“Specifically, the accounting for businesses we own requires that the carrying value of “losers” be written down when their failures become apparent. “Winners,” conversely, are never revalued upwards.
We’ve experienced both outcomes: As is the case in marriage, business acquisitions often deliver surprises after the “I do’s.” I’ve made some dumb purchases, paying far too much for the economic goodwill of companies we acquired.”
2. When It Rains Gold…
“Some years, the gains in underlying earning power we achieve will be minor; very occasionally, the cash register will ring loud. Charlie and I have no magic plan to add earnings except to dream big and to be prepared mentally and financially to act fast when opportunities present themselves. Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do.”
3. What Warren Would Rather Do than Issue More BRK Shares
The MidAmerican cash purchase – I was learning – firmly launched us on our present course of (1) continuing to build our insurance operation; (2) energetically acquiring large and diversified non-insurance businesses and (3) largely making our deals from internally-generated cash. (Today, I would rather prep for a colonoscopy than issue Berkshire shares.)
4. America’s Achievements: Driven by Ingenuity, a Market System, Immigrants, and the Rule of Law
“Our efforts to materially increase the normalized earnings of Berkshire will be aided – as they have been throughout our managerial tenure – by America’s economic dynamism. One word sums up our country’s achievements: miraculous. From a standing start 240 years ago – a span of time less than triple my days on earth – Americans have combined human ingenuity, a market system, a tide of talented and ambitious immigrants, and the rule of law to deliver abundance beyond any dreams of our forefathers.”
5. America’s Future Economic Success Will Continue
“This economic creation will deliver increasing wealth to our progeny far into the future. Yes, the build-up of wealth will be interrupted for short periods from time to time. It will not, however, be stopped. I’ll repeat what I’ve both said in the past and expect to say in future years: Babies born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.”
6. On Market Declines and Systemic Risk
“Many companies, of course, will fall behind, and some will fail. Winnowing of that sort is a product of market dynamism. Moreover, the years ahead will occasionally deliver major market declines – even panics – that will affect virtually all stocks. No one can tell you when these traumas will occur – not me, not Charlie, not economists, not the media. Meg McConnell of the New York Fed aptly described the reality of panics: “We spend a lot of time looking for systemic risk; in truth, however, it tends to find us.”
7. Widespread Fear is Your Friend, Personal Fear is Your Enemy
During such scary periods, you should never forget two things: First, widespread fear is your friend as an investor, because it serves up bargain purchases. Second, personal fear is your enemy. It will also be unwarranted. Investors who avoid high and unnecessary costs and simply sit for an extended period with a collection of large, conservatively-financed American businesses will almost certainly do well.”
8. On Share Repurchases
“For continuing shareholders, however, repurchases only make sense if the shares are bought at a price below intrinsic value. When that rule is followed, the remaining shares experience an immediate gain in intrinsic value. Consider a simple analogy: If there are three equal partners in a business worth $3,000 and one is bought out by the partnership for $900, each of the remaining partners realizes an immediate gain of $50. If the exiting partner is paid $1,100, however, the continuing partners each suffer a loss of $50. The same math applies with corporations and their shareholders. Ergo, the question of whether a repurchase action is value-enhancing or value-destroying for continuing shareholders is entirely purchase-price dependent…
My suggestion: Before even discussing repurchases, a CEO and his or her Board should stand, join hands and in unison declare, “What is smart at one price is stupid at another.”
9. Disiplined Risk Evaluation at Berkshire Hathaway
Moreover, our P/C companies have an excellent underwriting record. Berkshire has now operated at an underwriting profit for 14 consecutive years, our pre-tax gain for the period having totaled $28 billion. That record is no accident: Disciplined risk evaluation is the daily focus of all of our insurance managers, who know that while float is valuable, its benefits can be drowned by poor underwriting results. All insurers give that message lip service. At Berkshire it is a religion, Old Testament style.
10. Warren Buffett: Trade Me in for Ajit Jain
“When Ajit [Jain, manager of Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group] entered Berkshire’s office on a Saturday in 1986, he did not have a day’s experience in the insurance business. Nevertheless, Mike Goldberg, then our manager of insurance, handed him the keys to our small and struggling reinsurance business. With that move, Mike achieved sainthood: Since then, Ajit has created tens of billions of value for Berkshire shareholders. If there were ever to be another Ajit and you could swap me for him, don’t hesitate. Make the trade!”
11. Make Hay While The Sun… Sets
“GEICO’s growth accelerated dramatically during the second half of 2016. Loss costs throughout the auto-insurance industry had been increasing at an unexpected pace and some competitors lost their enthusiasm for taking on new customers. GEICO’s reaction to the profit squeeze, however, was to accelerate its new-business efforts. We like to make hay while the sun sets, knowing that it will surely rise again”
12. The Saudi Arabia of America
“Bargain-basement electric rates carry second-order benefits with them. Iowa has attracted large hightech installations, both because of its low prices for electricity (which data centers use in huge quantities) and because most tech CEOs are enthusiastic about using renewable energy. When it comes to wind energy, Iowa is the Saudi Arabia of America.”
13. Serious Blunders in Capital Allocation
“A few, however – these are serious blunders I made in my job of capital allocation – produce very poor returns. In most cases, I was wrong when I originally sized up the economic characteristics of these companies or the industries in which they operate, and we are now paying the price for my misjudgments. In a couple of instances, I stumbled in assessing either the fidelity or ability of incumbent managers or ones I later put in place. I will commit more errors; you can count on that. Fortunately, Charlie – never bashful – is around to say “no” to my worst ideas.”
14. Don’t Lose the Forest for the Trees
“We have far too many companies in this group to comment on them individually. Moreover, their competitors – both current and potential – read this report. In a few of our businesses, we might be disadvantaged if outsiders knew our numbers. Therefore, in certain of our operations that are not of a size material to an evaluation of Berkshire, we only disclose what is required. You can nevertheless find a good bit of detail about many of our operations on pages 90 – 94. Be aware, though, that it’s the growth of the Berkshire forest that counts. It would be foolish to focus over-intently on any single tree.”
15. Buffett’s Gift to His Successor
“For several years I have told you that the income and expense data shown in this section does not conform to GAAP. I have explained that this divergence occurs primarily because of GAAP-ordered rules regarding purchase-accounting adjustments that require the full amortization of certain intangibles over periods averaging about 19 years. In our opinion, most of those amortization “expenses” are not truly an economic cost…
Eventually amortization charges fully write off the related asset. When that happens – most often at the 15-year mark – the GAAP earnings we report will increase without any true improvement in the underlying economics of Berkshire’s business. (My gift to my successor.)”
16. On Accounting Manipulation
“During the accounting nonsense that flourished during the 1960s, the story was told of a CEO who, as his company revved up to go public, asked prospective auditors, “What is two plus two?” The answer that won the assignment, of course, was, “What number do you have in mind?””
17. On Artificial Intelligence
“Here are examples of what you will find on Long Bets’ very interesting site:
In 2002, entrepreneur Mitch Kapor asserted that “By 2029 no computer – or ‘machine intelligence’ – will have passed the Turing Test,” which deals with whether a computer can successfully impersonate a human being. Inventor Ray Kurzweil took the opposing view. Each backed up his opinion with $10,000. I don’t know who will win this bet, but I will confidently wager that no computer will ever replicate Charlie.
That same year, Craig Mundie of Microsoft asserted that pilotless planes would routinely fly passengers by 2030, while Eric Schmidt of Google argued otherwise. The stakes were $1,000 each. To ease any heartburn Eric might be experiencing from his outsized exposure, I recently offered to take a piece of his action. He promptly laid off $500 with me. (I like his assumption that I’ll be around in 2030 to contribute my payment, should we lose.)”
18. Greed is (Not) Good
“Instead we operated in what I would call a “neutral” environment. In it, the five funds-of-funds delivered, through 2016, an average of only 2.2%, compounded annually. That means $1 million invested in those funds would have gained $220,000. The index fund would meanwhile have gained $854,000…
I’m certain that in almost all cases the managers at both levels were honest and intelligent people. But the results for their investors were dismal – really dismal. And, alas, the huge fixed fees charged by all of the funds and funds-of-funds involved – fees that were totally unwarranted by performance – were such that their managers were showered with compensation over the nine years that have passed. As Gordon Gekko might have put it: “Fees never sleep.””
19. Innovators to Imitators to the Swarming Incompetents
The problem simply is that the great majority of managers who attempt to over-perform will fail. The probability is also very high that the person soliciting your funds will not be the exception who does well. Bill Ruane – a truly wonderful human being and a man whom I identified 60 years ago as almost certain to deliver superior investment returns over the long haul – said it well: “In investment management, the progression is from the innovators to the imitators to the swarming incompetents.”
20. On Luck vs. Skill
“Further complicating the search for the rare high-fee manager who is worth his or her pay is the fact that some investment professionals, just as some amateurs, will be lucky over short periods. If 1,000 managers make a market prediction at the beginning of a year, it’s very likely that the calls of at least one will be correct for nine consecutive years. Of course, 1,000 monkeys would be just as likely to produce a seemingly all-wise prophet. But there would remain a difference: The lucky monkey would not find people standing in line to invest with him.”
21. The Three Causes of Investing Failure
“Finally, there are three connected realities that cause investing success to breed failure. First, a good record quickly attracts a torrent of money. Second, huge sums invariably act as an anchor on investment performance: What is easy with millions, struggles with billions (sob!). Third, most managers will nevertheless seek new money because of their personal equation – namely, the more funds they have under management, the more their fees.
These three points are hardly new ground for me: In January 1966, when I was managing $44 million, I wrote my limited partners: “I feel substantially greater size is more likely to harm future results than to help them. This might not be true for my own personal results, but it is likely to be true for your results. Therefore, . . . I intend to admit no additional partners to BPL. I have notified Susie that if we have any more children, it is up to her to find some other partnership for them.”
22. A Statue for Jack Bogle
“If a statue is ever erected to honor the person who has done the most for American investors, the handsdown choice should be Jack Bogle. For decades, Jack has urged investors to invest in ultra-low-cost index funds. In his crusade, he amassed only a tiny percentage of the wealth that has typically flowed to managers who have promised their investors large rewards while delivering them nothing – or, as in our bet, less than nothing – of added value.
In his early years, Jack was frequently mocked by the investment-management industry. Today, however, he has the satisfaction of knowing that he helped millions of investors realize far better returns on their savings than they otherwise would have earned. He is a hero to them and to me.”
23. Why Wealthy Investors Refuse to Invest in Low-Cost Index Funds
“The wealthy are accustomed to feeling that it is their lot in life to get the best food, schooling, entertainment, housing, plastic surgery, sports ticket, you name it. Their money, they feel, should buy them something superior compared to what the masses receive.
In many aspects of life, indeed, wealth does command top-grade products or services. For that reason, the financial “elites” – wealthy individuals, pension funds, college endowments and the like – have great trouble meekly signing up for a financial product or service that is available as well to people investing only a few thousand dollars.”
24. Human Behavior Will Never Change
“Human behavior won’t change. Wealthy individuals, pension funds, endowments and the like will continue to feel they deserve something “extra” in investment advice. Those advisors who cleverly play to this expectation will get very rich. This year the magic potion may be hedge funds, next year something else. The likely result from this parade of promises is predicted in an adage: “When a person with money meets a person with experience, the one with experience ends up with the money and the one with money leaves with experience.””
25. The Democracy of Berkshire’s Investors
“While I’m on the subject of our owners’ gaining knowledge, let me remind you that Charlie and I believe all shareholders should simultaneously have access to new information that Berkshire releases and, if possible, should also have adequate time to digest and analyze it before any trading takes place. That’s why we try to issue financial data late on Fridays or early on Saturdays and why our annual meeting is always held on a Saturday (a day that also eases traffic and parking problems).
We do not follow the common practice of talking one-on-one with large institutional investors or analysts, treating them instead as we do all other shareholders. There is no one more important to us than the shareholder of limited means who trusts us with a substantial portion of his or her savings. As I run the company day-to-day – and as I write this letter – that is the shareholder whose image is in my mind.”
Here is the book recounting the life and times of one of the most respected men in the world, Warren Buffett. The legendary Omaha investor has never written a memoir, but now he has allowed one writer, Alice Schroeder, unprecedented access to explore directly with him and with those closest to him his work, opinions, struggles, triumphs, follies, and wisdom. The result is the personally revealing and complete biography of the man known everywhere as “The Oracle of Omaha.”
by Warren Buffett; edited by Lawrence A. Cunningham
The Essays of Warren Buffett: Lessons for Corporate America celebrates its twentieth anniversary. As the book Buffett autographs most, its popularity and longevity attest to the widespread appetite for this unique compilation of Buffett’s thoughts that is at once comprehensive, non-repetitive, and digestible. New and experienced readers alike will gain an invaluable informal education by perusing this classic arrangement of Warren’s best writings.
This book compiles the full, un-edited versions of 50 years of Warren Buffett’s letters to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway. In addition to providing an astounding case study on Berkshire’s success, Buffett shows an incredible willingness to share his methods and act as a teacher to his many students.
Dillon Jacobs is the owner and lead editor for Vintage Value Investing. He is a passionate value investor who believes in the fundamental principles of Superinvestors like Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger, Ben Graham, Peter Lynch, and many more. His career has taken him to many destinations around the globe, and he has lived in both Asia and Europe.
Shining a Light on the Undervalued Corners of the Market
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