Warren Buffett’s Letter to Shareholders (Part 3, Report on Berkshire Hathaway’s 2014)

A note to readers: Fifty years ago, today’s management took charge at Berkshire. For this Golden Anniversary, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger each wrote his views of what has happened at Berkshire during the past 50 years and what each expects during the next 50. Neither changed a word of his commentary after reading what the other had written. Warren’s thoughts begin on page 24 and Charlie’s on page 39. Shareholders, particularly new ones, may find it useful to read those letters before reading the report on 2014, which begins below.

BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.

To the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc.:

Berkshire’s gain in net worth during 2014 was $18.3 billion, which increased the per-share book value of both our Class A and Class B stock by 8.3%. Over the last 50 years (that is, since present management took over), per-share book value has grown from $19 to $146,186, a rate of 19.4% compounded annually.*

During our tenure, we have consistently compared the yearly performance of the S&P 500 to the change in Berkshire’s per-share book value. We’ve done that because book value has been a crude, but useful, tracking device for the number that really counts: intrinsic business value.

In our early decades, the relationship between book value and intrinsic value was much closer than it is now. That was true because Berkshire’s assets were then largely securities whose values were continuously restated to reflect their current market prices. In Wall Street parlance, most of the assets involved in the calculation of book value were “marked to market.”

Today, our emphasis has shifted in a major way to owning and operating large businesses. Many of these are worth far more than their cost-based carrying value. But that amount is never revalued upward no matter how much the value of these companies has increased. Consequently, the gap between Berkshire’s intrinsic value and its book value has materially widened.

With that in mind, we have added a new set of data – the historical record of Berkshire’s stock price – to the performance table on the facing page. Market prices, let me stress, have their limitations in the short term. Monthly or yearly movements of stocks are often erratic and not indicative of changes in intrinsic value. Over time, however, stock prices and intrinsic value almost invariably converge. Charlie Munger, Berkshire Vice Chairman and my partner, and I believe that has been true at Berkshire: In our view, the increase in Berkshire’s per-share intrinsic value over the past 50 years is roughly equal to the 1,826,163% gain in market price of the company’s shares.

* All per-share figures used in this report apply to Berkshire’s A shares. Figures for the B shares are 1/1500th of those shown for A.

The Year at Berkshire

It was a good year for Berkshire on all major fronts, except one. Here are the important developments:

  • Our “Powerhouse Five” – a collection of Berkshire’s largest non-insurance businesses – had a record $12.4 billion of pre-tax earnings in 2014, up $1.6 billion from 2013.* The companies in this sainted group are Berkshire Hathaway Energy (formerly MidAmerican Energy), BNSF, IMC (I’ve called it Iscar in the past), Lubrizol and Marmon.

Of the five, only Berkshire Hathaway Energy, then earning $393 million, was owned by us a decade ago. Subsequently we purchased another three of the five on an all-cash basis. In acquiring the fifth, BNSF, 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 billion gain in annual earnings delivered Berkshire by the five companies over the ten-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.

If the U.S. economy continues to improve in 2015, we expect earnings of our Powerhouse Five to improve as well. The gain could reach $1 billion, in part because of bolt-on acquisitions by the group that have already closed or are under contract.

  • Our bad news from 2014 comes from our group of five as well and is unrelated to earnings. During the year, BNSF disappointed many of its customers. These shippers depend on us, and service failures can badly hurt their businesses.

BNSF is, by far, Berkshire’s most important non-insurance subsidiary and, to improve its performance, we will spend $6 billion on plant and equipment in 2015. That sum is nearly 50% more than any other railroad has spent in a single year and is a truly extraordinary amount, whether compared to revenues, earnings or depreciation charges.

Though weather, which was particularly severe last year, will always cause railroads a variety of operating problems, our responsibility is to do whatever it takes to restore our service to industry-leading levels. That can’t be done overnight: The extensive work required to increase system capacity sometimes disrupts operations while it is underway. Recently, however, our outsized expenditures are beginning to show results. During the last three months, BNSF’s performance metrics have materially improved from last year’s figures.

  • Our many dozens of smaller non-insurance businesses earned $5.1 billion last year, up from $4.7 billion in 2013. Here, as with our Powerhouse Five, we expect further gains in 2015. Within this group, we have two companies that last year earned between $400 million and $600 million, six that earned between $250 million and $400 million, and seven that earned between $100 million and $250 million. This collection of businesses will increase in both number and earnings. Our ambitions have no finish line.
  • Berkshire’s huge and growing insurance operation again operated at an underwriting profit in 2014 – that makes 12 years in a row – and increased its float. During that 12-year stretch, our float – money that doesn’t belong to us but that we can invest for Berkshire’s benefit – has grown from $41 billion to $84 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.
  • Throughout this letter, as well as in the “Golden Anniversary” letters included later in this report, all earnings are stated on a pre-tax basis unless otherwise designated.

Meanwhile, our underwriting profit totaled $24 billion during the twelve-year period, including $2.7 billion earned in 2014. And all of this began with our 1967 purchase of National Indemnity for $8.6 million.

  • While Charlie and I search for new businesses to buy, our many subsidiaries are regularly making bolt-on acquisitions. Last year was particularly fruitful: We contracted for 31 bolt-ons, scheduled to cost $7.8 billion in aggregate. The size of these transactions ranged from $400,000 to $2.9 billion. However, the largest acquisition, Duracell, will not close until the second half of this year. It will then be placed under Marmon’s jurisdiction.

Charlie and I encourage bolt-ons, if they are sensibly-priced. (Most deals offered us aren’t.) They deploy capital in activities that fit with our existing businesses and that will be managed by our corps of expert managers. This means no more work for us, yet more earnings, a combination we find particularly appealing. We will make many more of these bolt-on deals in future years.

  • Two years ago my friend, Jorge Paulo Lemann, asked Berkshire to join his 3G Capital group in the acquisition of Heinz. My affirmative response was a no-brainer: I knew immediately that this partnership would work well from both a personal and financial standpoint. And it most definitely has.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that Heinz is run far better under Alex Behring, Chairman, and Bernardo Hees, CEO, than would be the case if I were in charge. They hold themselves to extraordinarily high performance standards and are never satisfied, even when their results far exceed those of competitors.

We expect to partner with 3G in more activities. Sometimes our participation will only involve a financing role, as was the case in the recent acquisition of Tim Hortons by Burger King. Our favored arrangement, however, will usually be to link up as a permanent equity partner (who, in some cases, contributes to the financing of the deal as well). Whatever the structure, we feel good when working with Jorge Paulo.

Berkshire also has fine partnerships with Mars and Leucadia, and we may form new ones with them or with other partners. Our participation in any joint activities, whether as a financing or equity partner, will be limited to friendly transactions.

  • In October, we contracted to buy Van Tuyl Automotive, a group of 78 automobile dealerships that is exceptionally well-run. Larry Van Tuyl, the company’s owner, and I met some years ago. He then decided that if he were ever to sell his company, its home should be Berkshire. Our purchase was recently completed, and we are now “car guys.”

Larry and his dad, Cecil, spent 62 years building the group, following a strategy that made owner-partners of all local managers. Creating this mutuality of interests proved over and over to be a winner. Van Tuyl is now the fifth-largest automotive group in the country, with per-dealership sales figures that are outstanding.

In recent years, Jeff Rachor has worked alongside Larry, a successful arrangement that will continue. There are about 17,000 dealerships in the country, and ownership transfers always require approval by the relevant auto manufacturer. Berkshire’s job is to perform in a manner that will cause manufacturers to welcome further purchases by us. If we do this – and if we can buy dealerships at sensible prices – we will build a business that before long will be multiples the size of Van Tuyl’s $9 billion of sales.

With the acquisition of Van Tuyl, Berkshire now owns 91⁄ 2 companies that would be listed on the Fortune 500 were they independent (Heinz is the 1⁄ 2). That leaves 4901⁄ 2 fish in the sea. Our lines are out.

  • Our subsidiaries spent a record $15 billion on plant and equipment during 2014, well over twice their depreciation charges. About 90% of that money was spent in the United States. Though we will always invest abroad as well, the mother lode of opportunities runs through America. The treasures that have been uncovered up to now are dwarfed by those still untapped. Through dumb luck, Charlie and I were born in the United States, and we are forever grateful for the staggering advantages this accident of birth has given us.
  • Berkshire’s year end employees – including those at Heinz – totaled a record 340,499, up 9,754 from last year. The increase, I am proud to say, included no gain at headquarters (where 25 people work). No sense going crazy.
  • 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.

These four investees possess excellent businesses and are run by managers who are both talented and shareholder-oriented. 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” 2014 earnings before discontinued operations amounted to $4.7 billion (compared to $3.3 billion only three years ago). In the earnings we report to you, however, we include only the dividends we receive – about $1.6 billion last year. (Again, three years ago the dividends were $862 million.) But make no mistake: The $3.1 billion of these companies’ earnings we don’t report are every bit as valuable to us as the portion Berkshire records.

The earnings these investees retain are often used for repurchases of their own stock – a move that enhances Berkshire’s share of future earnings without requiring us to lay out a dime. Their retained earnings 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 (though 2015 will be a tough year for the group, in part because of the strong dollar). If the expected gains materialize, dividends to Berkshire will increase and, even more important, so will our unrealized capital gains. (For the package of four, our unrealized gains already totaled $42 billion at yearend.)

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.

  • I’ve mentioned in the past that my experience in business helps me as an investor and that my investment experience has made me a better businessman. Each pursuit teaches lessons that are applicable to the other. And some truths can only be fully learned through experience. (In Fred Schwed’s wonderful book, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?, a Peter Arno cartoon depicts a puzzled Adam looking at an eager Eve, while a caption says, “There are certain things that cannot be adequately explained to a virgin either by words or pictures.” If you haven’t read Schwed’s book, buy a copy at our annual meeting. Its wisdom and humor are truly priceless.)

Among Arno’s “certain things,” I would include two separate skills, the evaluation of investments and the management of businesses. I therefore think it’s worthwhile for Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, our two investment managers, to each have oversight of at least one of our businesses. A sensible opportunity for them to do so opened up a few months ago when we agreed to purchase two companies that, though smaller than we would normally acquire, have excellent economic characteristics. Combined, the two earn $100 million annually on about $125 million of net tangible assets.

I’ve asked Todd and Ted to each take on one as Chairman, in which role they will function in the very limited way that I do with our larger subsidiaries. This arrangement will save me a minor amount of work and, more important, make the two of them even better investors than they already are (which is to say among the best).

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Late in 2009, amidst the gloom of the Great Recession, we agreed to buy BNSF, the largest purchase in Berkshire’s history. At the time, I called the transaction an “all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.”

That kind of commitment was nothing new for us. We’ve been making similar wagers ever since Buffett Partnership Ltd. acquired control of Berkshire in 1965. For good reason, too: Charlie and I have always considered a “bet” on ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing.

Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 238 years by betting against America? If you compare our country’s present condition to that existing in 1776, you have to rub your eyes in wonder. In my lifetime alone, real per-capita U.S. output has sextupled. My parents could not have dreamed in 1930 of the world their son would see. Though the preachers of pessimism prattle endlessly about America’s problems, I’ve never seen one who wishes to emigrate (though I can think of a few for whom I would happily buy a one-way ticket).

The dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. Gains won’t come in a smooth or uninterrupted manner; they never have. And we will regularly grumble about our government. But, most assuredly, America’s best days lie ahead.

With this tailwind 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.

Those building blocks rest on a rock-solid foundation. A century hence, BNSF and Berkshire Hathaway Energy will still be playing vital roles in our economy. Homes and autos will remain central to the lives of most families. Insurance will continue to be essential for both businesses and individuals. Looking ahead, Charlie and I see a world made to order for Berkshire. We feel fortunate to be entrusted with its management.

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). In our 2010 annual report, however, we laid out the three elements – one of them qualitative – that we believe are the keys to a sensible estimate of Berkshire’s intrinsic value. That discussion is reproduced in full on pages 123-124.

Here is an update of the two quantitative factors: In 2014 our per-share investments increased 8.4% to $140,123, and our earnings from businesses other than insurance and investments increased 19% to $10,847 per share.

Since 1970, our per-share investments have increased at a rate of 19% compounded annually, and our earnings figure has grown at a 20.6% clip. It is no coincidence that the price of Berkshire stock over the ensuing 44 years has increased at a rate very similar to that of our two measures of value. Charlie and I like to see gains in both sectors, but our main focus is to build operating earnings. That’s why we were pleased to exchange our Phillips 66 and Graham Holdings stock for operating businesses last year and to contract with Procter and Gamble to acquire Duracell by means of a similar exchange set to close in 2015.

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Now, let’s examine the four major sectors of our operations. Each has vastly different balance sheet and income characteristics from the others. So we’ll present them as four separate businesses, which is how Charlie and I view them (though there are important and enduring advantages to having them all under one roof). Our goal is to provide you with the information we would wish to have if our positions were reversed, with you being the reporting manager and we the absentee shareholders. (But don’t get any ideas!)

Insurance

Let’s look first at insurance, Berkshire’s core operation. That industry has been the engine that has propelled our expansion since 1967, when we acquired National Indemnity and its sister company, National Fire & Marine, for $8.6 million. Though that purchase had monumental consequences for Berkshire, its execution was simplicity itself.

Jack Ringwalt, a friend of mine who was the controlling shareholder of the two companies, came to my office saying he would like to sell. Fifteen minutes later, we had a deal. Neither of Jack’s companies had ever had an audit by a public accounting firm, and I didn’t ask for one. My reasoning: (1) Jack was honest and (2) He was also a bit quirky and likely to walk away if the deal became at all complicated.

On pages 128-129, we reproduce the 11⁄ 2-page purchase agreement we used to finalize the transaction. That contract was homemade: Neither side used a lawyer. Per page, this has to be Berkshire’s best deal: National Indemnity today has GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) net worth of $111 billion, which exceeds that of any other insurer in the world.

One reason we were attracted to the property-casualty business was its financial characteristics: P/C insurers receive premiums upfront and pay claims later. In extreme cases, such as those arising from certain workers’ compensation accidents, payments can stretch over many decades. This collect-now, pay-later model leaves P/C companies holding large sums – money we call “float” – that will eventually go to others. Meanwhile, insurers get to invest this float for their benefit. Though individual policies and claims come and go, the amount of float an insurer holds usually remains fairly stable in relation to premium volume. Consequently, as our business grows, so does our float. And how we have grown, as the following table shows:

Year Float (in $ millions)
1970 $ 39
1980 237
1990 1,632
2000 27,871
2010 65,832
2014 83,921

Further gains in float will be tough to achieve. On the plus side, GEICO and our new commercial insurance operation are almost certain to grow at a good clip. National Indemnity’s reinsurance division, however, is party to a number of run-off contracts whose float drifts downward. If we do in time experience a decline in float, it will be very gradual – at the outside no more than 3% in any year. The nature of our insurance contracts is such that we can never be subject to immediate demands for sums that are large compared to our cash resources. This strength is a key pillar in Berkshire’s economic fortress.

If our premiums exceed the total of our expenses and eventual losses, we register an underwriting profit that adds to the investment income our float produces. When such a profit is earned, we enjoy the use of free money

– and, better yet, get paid for holding it.

Unfortunately, the wish of all insurers to achieve this happy result creates intense competition, so vigorous indeed that it frequently causes the P/C industry as a whole to operate at a significant underwriting loss. This loss, in effect, is what the industry pays to hold its float. Competitive dynamics almost guarantee that the insurance industry, despite the float income all its companies enjoy, will continue its dismal record of earning subnormal returns on tangible net worth as compared to other American businesses. The prolonged period of low interest rates our country is now dealing with causes earnings on float to decrease, thereby exacerbating the profit problems of the industry.

As noted in the first section of this report, Berkshire has now operated at an underwriting profit for twelve consecutive years, our pre-tax gain for the period having totaled $24 billion. Looking ahead, I believe we will continue to underwrite profitably in most years. Doing so 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. That message is given at least lip service by all insurers; at Berkshire it is a religion.

So how does our float affect intrinsic value? When Berkshire’s book value is calculated, the full amount of our float is deducted as a liability, just as if we had to pay it out tomorrow and could not replenish it. But to think of float as strictly a liability is incorrect; it should instead be viewed as a revolving fund. Daily, we pay old claims and related expenses – a huge $22.7 billion to more than six million claimants in 2014 – and that reduces float. Just as surely, we each day write new business and thereby generate new claims that add to float.

If our revolving float is both costless and long-enduring, which I believe it will be, the true value of this liability is dramatically less than the accounting liability. Owing $1 that in effect will never leave the premises – because new business is almost certain to deliver a substitute – is worlds different from owing $1 that will go out the door tomorrow and not be replaced. The two types of liabilities are treated as equals, however, under GAAP.

A partial offset to this overstated liability is a $15.5 billion “goodwill” asset that we incurred in buying our insurance companies and that increases book value. In very large part, this goodwill represents the price we paid for the float-generating capabilities of our insurance operations. The cost of the goodwill, however, has no bearing on its true value. For example, if an insurance company sustains large and prolonged underwriting losses, any goodwill asset carried on the books should be deemed valueless, whatever its original cost.

Fortunately, that does not describe Berkshire. 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.

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Berkshire’s attractive insurance economics exist only because we have some terrific managers running disciplined operations that possess hard-to-replicate business models. Let me tell you about the major units.

First by float size is the Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group, managed by Ajit Jain. Ajit insures risks that no one else has the desire or the capital to take on. His operation combines capacity, speed, decisiveness and, most important, brains in a manner unique in the insurance business. Yet he never exposes Berkshire to risks that are inappropriate in relation to our resources.

Indeed, we are far more conservative in avoiding risk than most large insurers. For example, if the insurance industry should experience a $250 billion loss from some mega-catastrophe – a loss about triple anything it has ever experienced – Berkshire as a whole would likely record a significant profit for the year because of its many streams of earnings. We would also remain awash in cash and be looking for large opportunities in a market that might well have gone into shock. Meanwhile, other major insurers and reinsurers would be far in the red, if not facing insolvency.

Ajit’s underwriting skills are unmatched. His mind, moreover, is an idea factory that is always looking for more lines of business he can add to his current assortment. Last year I told you about his formation of Berkshire Hathaway Specialty Insurance (“BHSI”). This initiative took us into commercial insurance, where we were instantly welcomed by both major insurance brokers and corporate risk managers throughout America. Previously, we had written only a few specialized lines of commercial insurance.

BHSI is led by Peter Eastwood, an experienced underwriter who is widely respected in the insurance world. During 2014, Peter expanded his talented group, moving into both international business and new lines of insurance. We repeat last year’s prediction that BHSI will be a major asset for Berkshire, one that will generate volume in the billions within a few years.

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We have another reinsurance powerhouse in General Re, managed by Tad Montross.

At bottom, a sound insurance operation needs to adhere to four disciplines. It must (1) understand all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) conservatively assess the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) set a premium that, on average, will deliver a profit after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) be willing to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.

Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. They simply can’t turn their back on business that is being eagerly written by their competitors. That old line, “The other guy is doing it, so we must as well,” spells trouble in any business, but in none more so than insurance.

Tad has observed all four of the insurance commandments, and it shows in his results. General Re’s huge float has been considerably better than cost-free under his leadership, and we expect that, on average, to continue. We are particularly enthusiastic about General Re’s international life reinsurance business, which has grown consistently and profitably since we acquired the company in 1998.

It can be remembered that soon after we purchased General Re, it was beset by problems that caused commentators – and me as well, briefly – to believe I had made a huge mistake. That day is long gone. General Re is now a gem.

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Finally, there is GEICO, the insurer on which I cut my teeth 64 years ago. GEICO is managed by Tony Nicely, who joined the company at 18 and completed 53 years of service in 2014. Tony became CEO in 1993, and since then the company has been flying. There is no better manager than Tony.

When I was first introduced to GEICO in January 1951, I was blown away by the huge cost advantage the company enjoyed compared to the expenses borne by the giants of the industry. It was clear to me that GEICO would succeed because it deserved to succeed. No one likes to buy auto insurance. Almost everyone, though, likes to drive. The insurance consequently needed is a major expenditure for most families. Savings matter to them – and only a low-cost operation can deliver these. Indeed, at least 40% of the people reading this letter can save money by insuring with GEICO. So stop reading and go to geico.com or call 800-368-2734.

GEICO’s cost advantage is the factor that has enabled the company to gobble up market share year after year. (We ended 2014 at 10.8% compared to 2.5% in 1995, when Berkshire acquired control of GEICO.) The company’s low costs create a moat – an enduring one – that competitors are unable to cross. Our gecko never tires of telling Americans how GEICO can save them important money. The gecko, I should add, has one particularly endearing quality – he works without pay. Unlike a human spokesperson, he never gets a swelled head from his fame nor does he have an agent to constantly remind us how valuable he is. I love the little guy.

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In addition to our three major insurance operations, we own a group of smaller companies, most of them plying their trade in odd corners of the insurance world. In aggregate, these companies are a growing operation that consistently delivers an underwriting profit. Indeed, over the past decade, they have earned $2.95 billion from underwriting while growing their float from $1.7 billion to $8.6 billion. Charlie and I treasure these companies and their managers.

Underwriting Profit Yearend Float
(in millions)
Insurance Operations 2014 2013 2014 2013
BH Reinsurance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 606 $1,294 $42,454 $37,231
General Re . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 277 283 19,280 20,013
GEICO . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,159 1,127 13,569 12,566
Other Primary . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 626 385 8,618 7,430
$ 2,668 $3,089 $83,921 $77,240

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Simply put, insurance is the sale of promises. The “customer” pays money now; the insurer promises to pay money in the future should certain unwanted events occur.

Sometimes, the promise will not be tested for decades. (Think of life insurance bought by people in their 20s.) Therefore, both the ability and willingness of the insurer to pay, even if economic chaos prevails when payment time arrives, is all-important.

Berkshire’s promises have no equal, a fact affirmed in recent years by certain of the world’s largest and most sophisticated P/C insurers, who wished to shed themselves of huge and exceptionally long-lived liabilities. That is, these insurers wished to “cede” these liabilities – most of them potential losses from asbestos claims – to a reinsurer. They needed the right one, though: If a reinsurer fails to pay a loss, the original insurer is still on the hook for it. Choosing a reinsurer, therefore, that down the road proves to be financially strapped or a bad actor threatens the original insurer with getting huge liabilities right back in its lap.

Last year, our premier position in reinsurance was reaffirmed by our writing a policy carrying a $3 billion single premium. I believe that the policy’s size has only been exceeded by our 2007 transaction with Lloyd’s, in which the premium was $7.1 billion.

In fact, I know of only eight P/C policies in history that had a single premium exceeding $1 billion. And, yes, all eight were written by Berkshire. Certain of these contracts will require us to make substantial payments 50 years or more from now. When major insurers have needed an unquestionable promise that payments of this type will be made, Berkshire has been the party – the only party – to call.

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Berkshire’s great managers, premier financial strength and a variety of business models protected by wide moats amount to something unique in the insurance world. This assemblage of strengths is a huge asset for Berkshire shareholders that will only get more valuable with time.

Regulated, Capital-Intensive Businesses

We have two major operations, BNSF and Berkshire Hathaway Energy (“BHE”), that share important characteristics distinguishing them from our other businesses. Consequently, we assign them their own section in this letter and split out their combined financial statistics in our GAAP balance sheet and income statement.

A key characteristic of both companies is their huge investment in very long-lived, regulated assets, with these partially funded by large amounts of long-term debt that is not guaranteed by Berkshire. Our credit is in fact not needed because each company has earning power that even under terrible economic conditions will far exceed its interest requirements. Last year, for example, BNSF’s interest coverage was more than 8:1. (Our definition of coverage is pre-tax earnings/interest, not EBITDA/interest, a commonly used measure we view as seriously flawed.)

At BHE, meanwhile, two factors ensure the company’s ability to service its debt under all circumstances. The first is common to all utilities: recession-resistant earnings, which result from these companies offering an essential service on an exclusive basis. The second is enjoyed by few other utilities: a great diversity of earnings streams, which shield us from being seriously harmed by any single regulatory body. Recently, we have further broadened that base through our $3 billion (Canadian) acquisition of AltaLink, an electric transmission system serving 85% of Alberta’s population. This multitude of profit streams, supplemented by the inherent advantage of being owned by a strong parent, has enabled BHE and its utility subsidiaries to significantly lower their cost of debt. This economic fact benefits both us and our customers.

Every day, our two subsidiaries power the American economy in major ways:

  • 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.

BNSF, like all railroads, also moves its cargo in an extraordinarily fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly way, carrying a ton of freight about 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel. Trucks taking on the same job guzzle about four times as much fuel.

  • 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.

BHE can make these investments because it retains all of its earnings. In fact, last year the company retained more dollars of earnings – by far – than any other American electric utility. We and our regulators see this 100% retention policy as an important advantage – one almost certain to distinguish BHE from other utilities for many years to come.

When BHE completes certain renewables projects that are underway, the company’s renewables portfolio will have cost $15 billion. In addition, we have conventional projects in the works that will also cost many billions. We relish making such commitments as long as they promise reasonable returns – and, on that front, we put a large amount of trust in future regulation.

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 concomitantly in our self-interest to conduct our operations in a way that earns the approval of our regulators and the people they represent.

Last year we fully met this objective at BHE, just as we have in every year of our ownership. Our rates remain low, our customer satisfaction is high and our record for employee safety is among the best in the industry.

The story at BNSF, however – as I noted earlier – was not good in 2014, a year in which the railroad disappointed many of its customers. This problem occurred despite the record capital expenditures that BNSF has made in recent years, with those having far exceeded the outlays made by Union Pacific, our principal competitor.

The two railroads are of roughly equal size measured by revenues, though we carry considerably more freight (measured either by carloads or ton-miles). But our service problems exceeded Union Pacific’s last year, and we lost market share as a result. Moreover, U.P.’s earnings beat ours by a record amount. Clearly, we have a lot of work to do.

We are wasting no time: As I also mentioned earlier, we will spend $6 billion in 2015 on improving our railroad’s operation. That will amount to about 26% of estimated revenues (a calculation that serves as the industry’s yardstick). Outlays of this magnitude are largely unheard of among railroads. For us, this percentage compares to our average of 18% in 2009-2013 and to U.P.’s projection for the near future of 16-17%. Our huge investments will soon lead to a system with greater capacity and much better service. Improved profits should follow.

Here are the key figures for Berkshire Hathaway Energy and BNSF:

Berkshire Hathaway Energy (89.9% owned) Earnings (in millions)
2014 2013 2012
U.K. utilities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 527 $ 362 $ 429
Iowa utility . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 298 230 236
Nevada utilities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 549
PacifiCorp (primarily Oregon and Utah) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,010 982 737
Gas Pipelines (Northern Natural and Kern River) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 379 385 383
HomeServices . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 139 139 82
Other (net) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 236 4 91
Operating earnings before corporate interest and taxes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,138 2,102 1,958
Interest . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 427 296 314
Income taxes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 616 170 172
Net earnings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 2,095 $ 1,636 $ 1,472
Earnings applicable to Berkshire . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 1,882 $ 1,470 $ 1,323
BNSF Earnings (in millions)
2014 2013 2012
Revenues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 23,239 $ 22,014 $ 20,835
Operating expenses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16,237 15,357 14,835
Operating earnings before interest and taxes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7,002 6,657 6,000
Interest (net) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 833 729 623
Income taxes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,300 2,135 2,005
Net earnings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 3,869 $ 3,793 $ 3,372

Manufacturing, Service and Retailing Operations

Our activities in this part of Berkshire cover the waterfront. Let’s look, though, at a summary balance sheet and earnings statement for the entire group.

Balance Sheet 12/31/14 (in millions)
Assets Liabilities and Equity
Cash and equivalents . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .$ 5,765 Notes payable . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Accounts and notes receivable . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8,264 Other current liabilities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Inventory . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10,236 Total current liabilities . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Other current assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1,117
Total current assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25,382
Deferred taxes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Goodwill and other intangibles . . . . . . . . . . . . 28,107 Term debt and other liabilities . . . . . . . . . . .
Fixed assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13,806 Non-controlling interests . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Other assets . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3,793 Berkshire equity . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
$ 71,088
Earnings Statement (in millions)
2014 2013*
Revenues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 97,689 $ 93,472
Operating expenses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 90,788 87,208
Interest expense . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 109 104
Pre-tax earnings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6,792 6,160
Income taxes and non-controlling interests . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2,324 2,283
Net earnings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 4,468 $ 3,877

$ 965 9,734

10,699

3,801

4,269

492

51,827

$71,088

2012*

$81,432 75,734 112

5,586

2,229

$ 3,357

*Earnings for 2012 and 2013 have been restated to exclude Marmon’s leasing operations, which are now included in the Finance and Financial Products section.

Our income and expense data conforming to GAAP is on page 49. In contrast, the operating expense figures above are non-GAAP and exclude some purchase-accounting items (primarily the amortization of certain intangible assets). We present the data in this manner because Charlie and I believe the adjusted numbers more accurately reflect the true economic expenses and profits of the businesses aggregated in the table than do GAAP figures.

I won’t explain all of the adjustments – some are tiny and arcane – but serious investors should understand the disparate nature of intangible assets. Some truly deplete over time, while others in no way lose value. For software, as a big example, amortization charges are very real expenses. The concept of making charges against other intangibles, such as the amortization of customer relationships, however, arises through purchase-accounting rules and clearly does not reflect reality. GAAP accounting draws no distinction between the two types of charges. Both, that is, are recorded as expenses when earnings are calculated – even though from an investor’s viewpoint they could not be more different.

In the GAAP-compliant figures we show on page 49, amortization charges of $1.15 billion have been deducted as expenses. We would call about 20% of these “real,” the rest not. The “non-real” charges, once non-existent at Berkshire, have become significant because of the many acquisitions we have made. Non-real amortization charges will almost certainly rise further as we acquire more companies.

The GAAP-compliant table on page 67 gives you the current status of our intangible assets. We now have $7.4 billion left to amortize, of which $4.1 billion will be charged over the next five years. Eventually, of course, every dollar of non-real costs becomes entirely charged off. When that happens, reported earnings increase even if true earnings are flat.

Depreciation charges, we want to emphasize, are different: Every dime of depreciation expense we report is a real cost. That’s true, moreover, at most other companies. When CEOs tout EBITDA as a valuation guide, wire them up for a polygraph test.

Our public reports of earnings will, of course, continue to conform to GAAP. To embrace reality, however, you should remember to add back most of the amortization charges we report.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

To get back to our many manufacturing, service and retailing operations, they sell products ranging from lollipops to jet airplanes. Some of this sector’s businesses, measured by earnings on unleveraged net tangible assets, enjoy terrific economics, producing profits that run from 25% after-tax to far more than 100%. Others generate good returns in the area of 12% to 20%. A few, however, have very poor returns, the result of some serious mistakes I made in my job of capital allocation. I was not misled: I simply was wrong in my evaluation of the economic dynamics of the company or the industry in which it operates.

Fortunately, my blunders normally involved relatively small acquisitions. Our large buys have generally worked out well and, in a few cases, more than well. I have not, nonetheless, made my last mistake in purchasing either businesses or stocks. Not everything works out as planned.

Viewed as a single entity, the companies in this group are an excellent business. They employed an average of $24 billion of net tangible assets during 2014 and, despite their holding large quantities of excess cash and using little leverage, earned 18.7% after-tax on that capital.

Of course, a business with terrific economics can be a bad investment if it is bought for too high a price. We have paid substantial premiums to net tangible assets for most of our businesses, a cost that is reflected in the large figure we show for goodwill. Overall, however, we are getting a decent return on the capital we have deployed in this sector. Furthermore, the intrinsic value of these businesses, in aggregate, exceeds their carrying value by a good margin, and that premium is likely to widen. Even so, 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.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

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 others knew our numbers. In some of our operations that are not of a size material to an evaluation of Berkshire, therefore, we only disclose what is required. You can find a good bit of detail about many of our operations, however, on pages 97-100.

Finance and Financial Products

This year we include in this section Marmon’s very sizable leasing operations, whose wares are railcars, containers and cranes. We have also restated the previous two years to reflect that change. Why have we made it? At one time there was a large minority ownership at Marmon, and I felt it was more understandable to include all of the company’s operations in one place. Today we own virtually 100% of Marmon, which makes me think you will gain more insight into our various businesses if we include Marmon’s leasing operations under this heading. (The figures for the many dozens of Marmon’s other businesses remain in the previous section.)

Our other leasing and rental operations are conducted by CORT (furniture) and XTRA (semi-trailers). These companies are industry leaders and have substantially increased their earnings as the American economy has gained strength. Both companies have invested more money in new equipment than have many of their competitors, and that’s paying off.

Kevin Clayton has again delivered an industry-leading performance at Clayton Homes, the largest home builder in America. Last year, Clayton sold 30,871 homes, about 45% of the manufactured homes bought by Americans. When we purchased Clayton in 2003 for $1.7 billion, its share was 14%.

Key to Clayton’s earnings is the company’s $13 billion mortgage portfolio. During the financial panic of 2008 and 2009, when funding for the industry dried up, Clayton was able to keep lending because of Berkshire’s backing. In fact, we continued during that period to finance our competitors’ retail sales as well as our own.

Many of Clayton’s borrowers have low incomes and mediocre FICO scores. But thanks to the company’s sensible lending practices, its portfolio performed well during the recession, meaning a very high percentage of our borrowers kept their homes. Our blue-collar borrowers, in many cases, proved much better credit risks than their higher-income brethren.

At Marmon’s railroad-car operation, lease rates have improved substantially over the past few years. The nature of this business, however, is that only 20% or so of our leases expire annually. Consequently, improved pricing only gradually works its way into our revenue stream. The trend, though, is strong. Our 105,000-car fleet consists largely of tank cars, but only 8% of those transport crude oil.

One further fact about our rail operation is important for you to know: Unlike many other lessors, we manufacture our own tank cars, about 6,000 of them in a good year. We do not book any profit when we transfer cars from our manufacturing division to our leasing division. Our fleet is consequently placed on our books at a “bargain” price. The difference between that figure and a “retail” price is only slowly reflected in our earnings through smaller annual depreciation charges that we enjoy over the 30-year life of the car. Because of that fact as well as others, Marmon’s rail fleet is worth considerably more than the $5 billion figure at which it is carried on our books.

Here’s the earnings recap for this sector:
2014 2013 2012
(in millions)
Berkadia (our 50% share) . . . . . . . . . . . . . $ 122 $ 80 $ 35
Clayton . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 558 416 255
CORT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36 40 42
Marmon – Containers and Cranes . . . . . 238 226 246
Marmon – Railcars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 442 353 299
XTRA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 147 125 106
Net financial income* . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 296 324 410
$ 1,839 $ 1,564 $ 1,393

* Excludes capital gains or losses

Investments

Below we list our fifteen common stock investments that at yearend had the largest market value.

12/31/14
Percentage of
Shares** Company Company Cost* Market
Owned
(in millions)
151,610,700 American Express Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14.8 $  1,287 $   14,106
400,000,000 The Coca-Cola Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9.2 1,299 16,888
18,513,482 DaVita HealthCare Partners Inc. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8.6 843 1,402
15,430,586 Deere & Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.5 1,253 1,365
24,617,939 DIRECTV . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4.9 1,454 2,134
13,062,594 The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3.0 750 2,532
76,971,817 International Business Machines Corp. . . . . . . 7.8 13,157 12,349
24,669,778 Moody’s Corporation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12.1 248 2,364
20,060,390 Munich Re . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11.8 2,990 4,023
52,477,678 The Procter & Gamble Company . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.9 336 4,683 ***
22,169,930 Sanofi . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1.7 1,721 2,032
96,890,665 U.S. Bancorp . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5.4 3,033 4,355
43,387,980 USG Corporation . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 30.0 836 1,214
67,707,544 Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2.1 3,798 5,815
483,470,853 Wells Fargo & Company . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9.4 11,871 26,504
Others . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10,180 15,704
Total Common Stocks Carried at Market . . . . $55,056 $ 117,470

*This is our actual purchase price and also our tax basis; GAAP “cost” differs in a few cases because of write-ups or write-downs that have been required under GAAP rules.

**Excludes shares held by pension funds of Berkshire subsidiaries.

***Held under contract of sale for this amount.

Berkshire has one major equity position that is not included in the table: We can buy 700 million shares of Bank of America at any time prior to September 2021 for $5 billion. At yearend these shares were worth $12.5 billion. We are likely to purchase the shares just before expiration of our option. In the meantime, it is important for you to realize that Bank of America is, in effect, our fourth largest equity investment – and one we value highly.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Attentive readers will notice that Tesco, which last year appeared in the list of our largest common stock investments, is now absent. An attentive investor, I’m embarrassed to report, would have sold Tesco shares earlier. I made a big mistake with this investment by dawdling.

At the end of 2012 we owned 415 million shares of Tesco, then and now the leading food retailer in the U.K. and an important grocer in other countries as well. Our cost for this investment was $2.3 billion, and the market value was a similar amount.

In 2013, I soured somewhat on the company’s then-management and sold 114 million shares, realizing a profit of $43 million. My leisurely pace in making sales would prove expensive. Charlie calls this sort of behavior “thumb-sucking.” (Considering what my delay cost us, he is being kind.)

During 2014, Tesco’s problems worsened by the month. The company’s market share fell, its margins contracted and accounting problems surfaced. In the world of business, bad news often surfaces serially: You see a cockroach in your kitchen; as the days go by, you meet his relatives.

We sold Tesco shares throughout the year and are now out of the position. (The company, we should mention, has hired new management, and we wish them well.) Our after-tax loss from this investment was $444 million, about 1/5 of 1% of Berkshire’s net worth. 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.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Our investment results have been helped by a terrific tailwind. During the 1964-2014 period, the S&P 500 rose from 84 to 2,059, which, with reinvested dividends, generated the overall return of 11,196% shown on page 2. Concurrently, the purchasing power of the dollar declined a staggering 87%. That decrease means that it now takes $1 to buy what could be bought for 13¢ in 1965 (as measured by the Consumer Price Index).

There is an important message for investors in that disparate performance between stocks and dollars. Think back to our 2011 annual report, in which we defined 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.”

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.

It is true, of course, that owning equities for a day or a week or a year is far riskier (in both nominal and purchasing-power terms) than leaving funds in cash-equivalents. That is relevant to certain investors – say, investment banks – whose viability can be threatened by declines in asset prices and which might be forced to sell securities during depressed markets. Additionally, any party that might have meaningful near-term needs for funds should keep appropriate sums in Treasuries or insured bank deposits.

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.

If the investor, instead, fears price volatility, erroneously viewing it as a measure of risk, he may, ironically, end up doing some very risky things. Recall, if you will, the pundits who six years ago bemoaned falling stock prices and advised investing in “safe” Treasury bills or bank certificates of deposit. People who heeded this sermon are now earning a pittance on sums they had previously expected would finance a pleasant retirement. (The S&P 500 was then below 700; now it is about 2,100.) If not for their fear of meaningless price volatility, these investors could have assured themselves of a good income for life by simply buying a very low-cost index fund whose dividends would trend upward over the years and whose principal would grow as well (with many ups and downs, to be sure).

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.

The commission of the investment sins listed above is not limited to “the little guy.” Huge institutional investors, viewed as a group, have long underperformed the unsophisticated index-fund investor who simply sits tight for decades. A major reason has been fees: Many institutions pay substantial sums to consultants who, in turn, recommend high-fee managers. And that is a fool’s game.

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. Most advisors, however, are far better at generating high fees than they are at generating high returns. In truth, their core competence is salesmanship. Rather than listen to their siren songs, investors – large and small – should instead read Jack Bogle’s The Little Book of Common Sense Investing.

Decades ago, Ben Graham pinpointed the blame for investment failure, using a quote from Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

The Annual Meeting

The annual meeting will be held on Saturday, May 2nd at the CenturyLink Center. Last year’s attendance of 39,000 set a record, and we expect a further increase this year as we celebrate our Golden Anniversary. Be there when the doors open at 7 a.m.

Berkshire’s talented Carrie Sova will again be in charge. Carrie joined us six years ago at the age of 24 as a secretary. Then, four years ago, I asked her to take charge of the meeting – a huge undertaking, requiring a multitude of skills – and she jumped at the chance. Carrie is unflappable, ingenious and expert at bringing out the best in the hundreds who work with her. She is aided by our entire home office crew who enjoy pitching in to make the weekend fun and informative for our owners.

And, yes, we also try to sell our visiting shareholders our products while they’re here. In fact, this year we will substantially increase the hours available for purchases, opening for business at the CenturyLink on Friday, May 1st, from noon to 5 p.m. as well as the usual 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on meeting day. So bring a smile to Charlie’s face and do some serious shopping.

Get up early on Saturday morning. At 6:20 a.m., Norman and Jake, two Texas longhorns each weighing about a ton, will proceed down 10th Street to the CenturyLink. Aboard them will be a couple of our Justin Boot executives, who do double duty as cowboys. Following the steers will be four horses pulling a Wells Fargo stagecoach. Berkshire already markets planes, trains and automobiles. Adding steers and stagecoaches to our portfolio should seal our reputation as America’s all-purpose transportation company.

At about 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, we will have our fourth International Newspaper Tossing Challenge. Our target again will be a Clayton Home porch, located precisely 35 feet from the throwing line. When I was a teenager

– in my one brief flirtation with honest labor – I tossed about 500,000 papers. So I think I’m pretty good. Challenge me! Humiliate me! Knock me down a peg! I’ll buy a Dilly Bar for anyone who lands his or her throw closer to the doorstep than I do. The papers will run 36 to 42 pages, and you must fold them yourself (no rubber bands allowed). I’ll present a special prize to the 12-or-under contestant who makes the best toss. Deb Bosanek will be the judge.

At 8:30 a.m., a new Berkshire movie will be shown. An hour later, we will start the question-and-answer period, which (with a break for lunch at CenturyLink’s stands) will last until 3:30 p.m. After a short recess, Charlie and I will convene the annual meeting at 3:45 p.m. This business session typically lasts only a half hour or so.

Your venue for shopping will be the 194,300-square-foot hall that adjoins the meeting and in which products from dozens of Berkshire subsidiaries will be for sale. If you don’t get your shopping done on Friday, slip out while Charlie’s talking on Saturday and binge on our bargains. Check the terrific BNSF railroad layout also. Even though I’m 84, it still excites me.

Last year you did your part as a shopper, and most of our businesses racked up record sales. In a nine-hour period on Saturday, we sold 1,385 pairs of Justin boots (that’s a pair every 23 seconds), 13,440 pounds of See’s candy, 7,276 pairs of Wells Lamont work gloves and 10,000 bottles of Heinz ketchup. Heinz has a new mustard product, so both mustard and ketchup will be available this year. (Buy both!) Now that we are open for business on Friday as well, we expect new records in every precinct.

Brooks, our running-shoe company, will again have a special commemorative shoe to offer at the meeting. After you purchase a pair, wear them the next day at our third annual “Berkshire 5K,” an 8 a.m. race starting at the CenturyLink. Full details for participating will be included in the Visitor’s Guide that will be sent to you with your credentials for the meeting. Entrants in the race will find themselves running alongside many of Berkshire’s managers, directors and associates. (Charlie and I, however, will sleep in.)

A GEICO booth in the shopping area will be staffed by a number of the company’s top counselors from around the country. Stop by for a quote. In most cases, GEICO will be able to give you a shareholder discount (usually 8%). This special offer is permitted by 44 of the 51 jurisdictions in which we operate. (One supplemental point: The discount is not additive if you qualify for another discount, such as that available to certain groups.) Bring the details of your existing insurance and check out our price. We can save many of you real money.

Be sure to visit the Bookworm. It will carry about 35 books and DVDs, among them a couple of new titles. Last year, many shareholders purchased Max Olson’s compilation of Berkshire letters going back to 1965, and he has produced an updated edition for the meeting. We also expect to be selling an inexpensive book commemorating our fifty years. It’s currently a work in process, but I expect it to contain a wide variety of historical material, including documents from the 19th Century.

An attachment to the proxy material that is enclosed with this report explains how you can obtain the credential you will need for admission to both the meeting and other events. Airlines have sometimes jacked up prices for the Berkshire weekend. If you are coming from far away, compare the cost of flying to Kansas City vs. Omaha. The drive between the two cities is about 21⁄ 2 hours, and it may be that Kansas City can save you significant money, particularly if you had planned to rent a car in Omaha. The savings for a couple could run to $1,000 or more. Spend that money with us.

At Nebraska Furniture Mart, located on a 77-acre site on 72nd Street between Dodge and Pacific, we will again be having “Berkshire Weekend” discount pricing. Last year in the week surrounding the meeting, the store did a record $40,481,817 of business. (An average week for NFM’s Omaha store is about $9 million.)

To obtain the Berkshire discount at NFM, you must make your purchases between Tuesday, April 28th and Monday, May 4th inclusive, and also present your meeting credential. The period’s special pricing will even apply to the products of several prestigious manufacturers that normally have ironclad rules against discounting but which, in the spirit of our shareholder weekend, have made an exception for you. We appreciate their cooperation. NFM is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Sunday. From 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, NFM is having a picnic to which you are all invited.

At Borsheims, we will again have two shareholder-only events. The first will be a cocktail reception from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Friday, May 1st. The second, the main gala, will be held on Sunday, May 3rd, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Saturday, we will remain open until 6 p.m. In recent years, our three-day volume has far exceeded our sales in all of December, normally a jeweler’s best month.

We will have huge crowds at Borsheims throughout the weekend. For your convenience, therefore, shareholder prices will be available from Monday, April 27th through Saturday, May 9th. During that period, please identify yourself as a shareholder by presenting your meeting credentials or a brokerage statement that shows you are a Berkshire holder.

On Sunday, in the mall outside of Borsheims, Norman Beck, a remarkable magician from Dallas, will bewilder onlookers. Additionally, we will have Bob Hamman and Sharon Osberg, two of the world’s top bridge experts, available to play bridge with our shareholders on Sunday afternoon. Don’t play them for money.

My friend, Ariel Hsing, will be in the mall as well on Sunday, taking on challengers at table tennis. I met Ariel when she was nine and even then I was unable to score a point against her. Now, she’s a sophomore at Princeton, having already represented the United States in the 2012 Olympics. If you don’t mind embarrassing yourself, test your skills against her, beginning at 1 p.m. Bill Gates and I will lead off and try to soften her up.

Gorat’s and Piccolo’s will again be open exclusively for Berkshire shareholders on Sunday, May 3rd. Both will be serving until 10 p.m., with Gorat’s opening at 1 p.m. and Piccolo’s opening at 4 p.m. These restaurants are my favorites, and I will eat at both of them on Sunday evening. Remember: To make a reservation at Gorat’s, call 402-551-3733 on April 1st (but not before); for Piccolo’s, call 402-346-2865. At Piccolo’s, order a giant root beer float for dessert. Only sissies get the small one.

We will again have the same three financial journalists lead the question-and-answer period at the meeting, asking Charlie and me questions that shareholders have submitted to them by e-mail. The journalists and their e-mail addresses are: Carol Loomis, who retired last year after sixty years at Fortune, but remains the expert on business and financial matters, and who may be e-mailed at [email protected]; Becky Quick, of CNBC, at [email protected]; and Andrew Ross Sorkin, of The New York Times, at [email protected]

From the questions submitted, each journalist will choose the six he or she decides are the most interesting and important. The journalists have told me your question has the best chance of being selected if you keep it concise, avoid sending it in at the last moment, make it Berkshire-related and include no more than two questions in any e-mail you send them. (In your e-mail, let the journalist know if you would like your name mentioned if your question is asked.)

We will also have a panel of three analysts who follow Berkshire. This year the insurance specialist will be Gary Ransom of Dowling & Partners. Questions that deal with our non-insurance operations will come from Jonathan Brandt of Ruane, Cunniff & Goldfarb and Gregg Warren of Morningstar. Our hope is that the analysts and journalists will ask questions that add to our owners’ understanding and knowledge of their investment.

Neither Charlie nor I will get so much as a clue about the questions headed our way. Some will be tough, for sure, and that’s the way we like it. All told we expect at least 54 questions, which will allow for six from each analyst and journalist and for 18 from the audience. (Last year we had 62 in total.) The questioners from the audience will be chosen by means of 11 drawings that will take place at 8:15 a.m. on the morning of the annual meeting. Each of the 11 microphones installed in the arena and main overflow room will host, so to speak, a drawing.

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 should also have adequate time to analyze it. 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. We do not talk one-on-one to large institutional investors or analysts, treating them instead as we do all other shareholders.

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We get terrific help at meeting time from literally thousands of Omaha residents and businesses who want you to enjoy yourselves. This year, because we expect record attendance, we have worried about a shortage of hotel rooms. To deal with that possible problem, Airbnb is making a special effort to obtain listings for the period around meeting time and is likely to have a wide array of accommodations to offer. Airbnb’s services may be especially helpful to shareholders who expect to spend only a single night in Omaha and are aware that last year a few hotels required guests to pay for a minimum of three nights. That gets expensive. Those people on a tight budget should check the Airbnb website.

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For good reason, I regularly extol the accomplishments of our operating managers. They are truly All-Stars who run their businesses as if they were the only asset owned by their families. I believe the mindset of our managers also to be as shareholder-oriented as can be found in the universe of large publicly-owned companies. Most of our managers have no financial need to work. The joy of hitting business “home runs” means as much to them as their paycheck.

Equally important, however, are the 24 men and women who work with me at our corporate office. This group efficiently deals with a multitude of SEC and other regulatory requirements, files a 24,100-page Federal income tax return and oversees the filing of 3,400 state tax returns, responds to countless shareholder and media inquiries, gets out the annual report, prepares for the country’s largest annual meeting, coordinates the Board’s activities – and the list goes on and on.

They handle all of these business tasks cheerfully and with unbelievable efficiency, making my life easy and pleasant. Their efforts go beyond activities strictly related to Berkshire: Last year they dealt with the 40 universities (selected from 200 applicants) who sent students to Omaha for a Q&A day with me. They also handle all kinds of requests that I receive, arrange my travel, and even get me hamburgers and french fries (smothered in Heinz ketchup, of course) for lunch. No CEO has it better; I truly do feel like tap dancing to work every day.

Last year, for the annual report, we dropped our 48-year-old “no pictures” policy – who says I’m not flexible? – and ran a photo of our remarkable home-office crew that was taken at our Christmas lunch. I didn’t warn the gang of the public exposure they were to receive, so they didn’t have on their Sunday best. This year was a different story: On the facing page you will see what our group looks like when they think someone will be noticing. However they dress, their performance is mind-boggling.

Come meet them on May 2nd and enjoy our Woodstock for Capitalists.

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