Warren Buffett’s Letter to Shareholders 2016

warren-buffett thrift savings planOne of the things I really look forward to this time each year is Warren Buffet’s famous annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. I appreciate Buffett as an investor (one of my largest holdings outside the Thrift Savings Plan is in BRK-B), but also as a plain-spoken advocate for sensible behavior by both the people who run financial markets, as well as the people who invest in them.

As you read this, do keep in mind that the reason Berkshire puts this out is to (1) sell Berkshire Hathaway stock (BRK-B for most of us) and (2) sell themselves to the owners and managers of companies which Berkshire might be interested in acquiring in the future. But with that in mind, enjoy the wisdom that he has to share after 60 years in business and investing.

(If you enjoy this, you might want to check out Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, 2014, in which each of these letters from 1965 to 2014 are reprinted, or one of the other books on Buffett and Munger on our recommended reading page.)

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BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.

To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.:

Berkshire’s gain in net worth during 2015 was $15.4 billion, which increased the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 6.4%. Over the last 51 years (that is, since present management took over), per-share book value has grown from $19 to $155,501, a rate of 19.2% compounded annually.*

During the first half of those years, Berkshire’s net worth was roughly equal to the number that really counts: the intrinsic value of the business. The similarity of the two figures existed then because most of our resources were deployed in marketable securities that were regularly revalued to their quoted prices (less the tax that would be incurred if they were to be sold). In Wall Street parlance, our balance sheet was then in very large part “marked to market.”

By the early 1990s, however, our focus had changed to the outright ownership of businesses, a shift that diminished the relevance of balance-sheet figures. That disconnect occurred because the accounting rules that apply to controlled companies are materially different from those used in valuing marketable securities. The carrying value of the “losers” we own is written down, but “winners” are never revalued upwards.

We’ve had experience with both outcomes: I’ve made some dumb purchases, and the amount I paid for the economic goodwill of those companies was later written off, a move that reduced Berkshire’s book value. We’ve also had some winners – a few of them very big – but have not written those up by a penny.

Over time, this asymmetrical accounting treatment (with which we agree) necessarily widens the gap between intrinsic value and book value. Today, the large – and growing – unrecorded gains at our “winners” make it clear that Berkshire’s intrinsic value far exceeds its book value. That’s why we would be delighted to repurchase our shares should they sell as low as 120% of book value. At that level, purchases would instantly and meaningfully increase per-share intrinsic value for Berkshire’s continuing shareholders.

The unrecorded increase in the value of our owned businesses explains why Berkshire’s aggregate market-value gain – tabulated on the facing page – materially exceeds our book-value gain. The two indicators vary erratically over short periods. Last year, for example, book-value performance was superior. Over time, however, market-value gains should continue their historical tendency to exceed gains in book value.

The Year at Berkshire

Charlie Munger, Berkshire Vice Chairman and my partner, and I expect Berkshire’s normalized earning power to increase every year. (Actual year-to-year earnings, of course, will sometimes decline because of weakness in the U.S. economy or, possibly, because of insurance mega-catastrophes.) In some years the normalized gains will be small; at other times they will be material. Last year was a good one. Here are the highlights:

The most important development at Berkshire during 2015 was not financial, though it led to better earnings. After a poor performance in 2014, our BNSF railroad dramatically improved its service to customers last year. To attain that result, we invested about $5.8 billion during the year in capital expenditures, a sum far and away the record for any American railroad and nearly three times our annual depreciation charge. It was money well spent.

BNSF moves about 17% of America’s intercity freight (measured by revenue ton-miles), whether transported by rail, truck, air, water or pipeline. In that respect, we are a strong number one among the seven large American railroads (two of which are Canadian-based), carrying 45% more ton-miles of freight than our closest competitor. Consequently, our maintaining first-class service is not only vital to our shippers’ welfare but also important to the smooth functioning of the U.S. economy.

For most American railroads, 2015 was a disappointing year. Aggregate ton-miles fell, and earnings weakened as well. BNSF, however, maintained volume, and pre-tax income rose to a record $6.8 billion* (a gain of $606 million from 2014). Matt Rose and Carl Ice, the managers of BNSF, have my thanks and deserve yours.

BNSF is the largest of our “Powerhouse Five,” a group that also includes Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Marmon, Lubrizol and IMC. Combined, these companies – our five most profitable non-insurance businesses – earned $13.1 billion in 2015, an increase of $650 million over 2014.

Of the five, only Berkshire Hathaway Energy, then earning $393 million, was owned by us in 2003. Subsequently, we purchased three of the other four on an all-cash basis. In acquiring BNSF, however, we paid about 70% of the cost in cash and, for the remainder, issued Berkshire shares that increased the number outstanding by 6.1%. In other words, the $12.7 billion gain in annual earnings delivered Berkshire by the five companies over the twelve-year span has been accompanied by only minor dilution. That satisfies our goal of not simply increasing earnings, but making sure we also increase per-share results.

Next year, I will be discussing the “Powerhouse Six.” The newcomer will be Precision Castparts Corp. (“PCC”), a business that we purchased a month ago for more than $32 billion of cash. PCC fits perfectly into the Berkshire model and will substantially increase our normalized per-share earning power.

Under CEO Mark Donegan, PCC has become the world’s premier supplier of aerospace components (most of them destined to be original equipment, though spares are important to the company as well). Mark’s accomplishments remind me of the magic regularly performed by Jacob Harpaz at IMC, our remarkable Israeli manufacturer of cutting tools. The two men transform very ordinary raw materials into extraordinary products that are used by major manufacturers worldwide. Each is the da Vinci of his craft.

PCC’s products, often delivered under multi-year contracts, are key components in most large aircraft. Other industries are served as well by the company’s 30,466 employees, who work out of 162 plants in 13 countries. In building his business, Mark has made many acquisitions and will make more. We look forward to having him deploy Berkshire’s capital.

A personal thank-you: The PCC acquisition would not have happened without the input and assistance of our own Todd Combs, who brought the company to my attention a few years ago and went on to educate me about both the business and Mark. Though Todd and Ted Weschler are primarily investment managers – they each handle about $9 billion for us – both of them cheerfully and ably add major value to Berkshire in other ways as well. Hiring these two was one of my best moves.

With the PCC acquisition, Berkshire will own 101⁄ 4 companies that would populate the Fortune 500 if they were stand-alone businesses. (Our 27% holding of Kraft Heinz is the 1⁄ 4.) That leaves just under 98% of America’s business giants that have yet to call us. Operators are standing by.

Our many dozens of smaller non-insurance businesses earned $5.7 billion last year, up from $5.1 billion in 2014. Within this group, we have one company that last year earned more than $700 million, two that earned between $400 million and $700 million, seven that earned between $250 million and $400 million, six that earned between $100 million and $250 million, and eleven that earned between $50 million and $100 million. We love them all: This collection of businesses will expand both in number and earnings as the years go by.

When you hear talk about America’s crumbling infrastructure, rest assured that they’re not talking about Berkshire. We invested $16 billion in property, plant and equipment last year, a full 86% of it deployed in the United States.

I told you earlier about BNSF’s record capital expenditures in 2015. At the end of every year, our railroad’s physical facilities will be improved from those existing twelve months earlier.

Berkshire Hathaway Energy (“BHE”) is a similar story. That company has invested $16 billion in renewables and now owns 7% of the country’s wind generation and 6% of its solar generation. Indeed, the 4,423 megawatts of wind generation owned and operated by our regulated utilities is six times the generation of the runner-up utility.

We’re not done. Last year, BHE made major commitments to the future development of renewables in support of the Paris Climate Change Conference. Our fulfilling those promises will make great sense, both for the environment and for Berkshire’s economics.

Berkshire’s huge and growing insurance operation again operated at an underwriting profit in 2015 – that makes 13 years in a row – and increased its float. During those years, our float – money that doesn’t belong to us but that we can invest for Berkshire’s benefit – grew from $41 billion to $88 billion. Though neither that gain nor the size of our float is reflected in Berkshire’s earnings, float generates significant investment income because of the assets it allows us to hold.

Meanwhile, our underwriting profit totaled $26 billion during the 13-year period, including $1.8 billion earned in 2015. Without a doubt, Berkshire’s largest unrecorded wealth lies in its insurance business. We’ve spent 48 years building this multi-faceted operation, and it can’t be replicated.

While Charlie and I search for new businesses to buy, our many subsidiaries are regularly making bolt-on acquisitions. Last year we contracted for 29 bolt-ons, scheduled to cost $634 million in aggregate. The cost of these purchases ranged from $300,000 to $143 million.

Charlie and I encourage bolt-ons, if they are sensibly-priced. (Most deals offered us most definitely aren’t.) These purchases deploy capital in operations that fit with our existing businesses and that will be managed by our corps of expert managers. That means no additional work for us, yet more earnings for Berkshire, a combination we find highly appealing. We will make many dozens of bolt-on deals in future years.

Our Heinz partnership with Jorge Paulo Lemann, Alex Behring and Bernardo Hees more than doubled its size last year by merging with Kraft. Before this transaction, we owned about 53% of Heinz at a cost of $4.25 billion. Now we own 325.4 million shares of Kraft Heinz (about 27%) that cost us $9.8 billion. The new company has annual sales of $27 billion and can supply you Heinz ketchup or mustard to go with your Oscar Mayer hot dogs that come from the Kraft side. Add a Coke, and you will be enjoying my favorite meal. (We will have the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile at the annual meeting – bring your kids.)

Though we sold no Kraft Heinz shares, “GAAP” (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) required us to record a $6.8 billion write-up of our investment upon completion of the merger. That leaves us with our Kraft Heinz holding carried on our balance sheet at a value many billions above our cost and many billions below its market value, an outcome only an accountant could love.

Berkshire also owns Kraft Heinz preferred shares that pay us $720 million annually and are carried at $7.7 billion on our balance sheet. That holding will almost certainly be redeemed for $8.32 billion in June (the earliest date allowed under the preferred’s terms). That will be good news for Kraft Heinz and bad news for Berkshire.

Jorge Paulo and his associates could not be better partners. We share with them a passion to buy, build and hold large businesses that satisfy basic needs and desires. We follow different paths, however, in pursuing this goal.

Their method, at which they have been extraordinarily successful, is to buy companies that offer an opportunity for eliminating many unnecessary costs and then – very promptly – to make the moves that will get the job done. Their actions significantly boost productivity, the all-important factor in America’s economic growth over the past 240 years. Without more output of desired goods and services per working hour – that’s the measure of productivity gains – an economy inevitably stagnates. At much of corporate America, truly major gains in productivity are possible, a fact offering opportunities to Jorge Paulo and his associates.

At Berkshire, we, too, crave efficiency and detest bureaucracy. To achieve our goals, however, we follow an approach emphasizing avoidance of bloat, buying businesses such as PCC that have long been run by cost-conscious and efficient managers. After the purchase, our role is simply to create an environment in which these CEOs – and their eventual successors, who typically are like-minded – can maximize both their managerial effectiveness and the pleasure they derive from their jobs. (With this hands-off style, I am heeding a well-known Mungerism: “If you want to guarantee yourself a lifetime of misery, be sure to marry someone with the intent of changing their behavior.”)

We will continue to operate with extreme – indeed, almost unheard of – decentralization at Berkshire. But we will also look for opportunities to partner with Jorge Paulo, either as a financing partner, as was the case when his group purchased Tim Horton’s, or as a combined equity-and-financing partner, as at Heinz. We also may occasionally partner with others, as we have successfully done at Berkadia.

Berkshire, however, will join only with partners making friendly acquisitions. To be sure, certain hostile offers are justified: Some CEOs forget that it is shareholders for whom they should be working, while other managers are woefully inept. In either case, directors may be blind to the problem or simply reluctant to make the change required. That’s when new faces are needed. We, though, will leave these “opportunities” for others. At Berkshire, we go only where we are welcome.

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 8.4% versus 7.8% at yearend 2014) and Wells Fargo (going to 9.8% from 9.4%). At the other two companies, Coca-Cola and American Express, stock repurchases raised our percentage ownership. Our equity in Coca-Cola grew from 9.2% to 9.3%, and our interest in American Express increased from 14.8% to 15.6%. In case you think these seemingly small changes aren’t important, consider this math: For the four companies in aggregate, each increase of one percentage point in our ownership raises Berkshire’s portion of their annual earnings by about $500 million.

These four investees possess excellent businesses and are run by managers who are both talented and shareholder-oriented. Their returns on tangible equity range from excellent to staggering. 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.

If Berkshire’s yearend holdings are used as the marker, our portion of the “Big Four’s” 2015 earnings amounted to $4.7 billion. In the earnings we report to you, however, we include only the dividends they pay us – about $1.8 billion last year. But make no mistake: The nearly $3 billion of these companies’ earnings we don’t report are every bit as valuable to us as the portion Berkshire records.

The earnings our investees retain are often used for repurchases of their own stock – a move that increases Berkshire’s share of future earnings without requiring us to lay out a dime. The retained earnings of these companies also fund business opportunities that usually turn out to be advantageous. All that leads us to expect that the per-share earnings of these four investees, in aggregate, will grow substantially over time. If gains do indeed materialize, dividends to Berkshire will increase and so, too, will our unrealized capital gains.

Our flexibility in capital allocation – our willingness to invest large sums passively in non-controlled businesses – gives us a significant edge over companies that limit themselves to acquisitions they will operate. Woody Allen once explained that the advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chance of finding a date on Saturday night. In like manner – well, not exactly like manner – our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for Berkshire’s endless gusher of cash. Beyond that, having a huge portfolio of marketable securities gives us a stockpile of funds that can be tapped when an elephant-sized acquisition is offered to us.

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It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.

That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.

American GDP per capita is now about $56,000. As I mentioned last year that – in real terms – is a staggering six times the amount in 1930, the year I was born, a leap far beyond the wildest dreams of my parents or their contemporaries. U.S. citizens are not intrinsically more intelligent today, nor do they work harder than did Americans in 1930. Rather, they work far more efficiently and thereby produce far more. This all-powerful trend is certain to continue: America’s economic magic remains alive and well.

Some commentators bemoan our current 2% per year growth in real GDP – and, yes, we would all like to see a higher rate. But let’s do some simple math using the much-lamented 2% figure. That rate, we will see, delivers astounding gains.

America’s population is growing about .8% per year (.5% from births minus deaths and .3% from net migration). Thus 2% of overall growth produces about 1.2% of per capita growth. That may not sound impressive. But in a single generation of, say, 25 years, that rate of growth leads to a gain of 34.4% in real GDP per capita. (Compounding’s effects produce the excess over the percentage that would result by simply multiplying 25 x 1.2%.) In turn, that 34.4% gain will produce a staggering $19,000 increase in real GDP per capita for the next generation. Were that to be distributed equally, the gain would be $76,000 annually for a family of four. Today’s politicians need not shed tears for tomorrow’s children.

Indeed, most of today’s children are doing well. All families in my upper middle-class neighborhood regularly enjoy a living standard better than that achieved by John D. Rockefeller Sr. at the time of my birth. His unparalleled fortune couldn’t buy what we now take for granted, whether the field is – to name just a few – transportation, entertainment, communication or medical services. Rockefeller certainly had power and fame; he could not, however, live as well as my neighbors now do.

Though the pie to be shared by the next generation will be far larger than today’s, how it will be divided will remain fiercely contentious. Just as is now the case, there will be struggles for the increased output of goods and services between those people in their productive years and retirees, between the healthy and the infirm, between the inheritors and the Horatio Algers, between investors and workers and, in particular, between those with talents that are valued highly by the marketplace and the equally decent hard-working Americans who lack the skills the market prizes. Clashes of that sort have forever been with us – and will forever continue. Congress will be the battlefield; money and votes will be the weapons. Lobbying will remain a growth industry.

The good news, however, is that even members of the “losing” sides will almost certainly enjoy – as they should – far more goods and services in the future than they have in the past. The quality of their increased bounty will also dramatically improve. Nothing rivals the market system in producing what people want – nor, even more so, in delivering what people don’t yet know they want. My parents, when young, could not envision a television set, nor did I, in my 50s, think I needed a personal computer. Both products, once people saw what they could do, quickly revolutionized their lives. I now spend ten hours a week playing bridge online. And, as I write this letter, “search” is invaluable to me. (I’m not ready for Tinder, however.)

For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start. America’s golden goose of commerce and innovation will continue to lay more and larger eggs. America’s social security promises will be honored and perhaps made more generous. And, yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did.

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Considering this favorable tailwind, Berkshire (and, to be sure, a great many other businesses) will almost certainly prosper. The managers who succeed Charlie and me will build Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value by following our simple blueprint of: (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 invests; (4) repurchasing Berkshire shares when they are available at a meaningful discount from intrinsic value; and (5) making an occasional large acquisition. Management will also try to maximize results for you by rarely, if ever, issuing Berkshire shares.

Intrinsic Business Value

As much as Charlie and I talk about intrinsic business value, we cannot tell you precisely what that number is for Berkshire shares (nor, in fact, for any other stock). It is possible, however, to make a sensible estimate. In our 2010 annual report we laid out the three elements – one of them qualitative – that we believe are the keys to an estimation of Berkshire’s intrinsic value. That discussion is reproduced in full on pages 113-114.

Here is an update of the two quantitative factors: In 2015 our per-share cash and investments increased 8.3% to $159,794 (with our Kraft Heinz shares stated at market value), and earnings from our many businesses – including insurance underwriting income – increased 2.1% to $12,304 per share. We exclude in the second factor the dividends and interest from the investments we hold because including them would produce a double-counting of value. In arriving at our earnings figure, we deduct all corporate overhead, interest, depreciation, amortization and minority interests. Income taxes, though, are not deducted. That is, the earnings are pre-tax.

I used the italics in the paragraph above because we are for the first time including insurance underwriting income in business earnings. We did not do that when we initially introduced Berkshire’s two quantitative pillars of valuation because our insurance results were then heavily influenced by catastrophe coverages. If the wind didn’t blow and the earth didn’t shake, we made large profits. But a mega-catastrophe would produce red ink. In order to be conservative then in