One of the things I really look forward to each March 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.
I’ve broken this up into three parts: Buffett’s letter, Charlie Munger’s letter, and their report on Berkshire’s 2014 performance. As you read these below, do keep in mind that the reason they write this 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 otherwise enjoy the wisdom that they each have to share after 60 years in business and investing.
(If you enjoy this, you might want to check out Berkshire Hathaway Letters to Shareholders, 2013, in which each of these letters from 1965 to 2013 are reprinted, or one of the other books on Buffett and Munger to the left.)
February 27, 2015
Warren E. Buffett
Chairman of the Board
BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY INC.
Berkshire – Past, Present and Future
In the Beginning
On May 6, 1964, Berkshire Hathaway, then run by a man named Seabury Stanton, sent a letter to its shareholders offering to buy 225,000 shares of its stock for $11.375 per share. I had expected the letter; I was surprised by the price.
Berkshire then had 1,583,680 shares outstanding. About 7% of these were owned by Buffett Partnership Ltd. (“BPL”), an investing entity that I managed and in which I had virtually all of my net worth. Shortly before the tender offer was mailed, Stanton had asked me at what price BPL would sell its holdings. I answered $11.50, and he said, “Fine, we have a deal.” Then came Berkshire’s letter, offering an eighth of a point less. I bristled at Stanton’s behavior and didn’t tender.
That was a monumentally stupid decision.
Berkshire was then a northern textile manufacturer mired in a terrible business. The industry in which it operated was heading south, both metaphorically and physically. And Berkshire, for a variety of reasons, was unable to change course.
That was true even though the industry’s problems had long been widely understood. Berkshire’s own Board minutes of July 29, 1954, laid out the grim facts: “The textile industry in New England started going out of business forty years ago. During the war years this trend was stopped. The trend must continue until supply and demand have been balanced.”
About a year after that board meeting, Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates and Hathaway Manufacturing – both with roots in the 19th Century – joined forces, taking the name we bear today. With its fourteen plants and 10,000 employees, the merged company became the giant of New England textiles. What the two managements viewed as a merger agreement, however, soon morphed into a suicide pact. During the seven years following the consolidation, Berkshire operated at an overall loss, and its net worth shrunk by 37%.
Meanwhile, the company closed nine plants, sometimes using the liquidation proceeds to repurchase shares. And that pattern caught my attention.
I purchased BPL’s first shares of Berkshire in December 1962, anticipating more closings and more repurchases. The stock was then selling for $7.50, a wide discount from per-share working capital of $10.25 and book value of $20.20. Buying the stock at that price was like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it. Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free. Once that momentary pleasure was enjoyed, however, no more could be expected.
Berkshire thereafter stuck to the script: It soon closed another two plants, and in that May 1964 move, set out to repurchase shares with the shutdown proceeds. The price that Stanton offered was 50% above the cost of our original purchases. There it was – my free puff, just waiting for me, after which I could look elsewhere for other discarded butts.
Instead, irritated by Stanton’s chiseling, I ignored his offer and began to aggressively buy more Berkshire shares.
By April 1965, BPL owned 392,633 shares (out of 1,017,547 then outstanding) and at an early-May board meeting we formally took control of the company. Through Seabury’s and my childish behavior – after all, what was an eighth of a point to either of us? – he lost his job, and I found myself with more than 25% of BPL’s capital invested in a terrible business about which I knew very little. I became the dog who caught the car.
Because of Berkshire’s operating losses and share repurchases, its net worth at the end of fiscal 1964 had fallen to $22 million from $55 million at the time of the 1955 merger. The full $22 million was required by the textile operation: The company had no excess cash and owed its bank $2.5 million. (Berkshire’s 1964 annual report is reproduced on pages 130-142.)
For a time I got lucky: Berkshire immediately enjoyed two years of good operating conditions. Better yet, its earnings in those years were free of income tax because it possessed a large loss carry-forward that had arisen from the disastrous results in earlier years.
Then the honeymoon ended. During the 18 years following 1966, we struggled unremittingly with the textile business, all to no avail. But stubbornness – stupidity? – has its limits. In 1985, I finally threw in the towel and closed the operation.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Undeterred by my first mistake of committing much of BPL’s resources to a dying business, I quickly compounded the error. Indeed, my second blunder was far more serious than the first, eventually becoming the most costly in my career.
Early in 1967, I had Berkshire pay $8.6 million to buy National Indemnity Company (“NICO”), a small but promising Omaha-based insurer. (A tiny sister company was also included in the deal.) Insurance was in my sweet spot: I understood and liked the industry.
Jack Ringwalt, the owner of NICO, was a long-time friend who wanted to sell to me – me, personally. In no way was his offer intended for Berkshire. So why did I purchase NICO for Berkshire rather than for BPL? I’ve had 48 years to think about that question, and I’ve yet to come up with a good answer. I simply made a colossal mistake.
If BPL had been the purchaser, my partners and I would have owned 100% of a fine business, destined to form the base for building the company Berkshire has become. Moreover, our growth would not have been impeded for nearly two decades by the unproductive funds imprisoned in the textile operation. Finally, our subsequent acquisitions would have been owned in their entirety by my partners and me rather than being 39%-owned by the legacy shareholders of Berkshire, to whom we had no obligation. Despite these facts staring me in the face, I opted to marry 100% of an excellent business (NICO) to a 61%-owned terrible business (Berkshire Hathaway), a decision that eventually diverted $100 billion or so from BPL partners to a collection of strangers.
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One more confession and then I’ll go on to more pleasant topics: Can you believe that in 1975 I bought Waumbec Mills, another New England textile company? Of course, the purchase price was a “bargain” based on the assets we received and the projected synergies with Berkshire’s existing textile business. Nevertheless – surprise, surprise – Waumbec was a disaster, with the mill having to be closed down not many years later.
And now some good news: The northern textile industry is finally extinct. You need no longer panic if you hear that I’ve been spotted wandering around New England.
Charlie Straightens Me Out
My cigar-butt strategy worked very well while I was managing small sums. Indeed, the many dozens of free puffs I obtained in the 1950s made that decade by far the best of my life for both relative and absolute investment performance.
Even then, however, I made a few exceptions to cigar butts, the most important being GEICO. Thanks to a 1951 conversation I had with Lorimer Davidson, a wonderful man who later became CEO of the company, I learned that GEICO was a terrific business and promptly put 65% of my $9,800 net worth into its shares. Most of my gains in those early years, though, came from investments in mediocre companies that traded at bargain prices. Ben Graham had taught me that technique, and it worked.
But a major weakness in this approach gradually became apparent: Cigar-butt investing was scalable only to a point. With large sums, it would never work well.
In addition, though marginal businesses purchased at cheap prices may be attractive as short-term investments, they are the wrong foundation on which to build a large and enduring enterprise. Selecting a marriage partner clearly requires more demanding criteria than does dating. (Berkshire, it should be noted, would have been a highly satisfactory “date”: If we had taken Seabury Stanton’s $11.375 offer for our shares, BPL’s weighted annual return on its Berkshire investment would have been about 40%.)
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It took Charlie Munger to break my cigar-butt habits and set the course for building a business that could combine huge size with satisfactory profits. Charlie had grown up a few hundred feet from where I now live and as a youth had worked, as did I, in my grandfather’s grocery store. Nevertheless, it was 1959 before I met Charlie, long after he had left Omaha to make Los Angeles his home. I was then 28 and he was 35. The Omaha doctor who introduced us predicted that we would hit it off – and we did.
If you’ve attended our annual meetings, you know Charlie has a wide-ranging brilliance, a prodigious memory, and some firm opinions. I’m not exactly wishy-washy myself, and we sometimes don’t agree. In 56 years, however, we’ve never had an argument. When we differ, Charlie usually ends the conversation by saying: “Warren, think it over and you’ll agree with me because you’re smart and I’m right.”
What most of you do not know about Charlie is that architecture is among his passions. Though he began his career as a practicing lawyer (with his time billed at $15 per hour), Charlie made his first real money in his 30s by designing and building five apartment projects near Los Angeles. Concurrently, he designed the house that he lives in today – some 55 years later. (Like me, Charlie can’t be budged if he is happy in his surroundings.) In recent years, Charlie has designed large dorm complexes at Stanford and the University of Michigan and today, at age 91, is working on another major project.
From my perspective, though, Charlie’s most important architectural feat was the design of today’s Berkshire. The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.
Altering my behavior is not an easy task (ask my family). I had enjoyed reasonable success without Charlie’s input, so why should I listen to a lawyer who had never spent a day in business school (when – ahem – I had attended three). But Charlie never tired of repeating his maxims about business and investing to me, and his logic was irrefutable. Consequently, Berkshire has been built to Charlie’s blueprint. My role has been that of general contractor, with the CEOs of Berkshire’s subsidiaries doing the real work as sub-contractors.
The year 1972 was a turning point for Berkshire (though not without occasional backsliding on my part – remember my 1975 purchase of Waumbec). We had the opportunity then to buy See’s Candy for Blue Chip Stamps, a company in which Charlie, I and Berkshire had major stakes, and which was later merged into Berkshire.
See’s was a legendary West Coast manufacturer and retailer of boxed chocolates, then annually earning about $4 million pre-tax while utilizing only $8 million of net tangible assets. Moreover, the company had a huge asset that did not appear on its balance sheet: a broad and durable competitive advantage that gave it significant pricing power. That strength was virtually certain to give See’s major gains in earnings over time. Better yet, these would materialize with only minor amounts of incremental investment. In other words, See’s could be expected to gush cash for decades to come.
The family controlling See’s wanted $30 million for the business, and Charlie rightly said it was worth that much. But I didn’t want to pay more than $25 million and wasn’t all that enthusiastic even at that figure. (A price that was three times net tangible assets made me gulp.) My misguided caution could have scuttled a terrific purchase. But, luckily, the sellers decided to take our $25 million bid.
To date, See’s has earned $1.9 billion pre-tax, with its growth having required added investment of only $40 million. See’s has thus been able to distribute huge sums that have helped Berkshire buy other businesses that, in turn, have themselves produced large distributable profits. (Envision rabbits breeding.) Additionally, through watching See’s in action, I gained a business education about the value of powerful brands that opened my eyes to many other profitable investments.
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Even with Charlie’s blueprint, I have made plenty of mistakes since Waumbec. The most gruesome was Dexter Shoe. When we purchased the company in 1993, it had a terrific record and in no way looked to me like a cigar butt. Its competitive strengths, however, were soon to evaporate because of foreign competition. And I simply didn’t see that coming.
Consequently, Berkshire paid $433 million for Dexter and, rather promptly, its value went to zero. GAAP accounting, however, doesn’t come close to recording the magnitude of my error. The fact is that I gave Berkshire stock to the sellers of Dexter rather than cash, and the shares I used for the purchase are now worth about $5.7 billion. As a financial disaster, this one deserves a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.
Several of my subsequent errors also involved the use of Berkshire shares to purchase businesses whose earnings were destined to simply limp along. Mistakes of that kind are deadly. Trading shares of a wonderful business – which Berkshire most certainly is – for ownership of a so-so business irreparably destroys value.
We’ve also suffered financially when this mistake has been committed by companies whose shares Berkshire has owned (with the errors sometimes occurring while I was serving as a director). Too often CEOs seem blind to an elementary reality: The intrinsic value of the shares you give in an acquisition must not be greater than the intrinsic value of the business you receive.
I’ve yet to see an investment banker quantify this all-important math when he is presenting a stock-for-stock deal to the board of a potential acquirer. Instead, the banker’s focus will be on describing “customary” premiums-to-market-price that are currently being paid for acquisitions – an absolutely asinine way to evaluate the attractiveness of an acquisition – or whether the deal will increase the acquirer’s earnings-per-share (which in itself should be far from determinative). In striving to achieve the desired per-share number, a panting CEO and his “helpers” will often conjure up fanciful “synergies.” (As a director of 19 companies over the years, I’ve never heard “dis-synergies” mentioned, though I’ve witnessed plenty of these once deals have closed.) Post mortems of acquisitions, in which reality is honestly compared to the original projections, are rare in American boardrooms. They should instead be standard practice.
I can promise you that long after I’m gone, Berkshire’s CEO and Board will carefully make intrinsic value calculations before issuing shares in any acquisitions. You can’t get rich trading a hundred-dollar bill for eight tens (even if your advisor has handed you an expensive “fairness” opinion endorsing that swap).
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Overall, Berkshire’s acquisitions have worked out well – and very well in the case of a few large ones. So, too, have our investments in marketable securities. The latter are always valued on our balance sheet at their market prices so any gains – including those unrealized – are immediately reflected in our net worth. But the businesses we buy outright are never revalued upward on our balance sheet, even when we could sell them for many billions of dollars more than their carrying value. The unrecorded gains in the value of Berkshire’s subsidiaries have become huge, with these growing at a particularly fast pace in the last decade.
Listening to Charlie has paid off.
Berkshire is now a sprawling conglomerate, constantly trying to sprawl further.
Conglomerates, it should be acknowledged, have a terrible reputation with investors. And they richly deserve it. Let me first explain why they are in the doghouse, and then I will go on to describe why the conglomerate form brings huge and enduring advantages to Berkshire.
Since I entered the business world, conglomerates have enjoyed several periods of extreme popularity, the silliest of which occurred in the late 1960s. The drill for conglomerate CEOs then was simple: By personality, promotion or dubious accounting – and often by all three – these managers drove a fledgling conglomerate’s stock to, say, 20 times earnings and then issued shares as fast as possible to acquire another business selling at ten-or-so times earnings. They immediately applied “pooling” accounting to the acquisition, which – with not a dime’s worth of change in the underlying businesses – automatically increased per-share earnings, and used the rise as proof of managerial genius. They next explained to investors that this sort of talent justified the maintenance, or even the enhancement, of the acquirer’s p/e multiple. And, finally, they promised to endlessly repeat this procedure and thereby create ever-increasing per-share earnings.
Wall Street’s love affair with this hocus-pocus intensified as the 1960s rolled by. The Street’s denizens are always ready to suspend disbelief when dubious maneuvers are used to manufacture rising per-share earnings, particularly if these acrobatics produce mergers that generate huge fees for investment bankers. Auditors willingly sprinkled their holy water on the conglomerates’ accounting and sometimes even made suggestions as to how to further juice the numbers. For many, gushers of easy money washed away ethical sensitivities.
Since the per-share earnings gains of an expanding conglomerate came from exploiting p/e differences, its CEO had to search for businesses selling at low multiples of earnings. These, of course, were characteristically mediocre businesses with poor long-term prospects. This incentive to bottom-fish usually led to a conglomerate’s collection of underlying businesses becoming more and more junky. That mattered little to investors: It was deal velocity and pooling accounting they looked to for increased earnings.
The resulting firestorm of merger activity was fanned by an adoring press. Companies such as ITT, Litton Industries, Gulf & Western, and LTV were lionized, and their CEOs became celebrities. (These once-famous conglomerates are now long gone. As Yogi Berra said, “Every Napoleon meets his Watergate.”)
Back then, accounting shenanigans of all sorts – many of them ridiculously transparent – were excused or overlooked. Indeed, having an accounting wizard at the helm of an expanding conglomerate was viewed as a huge plus: Shareholders in those instances could be sure that reported earnings would never disappoint, no matter how bad the operating realities of the business might become.
In the late 1960s, I attended a meeting at which an acquisitive CEO bragged of his “bold, imaginative accounting.” Most of the analysts listening responded with approving nods, seeing themselves as having found a manager whose forecasts were certain to be met, whatever the business results might be.
Eventually, however, the clock struck twelve, and everything turned to pumpkins and mice. Once again, it became evident that business models based on the serial issuances of overpriced shares – just like chain-letter models – most assuredly redistribute wealth, but in no way create it. Both phenomena, nevertheless, periodically blossom in our country – they are every promoter’s dream – though often they appear in a carefully-crafted disguise. The ending is always the same: Money flows from the gullible to the fraudster. And with stocks, unlike chain letters, the sums hijacked can be staggering.
At both BPL and Berkshire, we have never invested in companies that are hell-bent on issuing shares. That behavior is one of the surest indicators of a promotion-minded management, weak accounting, a stock that is overpriced and – all too often – outright dishonesty.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
So what do Charlie and I find so attractive about Berkshire’s conglomerate structure? To put the case simply: If the conglomerate form is used judiciously, it is an ideal structure for maximizing long-term capital growth.
One of the heralded virtues of capitalism is that it efficiently allocates funds. The argument is that markets will direct investment to promising businesses and deny it to those destined to wither. That is true: With all its excesses, market-driven allocation of capital is usually far superior to any alternative.
Nevertheless, there are often obstacles to the rational movement of capital. As those 1954 Berkshire minutes made clear, capital withdrawals within the textile industry that should have been obvious were delayed for decades because of the vain hopes and self-interest of managements. Indeed, I myself delayed abandoning our obsolete textile mills for far too long.
A CEO with capital employed in a declining operation seldom elects to massively redeploy that capital into unrelated activities. A move of that kind would usually require that long-time associates be fired and mistakes be admitted. Moreover, it’s unlikely that CEO would be the manager you would wish to handle the redeployment job even if he or she was inclined to undertake it.
At the shareholder level, taxes and frictional costs weigh heavily on individual investors when they attempt to reallocate capital among businesses and industries. Even tax-free institutional investors face major costs as they move capital because they usually need intermediaries to do this job. A lot of mouths with expensive tastes then clamor to be fed – among them investment bankers, accountants, consultants, lawyers and such capital-reallocators as leveraged buyout operators. Money-shufflers don’t come cheap.
In contrast, a conglomerate such as Berkshire is perfectly positioned to allocate capital rationally and at minimal cost. Of course, form itself is no guarantee of success: We have made plenty of mistakes, and we will make more. Our structural advantages, however, are formidable.
At Berkshire, we can – without incurring taxes or much in the way of other costs – move huge sums from businesses that have limited opportunities for incremental investment to other sectors with greater promise. Moreover, we are free of historical biases created by lifelong association with a given industry and are not subject to pressures from colleagues having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s important: If horses had controlled investment decisions, there would have been no auto industry.
Another major advantage we possess is the ability to buy pieces of wonderful businesses – a.k.a. common stocks. That’s not a course of action open to most managements. Over our history, this strategic alternative has proved to be very helpful; a broad range of options always sharpens decision-making. The businesses we are offered by the stock market every day – in small pieces, to be sure – are often far more attractive than the businesses we are concurrently being offered in their entirety. Additionally, the gains we’ve realized from marketable securities have helped us make certain large acquisitions that would otherwise have been beyond our financial capabilities.
In effect, the world is Berkshire’s oyster – a world offering us a range of opportunities far beyond those realistically open to most companies. We are limited, of course, to businesses whose economic prospects we can evaluate. And that’s a serious limitation: Charlie and I have no idea what a great many companies will look like ten years from now. But that limitation is much smaller than that borne by an executive whose experience has been confined to a single industry. On top of that, we can profitably scale to a far larger size than the many businesses that are constrained by the limited potential of the single industry in which they operate.
I mentioned earlier that See’s Candy had produced huge earnings compared to its modest capital requirements. We would have loved, of course, to intelligently use those funds to expand our candy operation. But our many attempts to do so were largely futile. So, without incurring tax inefficiencies or frictional costs, we have used the excess funds generated by See’s to help purchase other businesses. If See’s had remained a stand-alone company, its earnings would have had to be distributed to investors to redeploy, sometimes after being heavily depleted by large taxes and, almost always, by significant frictional and agency costs.
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Berkshire has one further advantage that has become increasingly important over the years: We are now the home of choice for the owners and managers of many outstanding businesses.
Families that own successful businesses have multiple options when they contemplate sale. Frequently, the best decision is to do nothing. There are worse things in life than having a prosperous business that one understands well. But sitting tight is seldom recommended by Wall Street. (Don’t ask the barber whether you need a haircut.)
When one part of a family wishes to sell while others wish to continue, a public offering often makes sense. But, when owners wish to cash out entirely, they usually consider one of two paths.
The first is sale to a competitor who is salivating at the possibility of wringing “synergies” from the combining of the two companies. This buyer invariably contemplates getting rid of large numbers of the seller’s associates, the very people who have helped the owner build his business. A caring owner, however – and there are plenty of them – usually does not want to leave his long-time associates sadly singing the old country song: “She got the goldmine, I got the shaft.”
The second choice for sellers is the Wall Street buyer. For some years, these purchasers accurately called themselves “leveraged buyout firms.” When that term got a bad name in the early 1990s – remember RJR and Barbarians at the Gate? – these buyers hastily relabeled themselves “private-equity.”
The name may have changed but that was all: Equity is dramatically reduced and debt is piled on in virtually all private-equity purchases. Indeed, the amount that a private-equity purchaser offers to the seller is in part determined by the buyer assessing the maximum amount of debt that can be placed on the acquired company.
Later, if things go well and equity begins to build, leveraged buy-out shops will often seek to re-leverage with new borrowings. They then typically use part of the proceeds to pay a huge dividend that drives equity sharply downward, sometimes even to a negative figure.
In truth, “equity” is a dirty word for many private-equity buyers; what they love is debt. And, because debt is currently so inexpensive, these buyers can frequently pay top dollar. Later, the business will be resold, often to another leveraged buyer. In effect, the business becomes a piece of merchandise.
Berkshire offers a third choice to the business owner who wishes to sell: a permanent home, in which the company’s people and culture will be retained (though, occasionally, management changes will be needed). Beyond that, any business we acquire dramatically increases its financial strength and ability to grow. Its days of dealing with banks and Wall Street analysts are also forever ended.
Some sellers don’t care about these matters. But, when sellers do, Berkshire does not have a lot of competition.
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Sometimes pundits propose that Berkshire spin-off certain of its businesses. These suggestions make no sense. Our companies are worth more as part of Berkshire than as separate entities. One reason is our ability to move funds between businesses or into new ventures instantly and without tax. In addition, certain costs duplicate themselves, in full or part, if operations are separated. Here’s the most obvious example: Berkshire incurs nominal costs for its single board of directors; were our dozens of subsidiaries to be split off, the overall cost for directors would soar. So, too, would regulatory and administration expenditures.
Finally, there are sometimes important tax efficiencies for Subsidiary A because we own Subsidiary B. For example, certain tax credits that are available to our utilities are currently realizable only because we generate huge amounts of taxable income at other Berkshire operations. That gives Berkshire Hathaway Energy a major advantage over most public-utility companies in developing wind and solar projects.
Investment bankers, being paid as they are for action, constantly urge acquirers to pay 20% to 50% premiums over market price for publicly-held businesses. The bankers tell the buyer that the premium is justified for “control value” and for the wonderful things that are going to happen once the acquirer’s CEO takes charge. (What acquisition-hungry manager will challenge that assertion?)
A few years later, bankers – bearing straight faces – again appear and just as earnestly urge spinning off the earlier acquisition in order to “unlock shareholder value.” Spin-offs, of course, strip the owning company of its purported “control value” without any compensating payment. The bankers explain that the spun-off company will flourish because its management will be more entrepreneurial, having been freed from the smothering bureaucracy of the parent company. (So much for that talented CEO we met earlier.)
If the divesting company later wishes to reacquire the spun-off operation, it presumably would again be urged by its bankers to pay a hefty “control” premium for the privilege. (Mental “flexibility” of this sort by the banking fraternity has prompted the saying that fees too often lead to transactions rather than transactions leading to fees.)
It’s possible, of course, that someday a spin-off or sale at Berkshire would be required by regulators. Berkshire carried out such a spin-off in 1979, when new regulations for bank holding companies forced us to divest a bank we owned in Rockford, Illinois.
Voluntary spin-offs, though, make no sense for us: We would lose control value, capital-allocation flexibility and, in some cases, important tax advantages. The CEOs who brilliantly run our subsidiaries now would have difficulty in being as effective if running a spun-off operation, given the operating and financial advantages derived from Berkshire’s ownership. Moreover, the parent and the spun-off operations, once separated, would likely incur moderately greater costs than existed when they were combined.
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Before I depart the subject of spin-offs, let’s look at a lesson to be learned from a conglomerate mentioned earlier: LTV. I’ll summarize here, but those who enjoy a good financial story should read the piece about Jimmy Ling that ran in the October 1982 issue of D Magazine. Look it up on the Internet.
Through a lot of corporate razzle-dazzle, Ling had taken LTV from sales of only $36 million in 1965 to number 14 on the Fortune 500 list just two years later. Ling, it should be noted, had never displayed any managerial skills. But Charlie told me long ago to never underestimate the man who overestimates himself. And Ling had no peer in that respect.
Ling’s strategy, which he labeled “project redeployment,” was to buy a large company and then partially spin off its various divisions. In LTV’s 1966 annual report, he explained the magic that would follow: “Most importantly, acquisitions must meet the test of the 2 plus 2 equals 5 (or 6) formula.” The press, the public and Wall Street loved this sort of talk.
In 1967 Ling bought Wilson & Co., a huge meatpacker that also had interests in golf equipment and pharmaceuticals. Soon after, he split the parent into three businesses, Wilson & Co. (meatpacking), Wilson Sporting Goods and Wilson Pharmaceuticals, each of which was to be partially spun off. These companies quickly became known on Wall Street as Meatball, Golf Ball and Goof Ball.
Soon thereafter, it became clear that, like Icarus, Ling had flown too close to the sun. By the early 1970s, Ling’s empire was melting, and he himself had been spun off from LTV . . . that is, fired.
Periodically, financial markets will become divorced from reality – you can count on that. More Jimmy Lings will appear. They will look and sound authoritative. The press will hang on their every word. Bankers will fight for their business. What they are saying will recently have “worked.” Their early followers will be feeling very clever. Our suggestion: Whatever their line, never forget that 2+2 will always equal 4. And when someone tells you how old-fashioned that math is — zip up your wallet, take a vacation and come back in a few years to buy stocks at cheap prices.
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Today Berkshire possesses (1) an unmatched collection of businesses, most of them now enjoying favorable economic prospects; (2) a cadre of outstanding managers who, with few exceptions, are unusually devoted to both the subsidiary they operate and to Berkshire; (3) an extraordinary diversity of earnings, premier financial strength and oceans of liquidity that we will maintain under all circumstances; (4) a first-choice ranking among many owners and managers who are contemplating sale of their businesses and (5) in a point related to the preceding item, a culture, distinctive in many ways from that of most large companies, that we have worked 50 years to develop and that is now rock-solid.
These strengths provide us a wonderful foundation on which to build.
The Next 50 Years at Berkshire
Now let’s take a look at the road ahead. Bear in mind that if I had attempted 50 years ago to gauge what was coming, certain of my predictions would have been far off the mark. With that warning, I will tell you what I would say to my family today if they asked me about Berkshire’s future.
- First and definitely foremost, I believe that the chance of permanent capital loss for patient Berkshire shareholders is as low as can be found among single-company investments. That’s because our per-share intrinsic business value is almost certain to advance over time.
This cheery prediction comes, however, with an important caution: If an investor’s entry point into Berkshire stock is unusually high – at a price, say, approaching double book value, which Berkshire shares have occasionally reached – it may well be many years before the investor can realize a profit. In other words, a sound investment can morph into a rash speculation if it is bought at an elevated price. Berkshire is not exempt from this truth.
Purchases of Berkshire that investors make at a price modestly above the level at which the company would repurchase its shares, however, should produce gains within a reasonable period of time. Berkshire’s directors will only authorize repurchases at a price they believe to be well below intrinsic value. (In our view, that is an essential criterion for repurchases that is often ignored by other managements.)
For those investors who plan to sell within a year or two after their purchase, I can offer no assurances, whatever the entry price. Movements of the general stock market during such abbreviated periods will likely be far more important in determining your results than the concomitant change in the intrinsic value of your Berkshire shares. As Ben Graham said many decades ago: “In the short-term the market is a voting machine; in the long-run it acts as a weighing machine.” Occasionally, the voting decisions of investors – amateurs and professionals alike – border on lunacy.
Since I know of no way to reliably predict market movements, I recommend that you purchase Berkshire shares only if you expect to hold them for at least five years. Those who seek short-term profits should look elsewhere.
Another warning: Berkshire shares should not be purchased with borrowed money. There have been three times since 1965 when our stock has fallen about 50% from its high point. Someday, something close to this kind of drop will happen again, and no one knows when. Berkshire will almost certainly be a satisfactory holding for investors. But it could well be a disastrous choice for speculators employing leverage.
- I believe the chance of any event causing Berkshire to experience financial problems is essentially zero. We will always be prepared for the thousand-year flood; in fact, if it occurs we will be selling life jackets to the unprepared. Berkshire played an important role as a “first responder” during the 2008-2009 meltdown, and we have since more than doubled the strength of our balance sheet and our earnings potential. Your company is the Gibraltar of American business and will remain so.
Financial staying power requires a company to maintain three strengths under all circumstances: (1) a large and reliable stream of earnings; (2) massive liquid assets and (3) no significant near-term cash requirements. Ignoring that last necessity is what usually leads companies to experience unexpected problems: Too often, CEOs of profitable companies feel they will always be able to refund maturing obligations, however large these are. In 2008-2009, many managements learned how perilous that mindset can be.
Here’s how we will always stand on the three essentials. First, our earnings stream is huge and comes from a vast array of businesses. Our shareholders now own many large companies that have durable competitive advantages, and we will acquire more of those in the future. Our diversification assures Berkshire’s continued profitability, even if a catastrophe causes insurance losses that far exceed any previously experienced.
Next up is cash. At a healthy business, cash is sometimes thought of as something to be minimized – as an unproductive asset that acts as a drag on such markers as return on equity. Cash, though, is to a business as oxygen is to an individual: never thought about when it is present, the only thing in mind when it is absent.
American business provided a case study of that in 2008. In September of that year, many long-prosperous companies suddenly wondered whether their checks would bounce in the days ahead. Overnight, their financial oxygen disappeared.
At Berkshire, our “breathing” went uninterrupted. Indeed, in a three-week period spanning late September and early October, we supplied $15.6 billion of fresh money to American businesses.
We could do that because we always maintain at least $20 billion – and usually far more – in cash equivalents. And by that we mean U.S. Treasury bills, not other substitutes for cash that are claimed to deliver liquidity and actually do so, except when it is truly needed. When bills come due, only cash is legal tender. Don’t leave home without it.
Finally – getting to our third point – we will never engage in operating or investment practices that can result in sudden demands for large sums. That means we will not expose Berkshire to short-term debt maturities of size nor enter into derivative contracts or other business arrangements that could require large collateral calls.
Some years ago, we became a party to certain derivative contracts that we believed were significantly mispriced and that had only minor collateral requirements. These have proved to be quite profitable. Recently, however, newly-written derivative contracts have required full collateralization. And that ended our interest in derivatives, regardless of what profit potential they might offer. We have not, for some years, written these contracts, except for a few needed for operational purposes at our utility businesses.
Moreover, we will not write insurance contracts that give policyholders the right to cash out at their option. Many life insurance products contain redemption features that make them susceptible to a “run” in times of extreme panic. Contracts of that sort, however, do not exist in the property-casualty world that we inhabit. If our premium volume should shrink, our float would decline – but only at a very slow pace.
The reason for our conservatism, which may impress some people as extreme, is that it is entirely predictable that people will occasionally panic, but not at all predictable when this will happen. Though practically all days are relatively uneventful, tomorrow is always uncertain. (I felt no special apprehension on December 6, 1941 or September 10, 2001.) And if you can’t predict what tomorrow will bring, you must be prepared for whatever it does.
A CEO who is 64 and plans to retire at 65 may have his own special calculus in evaluating risks that have only a tiny chance of happening in a given year. He may, in fact, be “right” 99% of the time. Those odds, however, hold no appeal for us. We will never play financial Russian roulette with the funds you’ve entrusted to us, even if the metaphorical gun has 100 chambers and only one bullet. In our view, it is madness to risk losing what you need in pursuing what you simply desire.
- Despite our conservatism, I think we will be able every year to build the underlying per-share earning power of Berkshire. That does not mean operating earnings will increase each year – far from it. The U.S. economy will ebb and flow – though mostly flow – and, when it weakens, so will our current earnings. But we will continue to achieve organic gains, make bolt-on acquisitions and enter new fields. I believe, therefore, that Berkshire will annually add to its underlying earning power.
In some years the gains will be substantial, and at other times they will be minor. Markets, competition, and chance will determine when opportunities come our way. Through it all, Berkshire will keep moving forward, powered by the array of solid businesses we now possess and the new companies we will purchase. In most years, moreover, our country’s economy will provide a strong tailwind for business. We are blessed to have the United States as our home field.
- The bad news is that Berkshire’s long-term gains – measured by percentages, not by dollars – cannot be dramatic and will not come close to those achieved in the past 50 years. The numbers have become too big. I think Berkshire will outperform the average American company, but our advantage, if any, won’t be great.
Eventually – probably between ten and twenty years from now – Berkshire’s earnings and capital resources will reach a level that will not allow management to intelligently reinvest all of the company’s earnings. At that time our directors will need to determine whether the best method to distribute the excess earnings is through dividends, share repurchases or both. If Berkshire shares are selling below intrinsic business value, massive repurchases will almost certainly be the best choice. You can be comfortable that your directors will make the right decision.
- No company will be more shareholder-minded than Berkshire. For more than 30 years, we have annually reaffirmed our Shareholder Principles (see page 117), always leading off with: “Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership.” This covenant with you is etched in stone.
We have an extraordinarily knowledgeable and business-oriented board of directors ready to carry out that promise of partnership. None took the job for the money: In an arrangement almost non-existent elsewhere, our directors are paid only token fees. They receive their rewards instead through ownership of Berkshire shares and the satisfaction that comes from being good stewards of an important enterprise.
The shares that they and their families own – which, in many cases, are worth very substantial sums – were purchased in the market (rather than their materializing through options or grants). In addition, unlike almost all other sizable public companies, we carry no directors and officers liability insurance. At Berkshire, directors walk in your shoes.
To further ensure continuation of our culture, I have suggested that my son, Howard, succeed me as a non-executive Chairman. My only reason for this wish is to make change easier if the wrong CEO should ever be employed and there occurs a need for the Chairman to move forcefully. I can assure you that this problem has a very low probability of arising at Berkshire – likely as low as at any public company. In my service on the boards of nineteen public companies, however, I’ve seen how hard it is to replace a mediocre CEO if that person is also Chairman. (The deed usually gets done, but almost always very late.)
If elected, Howard will receive no pay and will spend no time at the job other than that required of all directors. He will simply be a safety valve to whom any director can go if he or she has concerns about the CEO and wishes to learn if other directors are expressing doubts as well. Should multiple directors be apprehensive, Howard’s chairmanship will allow the matter to be promptly and properly addressed.
- Choosing the right CEO is all-important and is a subject that commands much time at Berkshire board meetings. Managing Berkshire is primarily a job of capital allocation, coupled with the selection and retention of outstanding managers to captain our operating subsidiaries. Obviously, the job also requires the replacement of a subsidiary’s CEO when that is called for. These duties require Berkshire’s CEO to be a rational, calm and decisive individual who has a broad understanding of business and good insights into human behavior. It’s important as well that he knows his limits. (As Tom Watson, Sr. of IBM said, “I’m no genius, but I’m smart in spots and I stay around those spots.”)
Character is crucial: A Berkshire CEO must be “all in” for the company, not for himself. (I’m using male pronouns to avoid awkward wording, but gender should never decide who becomes CEO.) He can’t help but earn money far in excess of any possible need for it. But it’s important that neither ego nor avarice motivate him to reach for pay matching his most lavishly-compensated peers, even if his achievements far exceed theirs. A CEO’s behavior has a huge impact on managers down the line: If it’s clear to them that shareholders’ interests are paramount to him, they will, with few exceptions, also embrace that way of thinking.
My successor will need one other particular strength: the ability to fight off the ABCs of business decay, which are arrogance, bureaucracy and complacency. When these corporate cancers metastasize, even the strongest of companies can falter. The examples available to prove the point are legion, but to maintain friendships I will exhume only cases from the distant past.
In their glory days, General Motors, IBM, Sears Roebuck and U.S. Steel sat atop huge industries. Their strengths seemed unassailable. But the destructive behavior I deplored above eventually led each of them to fall to depths that their CEOs and directors had not long before thought impossible. Their one-time financial strength and their historical earning power proved no defense.
Only a vigilant and determined CEO can ward off such debilitating forces as Berkshire grows ever larger. He must never forget Charlie’s plea: “Tell me where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” If our non-economic values were to be lost, much of Berkshire’s economic value would collapse as well. “Tone at the top” will be key to maintaining Berkshire’s special culture.
Fortunately, the structure our future CEOs will need to be successful is firmly in place. The extraordinary delegation of authority now existing at Berkshire is the ideal antidote to bureaucracy. In an operating sense, Berkshire is not a giant company but rather a collection of large companies. At headquarters, we have never had a committee nor have we ever required our subsidiaries to submit budgets (though many use them as an important internal tool). We don’t have a legal office nor departments that other companies take for granted: human relations, public relations, investor relations, strategy, acquisitions, you name it.
We do, of course, have an active audit function; no sense being a dammed fool. To an unusual degree, however, we trust our managers to run their operations with a keen sense of stewardship. After all, they were doing exactly that before we acquired their businesses. With only occasional exceptions, furthermore, our trust produces better results than would be achieved by streams of directives, endless reviews and layers of bureaucracy. Charlie and I try to interact with our managers in a manner consistent with what we would wish for, if the positions were reversed.
- Our directors believe that our future CEOs should come from internal candidates whom the Berkshire board has grown to know well. Our directors also believe that an incoming CEO should be relatively young, so that he or she can have a long run in the job. Berkshire will operate best if its CEOs average well over ten years at the helm. (It’s hard to teach a new dog old tricks.) And they are not likely to retire at 65 either (or have you noticed?).
In both Berkshire’s business acquisitions and large, tailored investment moves, it is important that our counterparties be both familiar with and feel comfortable with Berkshire’s CEO. Developing confidence of that sort and cementing relationships takes time. The payoff, though, can be huge.
Both the board and I believe we now have the right person to succeed me as CEO – a successor ready to assume the job the day after I die or step down. In certain important respects, this person will do a better job than I am doing.
- Investments will always be of great importance to Berkshire and will be handled by several specialists. They will report to the CEO because their investment decisions, in a broad way, will need to be coordinated with Berkshire’s operating and acquisition programs. Overall, though, our investment managers will enjoy great autonomy. In this area, too, we are in fine shape for decades to come. Todd Combs and Ted Weschler, each of whom has spent several years on Berkshire’s investment team, are first-rate in all respects and can be of particular help to the CEO in evaluating acquisitions.
All told, Berkshire is ideally positioned for life after Charlie and I leave the scene. We have the right people in place – the right directors, managers and prospective successors to those managers. Our culture, furthermore, is embedded throughout their ranks. Our system is also regenerative. To a large degree, both good and bad cultures self-select to perpetuate themselves. For very good reasons, business owners and operating managers with values similar to ours will continue to be attracted to Berkshire as a one-of-a-kind and permanent home.
- I would be remiss if I didn’t salute another key constituency that makes Berkshire special: our shareholders. Berkshire truly has an owner base unlike that of any other giant corporation. That fact was demonstrated in spades at last year’s annual meeting, where the shareholders were offered a proxy resolution:
RESOLVED: Whereas the corporation has more money than it needs and since the owners unlike Warren are not multi billionaires, the board shall consider paying a meaningful annual dividend on the shares.
The sponsoring shareholder of that resolution never showed up at the meeting, so his motion was not officially proposed. Nevertheless, the proxy votes had been tallied, and they were enlightening.
Not surprisingly, the A shares – owned by relatively few shareholders, each with a large economic interest – voted “no” on the dividend question by a margin of 89 to 1.
The remarkable vote was that of our B shareholders. They number in the hundreds of thousands – perhaps even totaling one million – and they voted 660,759,855 “no” and 13,927,026 “yes,” a ratio of about 47 to 1.
Our directors recommended a “no” vote but the company did not otherwise attempt to influence shareholders. Nevertheless, 98% of the shares voting said, in effect, “Don’t send us a dividend but instead reinvest all of the earnings.” To have our fellow owners – large and small – be so in sync with our managerial philosophy is both remarkable and rewarding.
I am a lucky fellow to have you as partners.
Warren E. Buffett
Continue to: Charlie Munger’s Letter