits
Approval, though, is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns
Derivatives contracts, in contrast, often go unsettled for years, or even decades, with counterparties building up huge claims against each other. “Paper” assets and liabilities – often hard to quantify – become important parts of financial statements though these items will not be validated for many years. Additionally, a frightening web of mutual dependence develops among huge financial institutions. Receivables and payables by the billions become concentrated in the hands of a few large dealers who are apt to be highly-leveraged in other ways as well. Participants seeking to dodge troubles face the same problem as someone seeking to avoid venereal disease: It’s not just whom you sleep with, but also whom they are sleeping with.
First, we have never had any five-year period beginning with 1965-69 and ending with 2005-09 – and there have been 41 of these – during which our gain in book value did not exceed the S&P’s gain. Second, though we have lagged the S&P in some years that were positive for the market, we have consistently done better than the S&P in the eleven years during which it delivered negative results. In other words, our defense has been better than our offense, and that’s likely to continue
Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be.
We will never become dependent on the kindness of strangers. Too-big-to-fail is not a fallback position at Berkshire. Instead, we will always arrange our affairs so that any requirements for cash we may conceivably have will be dwarfed by our own liquidity. The $20 billion-plus of cash equivalent assets that we customarily hold is earning a pittance at present. But we sleep well
We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly – or not at all – because of a stifling bureaucracy.
We make no attempt to woo Wall Street
Ajit’s business is just the opposite of GEICO’s. At that company, we have millions of small policies that largely renew year after year. Ajit writes relatively few policies, and the mix changes significantly from year to year. Throughout the world, he is known as the man to call when something both very large and unusual needs to be insured. If Charlie, I and Ajit are ever in a sinking boat – and you can only save one of us – swim to Ajit.
In the future, BNSF results will be included in this “regulated utility” section. Aside from the two businesses having similar underlying economic characteristics, both are logical users of substantial amounts of debt that is not guaranteed by Berkshire. Both will retain most of their earnings. Both will earn and invest large
sums in good times or bad, though the railroad will display the greater cyclicality. Overall, we expect this regulated sector to deliver significantly increased earnings over time, albeit at the cost of our investing many tens – yes, tens – of billions of dollars of incremental equity capital.
We told you last year that very unusual conditions then existed in the corporate and municipal bond markets and that these securities were ridiculously cheap relative to U.S. Treasuries. We backed this view with some purchases, but I should have done far more. Big opportunities come infrequently. When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.
We’ve put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. It’s been an ideal period for investors: A climate of fear is their best friend. Those who invest only when commentators are upbeat end up paying a heavy price for meaningless reassurance. In the end, what counts in investing is what you pay for a business – through the purchase of a small piece of it in the stock market – and what that business earns in the succeeding decade or two.
It’s my job to keep Berkshire far away from such problems. Charlie and I believe that a CEO must not delegate risk control. It’s simply too important. At Berkshire, I both initiate and monitor every derivatives contract on our books, with the exception of operations-related contracts at a few of our subsidiaries, such as MidAmerican, and the minor runoff contracts at General Re. If Berkshire ever gets in trouble, it will be my fault. It will not be because of misjudgments made by a Risk Committee or Chief Risk Officer.
In more than fifty years of board memberships, however, never have I heard the investment bankers (or management!) discuss the true value of what is being given. When a deal involved the issuance of the acquirer’s stock, they simply used market value to measure the cost. They did this even though they would have argued that the acquirer’s stock price was woefully inadequate – absolutely no indicator of its real value – had a takeover bid for the acquirer instead been the subject up for discussion. When stock is the currency being contemplated in an acquisition and when directors are hearing from an advisor, it appears to me that there is only one way to get a rational and balanced discussion. Directors should hire a second advisor to make the case against the proposed acquisition, with its fee contingent on the deal not going through. Absent this drastic remedy, our recommendation in respect to the use of advisors remains: “Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.”
The highlight of 2010 was our acquisition of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, a purchase that’s working out even better than I expected. It now appears that owning this railroad will increase Berkshire’s “normal” earning power by nearly 40% pre-tax and by well over 30% after-tax. Making this purchase increased our share
count by 6% and used $22 billion of cash. Since we’ve quickly replenished the cash, the economics of this transaction have turned out very well. Both of us are enthusiastic about BNSF’s future because railroads have major cost and environmental advantages over trucking, their main competitor. Last year BNSF moved each ton of freight it carried a record 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. That’s three times more fuel-efficient than trucking is, which means our railroad owns an important advantage in operating costs. Concurrently, our country gains because of reduced greenhouse emissions and a much smaller need for imported oil. When traffic travels by rail, society benefits
Money will always flow toward opportunity, and there is an abundance of that in America. Commentators today often talk of “great uncertainty.” But think back, for example, to December 6, 1941, October 18, 1987 and September 10, 2001. No matter how serene today may be, tomorrow is always uncertain.
The first component of value is our investments: stocks, bonds and cash equivalents. At yearend these totaled $158 billion at market value. Insurance float – money we temporarily hold in our insurance operations that does not belong to us – funds $66 billion of our investments. Berkshire’s second component of value is earnings that come from sources other than investments and insurance underwriting. These earnings are delivered by our 68 non-insurance companies. In Berkshire’s early years, we focused on the investment side. During the past two decades, however, we’ve increasingly emphasized the development of earnings from non-insurance businesses, a practice that will continue. There is a third, more subjective, element to an intrinsic value calculation that can be either positive or negative: the efficacy with which retained earnings will be deployed in the future. We, as well as many other businesses, are likely to retain earnings over the next decade that will equal, or even exceed, the capital we presently employ. Some companies will turn these retained dollars into fifty-cent pieces, others into two-dollar bills.
Market price and intrinsic value often follow very different paths – sometimes for extended periods – but eventually they meet
At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines: (1) An understanding of all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) A conservative evaluation of the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) The setting of a premium that will deliver a profit, on average, after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained
Earlier I explained just how important railroads are to our country’s future. Rail moves 42% of America’s inter-city freight, measured by ton-miles, and BNSF moves more than any other railroad – about 28% of the industry total. A little math will tell you that more than 11% of all inter-city ton-miles of freight in the U.S.
is transported by BNSF. Given the shift of population to the West, our share may well inch higher. All of this adds up to a huge responsibility. We are a major and essential part of the American economy’s circulatory system, obliged to constantly maintain and improve our 23,000 miles of track along with its ancillary bridges, tunnels, engines and cars. In carrying out this job, we must anticipate society’s needs, not merely react to them
But a house can be a nightmare if the buyer’s eyes are bigger than his wallet and if a lender – often protected by a government guarantee – facilitates his fantasy. Our country’s social goal should not be to put families into the house of their dreams, but rather to put them into a house they can afford.
Four years ago, I told you that we needed to add one or more younger investment managers to carry on when Charlie, Lou and I weren’t around. At that time we had multiple outstanding candidates immediately available for my CEO job (as we do now), but we did not have backup in the investment area. When Charlie and I met Todd Combs, we knew he fit our requirements. Over time, we may add one or two investment managers if we find the right individuals. Should we do
that, we will probably have 80% of each manager’s performance compensation be dependent on his or her own portfolio and 20% on that of the other manager(s). We want a compensation system that pays off big for individual success but that also fosters cooperation, not competition.
Our first category of derivatives consists of a number of contracts, written in 2004-2008, that required payments by us if there were bond defaults by companies included in certain high-yield indices. With minor exceptions, we were exposed to these risks for five years, with each contract covering 100 companies. In aggregate, we received premiums of $3.4 billion for these contracts
Leverage can make people very rich, but with only a single zero can make them very poor. Leverage is addictive
Furthermore, not a dime of cash has left Berkshire for dividends or share repurchases during the past 40 years. Instead, we have retained all of our earnings to strengthen our business, a reinforcement now running about $1 billion per month. Our net worth has thus increased from $48 million to $157 billion during those four decades and our intrinsic value has grown far more. No other American corporation has come close to building up its financial strength in this unrelenting way. By being so cautious in respect to leverage, we penalize our returns by a minor amount. Having loads of liquidity, though, lets us sleep well. Moreover, during the episodes of financial chaos that occasionally erupt in our economy, we will be equipped both financially and emotionally to play offense while others scramble for survival. That’s what allowed us to invest $15.6 billion in 25 days of panic following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008
Returned 4.6% vs 2.1 for S&P
On September 16th we acquired Lubrizol, a worldwide producer of additives and other specialty chemicals
We made two major investments in marketable securities: (1) a $5 billion 6% preferred stock of Bank of America that came with warrants allowing us to buy 700 million common shares at $7.14 per share any time before September 2, 2021; and (2) 63.9 million shares of IBM that cost us $10.9 billion. Counting IBM, we now have large ownership interests in four exceptional companies: 13.0% of American Express, 8.8% of Coca-Cola, 5.5% of IBM and 7.6% of Wells Fargo
Wise monetary and fiscal policies play an important role in tempering recessions, but these tools don’t create households nor eliminate excess housing units. Fortunately, demographics and our market system will restore the needed balance – probably before long. When that day comes, we will again build one million or more residential units annually. I believe pundits will be surprised at how far unemployment drops once that happens. They will then reawake to what has been true since 1776: America’s best days lie ahead.
Charlie and I like to see gains in both areas, but our primary focus is on building operating earnings. Over time, the businesses we currently own should increase their aggregate earnings, and we hope also to purchase some large operations that will give us a further boost. We now have eight subsidiaries that would each be included in the Fortune 500 were they stand-alone companies. That leaves only 492 to go. My task is clear, and I’m on the prowl
Last September, we announced that Berkshire would repurchase its shares at a price of up to 110% of book value. We were in the market for only a few days – buying $67 million of stock – before the price advanced beyond our limit. Nonetheless, the general importance of share repurchases suggests I should focus for a bit on the subject. Charlie and I favor repurchases when two conditions are met: first, a company has ample funds to take care of the operational and liquidity needs of its business; second, its stock is selling at a material discount to the company’s intrinsic business value, conservatively calculated
The first law of capital allocation – whether the money is slated for acquisitions or share repurchases – is that what is smart at one price is dumb at another. (One CEO who always stresses the price/value factor in repurchase decisions is Jamie Dimon at J.P. Morgan; I recommend that you read his annual letter.)
This discussion of repurchases offers me the chance to address the irrational reaction of many investors
to changes in stock prices. When Berkshire buys stock in a company that is repurchasing shares, we hope for two events: First, we have the normal hope that earnings of the business will increase at a good clip for a long time to come; and second, we also hope that the stock underperforms in the market for a long time as well. A corollary to this second point: “Talking our book” about a stock we own – were that to be effective – would actually be harmful to Berkshire, not helpful as commentators customarily assume. The logic is simple: If you are going to be a net buyer of stocks in the future, either directly with your own money or indirectly (through your ownership of a company that is repurchasing shares), you are hurt when stocks rise. You benefit when stocks swoon. Emotions, however, too often complicate the matter: Most people, including those who will be net buyers in the future, take comfort in seeing stock prices advance. These shareholders resemble a commuter who rejoices after the price of gas increases, simply because his tank contains a day’s supply
Fortunately, that’s not the case at Berkshire. Charlie and I believe the true economic value of our insurance goodwill – what we would pay to purchase float of similar quality – to be far in excess of its historic carrying value. The value of our float is one reason – a huge reason – why we believe Berkshire’s intrinsic business value substantially exceeds book value
If the insurance industry should experience a $250 billion loss from some mega-catastrophe – a loss about triple anything it has ever faced – Berkshire as a whole would likely record a moderate profit for the year because of its many streams of earnings. Concurrently, all other major insurers and reinsurers would be far in the red, and some would face insolvency
Measured by ton-miles, rail moves 42% of America’s inter-city freight, and BNSF moves more than any other railroad – about 37% of the industry total. A little math will tell you that about 15% of all inter-city ton-miles of freight in the U.S. is transported by BNSF. It is no exaggeration to characterize railroads as the circulatory system of our economy. Your railroad is the largest artery
Berkshire’s newer shareholders may be puzzled over our decision to hold on to my mistakes. After all, their earnings can never be consequential to Berkshire’s valuation, and problem companies require more managerial time than winners. Any management consultant or Wall Street advisor would look at our laggards and say “dump them.” That won’t happen. For 29 years, we have regularly laid out Berkshire’s economic principles in these reports (pages 93-98) and Number 11 describes our general reluctance to sell poor performers (which, in most cases, lag because of industry factors rather than managerial shortcomings). Our approach is far from Darwinian, and many of you may disapprove of it. I can understand your position. However, we have made – and continue to make – a commitment to the sellers of businesses we buy that we will retain those businesses through thick and thin. So far, the dollar cost of that commitment has not been substantial and may well be offset by the goodwill it builds among prospective sellers looking for the right permanent home for their treasured business and loyal associates. These owners know that what they get with us can’t be delivered by others and that our commitments will be good for many decades to come
Charlie long ago told me, “If something’s not worth doing at all, it’s not worth doing well,”
As is well-known, the U.S. went off the rails in its home-ownership and mortgage-lending policies, and for these mistakes our economy is now paying a huge price. All of us participated in the destructive behavior – government, lenders, borrowers, the media, rating agencies, you name it. At the core of the folly was the almost universal belief that the value of houses was certain to increase over time and that any dips would be inconsequential. The acceptance of this premise justified almost any price and practice in housing transactions. Homeowners everywhere felt richer and rushed to “monetize” the increased value of their homes by refinancings. These massive cash infusions fueled a consumption binge throughout our economy. It all seemed great fun while it lasted. (A largely unnoted fact: Large numbers of people who have “lost” their house through foreclosure have actually realized a profit because they carried out refinancings earlier that gave them cash in excess of their cost. In these cases, the evicted homeowner was the winner, and the victim was the lender.)
Though our existing contracts have very minor collateral requirements, the rules have changed for new positions. Consequently, we will not be initiating any major derivatives positions. We shun contracts of any type that could require the instant posting of collateral. The possibility of some sudden and huge posting requirement – arising from an out-of-the-blue event such as a worldwide financial panic or massive terrorist attack – is inconsistent with our primary objectives of redundant liquidity and unquestioned financial strength.
Investing is often described as the process of laying out money now in the expectation of receiving more money in the future. At Berkshire we take a more demanding approach, defining investing as the transfer to others of purchasing power now with the reasoned expectation of receiving more purchasing power – after taxes have been paid on nominal gains – in the future. More succinctly, investing is forgoing consumption now in order to have the ability to consume more at a later date.
From our definition there flows an important corollary: The riskiness of an investment is not measured by beta (a Wall Street term encompassing volatility and often used in measuring risk) but rather by the probability – the reasoned probability – of that investment causing its owner a loss of purchasing-power over his
contemplated holding period. Assets can fluctuate greatly in price and not be risky as long as they are reasonably certain to deliver increased purchasing power over their holding period. And as we will see, a non-fluctuating asset can be laden with risk
Investments that are denominated in a given currency include money-market funds, bonds, mortgages, bank deposits, and other instruments. Most of these currency-based investments are thought of as “safe.” In truth they are among the most dangerous of assets. Their beta may be zero, but their risk is huge
It’s noteworthy that the implicit inflation “tax” was more than triple the explicit income tax that our investor probably thought of as his main burden
The second major category of investments involves assets that will never produce anything, but that are purchased in the buyer’s hope that someone else – who also knows that the assets will be forever unproductive – will pay more for them in the future. The major asset in this category is gold, currently a huge favorite of investors who fear almost all other assets, especially paper money (of whose value, as noted, they are right to be fearful). Gold, however, has two significant shortcomings, being neither of much use nor procreative. True, gold has some industrial and decorative utility, but the demand for these purposes is both limited and incapable of soaking up new production. Meanwhile, if you own one ounce of gold for an eternity, you will still own one ounce at its end.
Bubbles blown large enough inevitably pop. And then the old proverb is confirmed once again: “What the wise man does in the beginning, the fool does in the end.”
My own preference – and you knew this was coming – is our third category: investment in productive assets, whether businesses, farms, or real estate. Ideally, these assets should have the ability in inflationary times to deliver output that will retain its purchasing-power value while requiring a minimum of new capital investment. Farms, real estate, and many businesses such as Coca-Cola, IBM and our own See’s Candy meet that double-barreled test. Certain other companies – think of our regulated utilities, for example – fail it because inflation places heavy capital requirements on them. To earn more, their owners must invest more. Even so, these investments will remain superior to nonproductive or currency-based assets. I believe that over any extended period of time this category of investing will prove to be the runaway winner among the three we’ve examined. More important, it will be by far the safest.
Charlie and I believe the gain in Berkshire’s intrinsic value will over time likely surpass the S&P returns by a small margin. We’re confident of that because we have some outstanding businesses, a cadre of terrific operating managers and a shareholder-oriented culture. Our relative performance, however, is almost
certain to be better when the market is down or flat. In years when the market is particularly strong, expect us to fall short.
In February, we agreed to buy 50% of a holding company that will own all of H. J. Heinz. The other half will be owned by a small group of investors led by Jorge Paulo Lemann, a renowned Brazilian businessman and philanthropist.
Our insurance operations shot the lights out last year. While giving Berkshire $73 billion of free money to invest, they also delivered a $1.6 billion underwriting gain, the tenth consecutive year of profitable underwriting. This is truly having your cake and eating it too.
Since the basic game is so favorable, Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of “experts,” or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it
Mid-American and BNSF – Our confidence is justified both by our past experience and by the knowledge that society will forever need massive investment in both transportation and energy. It is in the self-interest of governments to treat capital providers in a manner that will ensure the continued flow of funds to essential projects. And it is in our self-interest to conduct our operations in a manner that earns the approval of our regulators and the people they represent
During the past fifteen months, we acquired 28 daily newspapers at a cost of $344 million. This may puzzle you for two reasons. First, I have long told you in these letters and at our annual meetings that the circulation, advertising and profits of the newspaper industry overall are certain to decline. That prediction still
holds. Second, the properties we purchased fell far short of meeting our oft-stated size requirements for acquisitions. We can address the second point easily. Charlie and I love newspapers and, if their economics make sense, will buy them even when they fall far short of the size threshold we would require for the purchase of, say, a widget company. Addressing the first point requires me to provide a more elaborate explanation, including some history. Newspapers continue to reign supreme, however, in the delivery of local news. If you want to know what’s going on in your town – whether the news is about the mayor or taxes or high school football – there is no substitute for a local newspaper that is doing its job. A reader’s eyes may glaze over after they take in a couple of paragraphs about Canadian tariffs or political developments in Pakistan; a story about the reader himself or his neighbors will be read to the end. Wherever there is a pervasive sense of community, a paper that serves the special informational needs of that community will remain indispensable to a significant portion of its residents
Charlie and I, however, still operate under economic principle 11 (detailed on page 99) and will not continue the operation of any business doomed to unending losses. One daily paper that we acquired in a bulk purchase from Media General was significantly unprofitable under that company’s ownership. After analyzing the paper’s results, we saw no remedy for the losses and reluctantly shut it down. All of our remaining dailies, however, should be profitable for a long time to come. (They are listed on page 108.) At appropriate prices – and that means at a very low multiple of current earnings – we will purchase more papers of the type we like.
Aside from the favorable math, there are two further – and important – arguments for a sell-off policy. First, dividends impose a specific cash-out policy upon all shareholders. If, say, 40% of earnings is the policy, those who wish 30% or 50% will be thwarted. Our 600,000 shareholders cover the waterfront in their desires for cash. It is safe to say, however, that a great many of them – perhaps even most of them – are in a net-savings mode and logically should prefer no payment at all. The sell-off alternative, on the other hand, lets each shareholder make his own choice between cash receipts and capital build-up. One shareholder can elect to cash out, say, 60% of annual earnings while other shareholders elect 20% or nothing at all. Of course, a shareholder in our dividend-paying scenario could turn around and use his dividends to purchase more shares. But he would take a beating in doing so: He would both incur taxes and also pay a 25% premium to get his dividend reinvested.
The second disadvantage of the dividend approach is of equal importance: The tax consequences for all taxpaying shareholders are inferior – usually far inferior – to those under the sell-off program. Under the dividend program, all of the cash received by shareholders each year is taxed whereas the sell-off program results in tax on only the gain portion of the cash receipts.
Most companies pay consistent dividends, generally trying to increase them annually and cutting them very reluctantly. Our “Big Four” portfolio companies follow this sensible and understandable approach and, in certain cases, also repurchase shares quite aggressively. We applaud their actions and hope they continue on their present paths. We like increased dividends, and we love repurchases at appropriate prices. At Berkshire, however, we have consistently followed a different approach that we know has been sensible and that we hope has been made understandable by the paragraphs you have just read. We will stick with this policy as long as we believe our assumptions about the book-value buildup and the market-price premium seem reasonable. If the prospects for either factor change materially for the worse, we will reexamine our actions
We completed two large acquisitions, spending almost $18 billion to purchase all of NV Energy and a major interest in H. J. Heinz. Both companies fit us well and will be prospering a century from now
Last year we invested $3.5 billion in the surest sort of bolt-on: the purchase of additional shares in two wonderful businesses that we already controlled. In one case – Marmon – our purchases brought us to the 100% ownership we had signed up for in 2008. In the other instance – Iscar – the Wertheimer family elected to exercise a put option it held, selling us the 20% of the business it retained when we bought control in 2006.
The value of our float is one reason – a huge reason – why we believe Berkshire’s intrinsic business value substantially exceeds its book value.
Our confidence is justified both by our past experience and by the knowledge that society will forever need massive investments in both transportation and energy. It is in the self-interest of governments to treat capital providers in a manner that will ensure the continued flow of funds to essential projects. It is meanwhile in our self interest to conduct our operations in a way that earns the approval of our regulators and the people they represent
In the GAAP-compliant figures we show on page 29, amortization charges of $648 million for the companies included in this section are deducted as expenses. We would call about 20% of these “real,” the rest not. This difference has become significant because of the many acquisitions we have made. It will almost certainly rise further as we acquire more companies. Eventually, of course, the non-real charges disappear when the assets to which they’re related become fully amortized. But this usually takes 15 years and – alas – it will be my successor whose reported earnings get the benefit of their expiration. Every dime of depreciation expense we report, however, is a real cost. And that’s true at almost all other companies as well. When Wall Streeters tout EBITDA as a valuation guide, button your wallet. Our public reports of earnings will, of course, continue to conform to GAAP. To embrace reality, however, remember to add back most of the amortization charges we report
Fundamentals of investing:
You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren’t, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don’t swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick “no.”
Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering. If you don’t feel comfortable making a rough estimate of the asset’s future earnings, just forget it and move on. No one has the ability to evaluate every investment possibility. But omniscience isn’t necessary; you only need to understand the actions you undertake.
If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating. There is nothing improper about that. I know, however, that I am unable to speculate successfully, and I am skeptical of those who claim sustained success at doing so. Half of all coin-flippers will win their first toss; none of those winners has an expectation of profit if he continues to play the game. And the fact that a given asset has appreciated in the recent past is never a reason to buy it.
With my two small investments, I thought only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations. Games are won by players who focus on the playing field – not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays
Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. (When I hear TV commentators glibly opine on what the market will do next, I am reminded of Mickey Mantle’s
scathing comment: “You don’t know how easy this game is until you get into that broadcasting booth.”)
My two purchases were made in 1986 and 1993. What the economy, interest rates, or the stock market might do in the years immediately following – 1987 and 1994 – was of no importance to me in making those investments. I can’t remember what the headlines or pundits were saying at the time. Whatever the chatter, corn would keep growing in Nebraska and students would flock to NYU
A climate of fear is your friend when investing; a euphoric world is your enemy.
It should be an enormous advantage for investors in stocks to have those wildly fluctuating valuations placed on their holdings – and for some investors, it is. After all, if a moody fellow with a farm bordering my property yelled out a price every day to me at which he would either buy my farm or sell me his – and those prices varied widely over short periods of time depending on his mental state – how in the world could I be other than benefited by his erratic behavior? If his daily shout-out was ridiculously low, and I had some spare cash, I would buy his farm. If the number he yelled was absurdly high, I could either sell to him or just go on farming.
When Charlie and I buy stocks – which we think of as small portions of businesses – our analysis is very similar to that which we use in buying entire businesses. We first have to decide whether we can sensibly estimate an earnings range for five years out, or more. If the answer is yes, we will buy the stock (or business) if it sells at a reasonable price in relation to the bottom boundary of our estimate. If, however, we lack the ability to estimate future earnings – which is usually the case – we simply move on to other prospects. In the 54 years we have worked together, we have never foregone an attractive purchase because of the macro or political environment, or the views of other people. In fact, these subjects never come up when we make decisions.
This is the 50 year anniversary of their shareholder letters and both Buffett and Munger give some history and background on the company and how far they’ve come in that time
Though marginal businesses purchased at cheap prices may be attractive as short-term investments, they are the wrong foundation on which to build a large and enduring enterprise
In 56 years, however, we’ve never had an argument. When we differ, Charlie usually ends the conversation by saying: “Warren, think it over and you’ll agree with me because you’re smart and I’m right.”
Charlie’s most important architectural feat was the design of today’s Berkshire. The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.
To date, See’s has earned $1.9 billion pre-tax, with its growth having required added investment of only $40 million. See’s has thus been able to distribute huge sums that have helped Berkshire buy other businesses that, in turn, have themselves produced large distributable profits. (Envision rabbits breeding.) Additionally, through watching See’s in action, I gained a business education about the value of powerful brands that opened my eyes to many other profitable investments.
Too often CEOs seem blind to an elementary reality: The intrinsic value of the shares you give in an acquisition must not be greater than the intrinsic value of the business you receive.
Post mortems of acquisitions, in which reality is honestly compared to the original projections, are rare in American boardrooms. They should instead be standard practice.
At both BPL and Berkshire, we have never invested in companies that are hell-bent on issuing shares. That behavior is one of the surest indicators of a promotion-minded management, weak accounting, a stock that is overpriced and – all too often – outright dishonesty.
Conglomerates are in the dog house because of their shady accounting practices with acquisitions but Buffett argues that if the conglomerate form is used judiciously, it is an ideal structure for maximizing long-term capital growth as it efficiently allocates funds. However, the CEO is unlikely to allocate funds into unrelated activities and the self-interest of management often interferes. However, the structure is great for tax-free reallocation and do not have industry biases. Can scale far beyond the size of many business that are constrained to one industry. Today, with its reputation, a huge advantage is that they are often the go-to for many owners and managers of outstanding businesses
Sometimes pundits propose that Berkshire spin-off some of its businesses. These suggestions make no sense. Our companies are worth more as part of Berkshire than as separate entities. One reason is our ability to move funds between businesses or into new ventures instantly and without tax. In addition, certain costs duplicate themselves, in full or part, if operations are separated. Voluntary spin-offs, though, make no sense for us: We would lose control value, capital-allocation flexibility and, in some cases, important tax advantages.
Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality – you can count on that.
BRK Strengths – Today Berkshire possesses (1) an unmatched collection of businesses, most of them now enjoying favorable economic prospects; (2) a cadre of outstanding managers who, with few exceptions, are unusually devoted to both the subsidiary they operate and to Berkshire; (3) an extraordinary diversity of earnings, premier financial strength and oceans of liquidity that we will maintain under all circumstances; (4) a first-choice ranking among many owners and managers who are contemplating sale of their businesses and (5) in a point related to the preceding item, a culture, distinctive in many ways from that of most large companies, that we have worked 50 years to develop and that is now rock-solid.
A sound investment can morph into a rash speculation if it is bought at an elevated price.
Since I know of no way to reliably predict market movements, I recommend that you purchase Berkshire shares only if you expect to hold them for at least five years. Those who seek short-term profits should look elsewhere.
There have been three times since 1965 when our stock has fallen about 50% from its high point. Someday, something close to this kind of drop will happen again, and no one knows when. Do not buy stocks with borrowed money
Financial staying power requires a company to maintain three strengths under all circumstances: (1) a large and reliable stream of earnings; (2) massive liquid assets and (3) no significant near-term cash requirements
We could do that because we always maintain at least $20 billion – and usually far more – in cash equivalents. And by that we mean U.S. Treasury bills, not other substitutes for cash that are claimed to deliver liquidity and actually do so, except when it is truly needed. When bills come due, only cash is legal tender. Don’t leave home without it
In our view, it is madness to risk losing what you need in pursuing what you simply desire.
Eventually – probably between ten and twenty years from now – Berkshire’s earnings and capital resources will reach a level that will not allow management to intelligently reinvest all of the company’s earnings. At that time our directors will need to determine whether the best method to distribute the excess earnings is through dividends, share repurchases or both. If Berkshire shares are selling below intrinsic business value, massive repurchases will almost certainly be the best choice.
Choosing the right CEO is all-important and is a subject that commands much time at Berkshire board meetings. Managing Berkshire is primarily a job of capital allocation, coupled with the selection and retention of outstanding managers to captain our operating subsidiaries. Obviously, the job also requires the replacement of a subsidiary’s CEO when that is called for. These duties require Berkshire’s CEO to be a rational, calm and decisive individual who has a broad understanding of business and good insights into human behavior. It’s important as well that he knows his limits. (As Tom Watson, Sr. of IBM said, “I’m no genius, but I’m smart in spots and I stay around those spots.”) “Tone at the top” will be key to maintaining Berkshire’s special culture.
My successor will need one other particular strength: the ability to fight off the ABCs of business decay, which are arrogance, bureaucracy and complacency
Our directors recommended a “no” vote but the company did not otherwise attempt to influence shareholders. Nevertheless, 98% of the shares voting said, in effect, “Don’t send us a dividend but instead reinvest all of the earnings.” To have our fellow owners – large and small – be so in sync with our managerial philosophy is both remarkable and rewarding
Munger: I will try to do five things. (1) Describe the management system and policies that caused a small and unfixably-doomed commodity textile business to morph into the mighty Berkshire that now exists, (2) Explain how the management system and policies came into being, (3) Explain, to some extent, why Berkshire did so well, (4) Predict whether abnormally good results would continue if Buffett were soon to depart, and (5) Consider whether Berkshire’s great results over the last 50 years have implications that may prove useful elsewhere.
The management system and policies of Berkshire under Buffett (herein together called “the Berkshire system”) were fixed early and are described below: (1) Berkshire would be a diffuse conglomerate, averse only to activities about which it could not make useful predictions. (2) Its top company would do almost all business through separately incorporated subsidiaries whose CEOs would operate with very extreme autonomy. (3) There would be almost nothing at conglomerate headquarters except a tiny office suite containing a Chairman, a CFO, and a few assistants who mostly helped the CFO with auditing, internal control, etc. (4) Berkshire subsidiaries would always prominently include casualty insurers. Those insurers as a group would be expected to produce, in due course, dependable underwriting gains while also producing substantial “float” (from unpaid insurance liabilities) for investment. (5) There would be no significant system-wide personnel system, stock option system, other incentive system, retirement system, or the like, because the subsidiaries would have their own systems, often different. (6) Berkshire’s Chairman would reserve only a few activities for himself. (i) He would manage almost all security investments, with these normally residing in Berkshire’s casualty insurers. (ii) He would choose all CEOs of important subsidiaries, and he would fix their compensation and obtain from each a private recommendation for a successor in case one was suddenly needed. (iii) He would deploy most cash not needed in subsidiaries after they had increased their competitive advantage, with the ideal deployment being the use of that cash to acquire new subsidiaries. (iv) He would make himself promptly available for almost any contact wanted by any subsidiary’s CEO, and he would require almost no additional contact. (v) He would write a long, logical, and useful letter for inclusion in his annual report, designed as he would wish it to be if he were only a passive shareholder, and he would be available for hours of answering questions at annual shareholders’ meetings. (vi) He would try to be an exemplar in a culture that would work well for customers, shareholders, and other incumbents for a long time, both before and after his departure. (vii) His first priority would be reservation of much time for quiet reading and thinking, particularly that which might advance his determined learning, no matter how old he became; and (viii) He would also spend much time in enthusiastically admiring what others were accomplishing. (7) New subsidiaries would usually be bought with cash, not newly issued stock. (8) Berkshire would not pay dividends so long as more than one dollar of market value for shareholders was being created by each dollar of retained earnings. (9) In buying a new subsidiary, Berkshire would seek to pay a fair price for a good business that the Chairman could pretty well understand. Berkshire would also want a good CEO in place, one expected to remain for a long time and to manage well without need for help from headquarters. (10) In choosing CEOs of subsidiaries, Berkshire would try to secure trustworthiness, skill, energy, and love for the business and circumstances the CEO was in. (11) As an important matter of preferred conduct, Berkshire would almost never sell a subsidiary. (12) Berkshire would almost never transfer a subsidiary’s CEO to another unrelated subsidiary. (13) Berkshire would never force the CEO of a subsidiary to retire on account of mere age. (14) Berkshire would have little debt outstanding as it tried to maintain (i) virtually perfect creditworthiness under all conditions and (ii) easy availability of cash and credit for deployment in times presenting unusual opportunities. (15) Berkshire would always be user-friendly to a prospective seller of a large business. An offer of such a business would get prompt attention. No one but the Chairman and one or two others at Berkshire would ever know about the offer if it did not lead to a transaction. And they would never tell outsiders about it.
What was Buffett aiming at as he designed the Berkshire system? Well, over the years I diagnosed several important themes: (1) He particularly wanted continuous maximization of the rationality, skills, and devotion of the most important people in the system, starting with himself. (2) He wanted win/win results everywhere–in gaining loyalty by giving it, for instance. (3) He wanted decisions that maximized long-term results, seeking these from decision makers who usually stayed long enough in place to bear the consequences of decisions. (4) He wanted to minimize the bad effects that would almost inevitably come from a large bureaucracy at headquarters. (5) He wanted to personally contribute, like Professor Ben Graham, to the spread of wisdom attained.
Why did Berkshire under Buffett do so well? Only four large factors occur to me: (1) The constructive peculiarities of Buffett, (2) The constructive peculiarities of the Berkshire system, (3) Luck, and (4) The weirdly intense, contagious devotion of some shareholders and other admirers, including some in the press.
In particular, Buffett’s decision to limit his activities to a few kinds and to maximize his attention to them, and to keep doing so for 50 years, was a lollapalooza. Buffett succeeded for the same reason Joe DiMaggio became good at baseball.
Why did Berkshire prefer to buy companies with cash, instead of its own stock? Well, it was hard to get anything in exchange for Berkshire stock that was as valuable as what was given up.
Acquisitive advantages – Well, Berkshire, by design, had methodological advantages to supplement its better opportunities. It never had the equivalent of a “department of acquisitions” under pressure to buy. And it never relied on advice from “helpers” sure to be prejudiced in favor of transactions. And Buffett held self-delusion at bay as he underclaimed expertise while he knew better than most corporate executives what worked and what didn’t in business, aided by his long experience as a passive investor. And, finally, even when Berkshire was getting much better opportunities than most others, Buffett often displayed almost inhuman patience and seldom bought. For instance, during his first ten years in control of Berkshire, Buffett saw one business (textiles) move close to death and two new businesses come in, for a net gain of one.
What were the big mistakes made by Berkshire under Buffett? Well, while mistakes of commission were common, almost all huge errors were in not making a purchase, including not purchasing Walmart stock when that was sure to work out enormously well. The errors of omission were of much importance.
Provided that most of the Berkshire system remains in place, the combined momentum and opportunity now present is so great that Berkshire would almost surely remain a better-than-normal company for a very long time even if (1) Buffett left tomorrow, (2) his successors were persons of only moderate ability, and (3) Berkshire never again purchased a large business.
Totaled $7.8B (from $400k to $2.9B)
We expect to partner with 3G in more activities (outside of Heinz)
Our participation in any joint activities, whether as a financing or equity partner, will be limited to friendly transactions.
Bought Van Tuyl Automotive – have 78 car dealerships (5th largest in the country) – $9B in sales
Own 9.5 companies that would be listed in Fortune 500 (Heinz the .5)
340,500 total employees but only 25 at HQ!
Berkshire increased its ownership interest last year in each of its “Big Four” investments – American Express, Coca-Cola, IBM and Wells Fargo. We purchased additional shares of IBM (increasing our ownership to 7.8% versus 6.3% at yearend 2013). Meanwhile, stock repurchases at Coca-Cola, American Express and Wells Fargo raised our percentage ownership of each. Our equity in Coca-Cola grew from 9.1% to 9.2%, our interest in American Express increased from 14.2% to 14.8% and our ownership of Wells Fargo grew from 9.2% to 9.4%. And, if you think tenths of a percent aren’t important, ponder this math: For the four companies in aggregate, each increase of one-tenth of a percent in our ownership raises Berkshire’s portion of their annual earnings by $50 million.
At Berkshire, we much prefer owning a non-controlling but substantial portion of a wonderful company to owning 100% of a so-so business. It’s better to have a partial interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone
Our flexibility in capital allocation – our willingness to invest large sums passively in non-controlled businesses – gives us a significant advantage over companies that limit themselves to acquisitions they can operate. Our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for Berkshire’s endless gusher of cash.
With this tailwind [America’s future prosperity] working for us, Charlie and I hope to build Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value by (1) constantly improving the basic earning power of our many subsidiaries; (2) further increasing their earnings through bolt-on acquisitions; (3) benefiting from the growth of our investees; (4) repurchasing Berkshire shares when they are available at a meaningful discount from intrinsic value; and (5) making an occasional large acquisition. We will also try to maximize results for you by rarely, if ever, issuing Berkshire shares.
Charlie and I believe the true economic value of our insurance goodwill – what we would happily pay for float of similar quality were we to purchase an insurance operation possessing it – to be far in excess of its historic carrying value. Under present accounting rules (with which we agree) this excess value will never be entered on our books. But I can assure you that it’s real. That’s one reason – a huge reason – why we believe Berkshire’s intrinsic business value substantially exceeds its book value.
BNSF carries about 15% (measured by ton-miles) of all inter-city freight, whether it is transported by truck, rail, water, air, or pipeline. Indeed, we move more ton-miles of goods than anyone else, a fact establishing BNSF as the most important artery in our economy’s circulatory system.
BHE’s utilities serve regulated retail customers in eleven states. No utility company stretches further. In addition, we are a leader in renewables: From a standing start ten years ago, BHE now accounts for 6% of the country’s wind generation capacity and 7% of its solar generation capacity. Beyond these businesses, BHE owns two large pipelines that deliver 8% of our country’s natural gas consumption; the recently purchased electric transmission operation in Canada; and major electric businesses in the U.K. and Philippines. And the beat goes on: We will continue to buy and build utility operations throughout the world for decades to come.
The difference between intrinsic value and carrying value in both the insurance and regulated-industry segments is far greater. It is there that the truly big winners reside.
In the past 50 years, we have only once realized an investment loss that at the time of sale cost us 2% of our net worth. Twice, we experienced 1% losses. All three of these losses occurred in the 1974-1975 period, when we sold stocks that were very cheap in order to buy others we believed to be even cheaper.
The unconventional, but inescapable, conclusion to be drawn from the past fifty years is that it has been far safer to invest in a diversified collection of American businesses than to invest in securities – Treasuries, for example – whose values have been tied to American currency. That was also true in the preceding half-century, a period including the Great Depression and two world wars. Investors should heed this history. To one degree or another it is almost certain to be repeated during the next century.
Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widely-diversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions. That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk. Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.
For the great majority of investors, however, who can – and should – invest with a multi-decade horizon, quotational declines are unimportant. Their focus should remain fixed on attaining significant gains in purchasing power over their investing lifetime. For them, a diversified equity portfolio, bought over time, will prove far less risky than dollar-based securities.
Investors, of course, can, by their own behavior, make stock ownership highly risky. And many do. Active trading, attempts to “time” market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees to managers and advisors, and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy. Indeed, borrowed money has no place in the investor’s tool kit: Anything can happen anytime in markets. And no advisor, economist, or TV commentator – and definitely not Charlie nor I – can tell you when chaos will occur. Market forecasters will fill your ear but will never fill your wallet
There are a few investment managers, of course, who are very good – though in the short run, it’s difficult to determine whether a great record is due to luck or talent…Warren Buffett's greatness as an investor stems from a combination of factors: his long-term vision, value investing approach, focus on moat investing, patient opportunism, and his humility and simplicity. These characteristics have allowed him to consistently generate exceptional returns and amass vast wealth over the years. Buffett's enduring success serves as an inspiration for investors worldwide, reminding us of the timeless wisdom that underlies his investment philosophy.