The Compounding Success Theory:
Behavioral Finance Factors that Contribute
to the Successful Investment Decisions made by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger
Arranged and Edited by Cesar "Bud" Labitan, Jr. MD, MBA
MBAE 2003, Purdue University – Calumet
Table of Contents
Thanks to the open-mindedness of my mentor Dean Shomir Sil of the Purdue University Calumet School of Management, I have been given the freedom to structure this unconventional behavioral finance project in a unique and thought provoking fashion. My MBAE special topics project seeks to examine the behavioral processes practiced by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger to: 1. avoid irrational behavior and 2. maximize long-term gains by successful decision making. This paper does not seek to prove what Buffett and Munger have already proven. Its purpose is to illustrate topical areas that the field of behavioral finance should explore using abridged edits of writings by Buffett and Munger.
Framing in behavioral finance is the choosing of particular words to present a given set of facts. And, framing can influence our choices. Tversky and Kahneman described "Prospect Theory" in 1979 using framed questions. They found that contrary to expected utility theory, people placed different weights on gains and losses and on different ranges of probability. They also found that individuals are much more distressed by prospective losses than they are happy by equivalent gains. Some have concluded that investors typically consider the loss of $1 twice as painful as the pleasure received from a $1 gain. Others believe that this work helps to explain patterns of irrationality, inconsistency, and incompetence in the ways human beings arrive at decisions and choices when faced with uncertainty. An increasing body of literature on framing supports a tendency for people to take more risks when seeking to avoid losses as opposed to securing gains. Takemura (1992) showed that the effects of framing are likely to be lower when subjects are warned in advance that they will be required to justify their choices, and when more time is allowed for arriving at their choices.
Buffett and Munger have employed the principles taught by Dave Dodd and Ben Graham. In my view, Buffett and Munger overcome the conventional framing effects thru rational and thorough business analysis. They simply avoid getting into judgments in some fields. Warren Buffet has said: "If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. Predicting the long-term economics of companies that operate in fast-changing industries is simply far beyond our perimeter." I call their approach the compounding success theory because I imagined how their sequence of rational decisions push the probability of investment return success into the upper percentiles.
Much of the work that has been done in psychology consists of demonstrating that subjects consistently make mistakes in tasks where there is a right answer. Such reasoning is deductive and pure deductive processes are rare. Research conducted in the field of decision-making attempts to characterize biases and errors in subjects’ decisions with a view to improving real life decision-making. However attempts to show that humans are irrational run into problems because of the absence of an appropriate standard of rationality. It is difficult to establish that the different strategies used by subjects are wrong. Therefore, the focus of research in decision making has shifted from attempting to get people to make optimal decisions to looking at how people characterize the decisions they make.
In naming the Compounding Success Theory, I imagined how Buffett and Munger's sequence of rational decisions push their probability of success into the upper percentiles. I believe that Warren Buffett makes it seem easy because it is a successful pattern that he has practiced with Charlie Munger for many years. Their experience studying numerous companies probably activates an intuitive set of analytical thoughts based on the investment principles written by Benjamin Graham and David Dodd. For example, a mechanic can often diagnose a problem by the sound of an engine, and a physician who has seen many cases of congestive heart failure develops a good feel for how much diuretic to administer. Interestingly, Charlie Munger once stated: "Warren often talks about these discounted cash flows, but I've never seen him do one." Warren Buffett responded: "Its sort of automatic.. It ought to just kind of scream at you that you've got this huge margin of safety." Mr. Buffett went on to state:." We define intrinsic value as the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life. Anyone calculating intrinsic value necessarily comes up with a highly subjective figure that will change both as estimates of future cash flows are revised and as interest rates move. Despite its fuzziness, however, intrinsic value is all-important and is the only logical way to evaluate the relative attractiveness of investments and businesses."
I began my study focused on factors 5 thru 9 listed below, because they were the filter factors Mr. Buffett had stated at a recent annual shareholder meeting. However, after a deeper review of the documents he has written, I conclude that the 10 factors listed contribute to the compounding success of the Graham-Dodd-Buffett-Munger investment approach. Since Mr. Buffett gives credit for "the wonderful business focus" to Charlie Munger, Charlie Munger's influences are better understood when examining the writings and perspectives of Warren Buffett. Charlie Munger once stated: "Well, the efficient market theory is obviously roughly right meaning that markets are quite efficient and it's quite hard for anybody to beat the market by significant margins as a stock picker by just being intelligent and working in a disciplined way. The answer is that the market is partly efficient and partly inefficient." In Buffett's view, "observing correctly that the market was frequently efficient, finance professors went on to conclude incorrectly that it was always efficient. The difference between these propositions is night and day." The model preferred by Buffett and Munger to simplify the market for common stocks is the race track system. The odds change based on what's bet. Munger explained that "a horse carrying a light weight with a wonderful win rate and a good post position etc., etc. is way more likely to win than a horse with a terrible record and extra weight. Take a look at factors 3, 6, and 7 below to better understand how Mr. Munger's influence has amplified their success. Here are the ten factors I present for consideration as ones that contribute to the compounding success of the Graham-Dodd-Buffett-Munger investment approach:
1. Rational and thorough business analysis, with keen emotional intellects that promote ethical information exchange.
2. Wide experience with analyzing and managing numerous different businesses.
3. Charlie Munger's Role as (a.)"Devils-Advocate" (Munger as therapist/analyst of investment decisions)
and (b.) Munger's role in encouraging further limiting the portfolio towards "wonderful businesses."
4. Leverage via a Low Cost of Capital from Insurance Operations
5. Disciplined Tracking of Understandable Businesses
6. Analysis of Strategic and Sustainable Competitive Advantages of Industries and Businesses.
(Warren Buffett has a Masters in Economics from Columbia University and Charlie Munger has a Law degree from Harvard University. Both have a variety of operational business experiences.)
7. Trustworthy First-Class Managements with proven track records.
8. Ben Graham's Mr. Market and search for the Margin of Safety. M.O.S. is the bargain obtained when purchasing at a market price below the intrinsic value estimation. Graham and Dodd taught: "An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return."
9. Satisfaction: Buffett stated: "Though "working" means nothing to me financially, I love doing it at Berkshire for some simple reasons: It gives me a sense of achievement, a freedom to act as I see fit and an opportunity to interact daily with people I like and trust."
10. Learning from Practice, Mistakes, and Experiences: "After many years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them."
Next, I asked myself: Is it the superiority of the decision or the superiority of the analysis that precedes the decision? In my view, the superiority of results achieved by Buffett and Munger are the result of the prudent allocation of capital after careful business, industry, and competitive analysis. From this point forward, proof is given in the words used to illustrate these concepts listed above. The text is taken from the publicly available writings of Warren Buffett to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. While attempting to avoid taking ideas out of context, I have condensed and rearranged some of Warren Buffett's sentences to illustrate his and Charlie Munger's behavioral finance factors that contribute to their successful investment decision making process. I have also taken the liberty to rearrange sections into the ten major factor areas.
Charlie Munger and I have no special capital-allocation expertise. For instance, we bring nothing to the table when it comes to evaluating patents, manufacturing processes or geological prospects. So we simply don't get into judgments in some fields. If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. Predicting the long-term economics of companies that operate in fast-changing industries is simply far beyond our perimeter.
Charlie and I have employed the principles taught by Dave Dodd and Ben Graham. I think you will find that a disproportionate number of successful coin-flippers in the investment world came from a very small intellectual village that could be called Graham-and-Doddsville. They taught: "An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return." A concentration of successful investors that simply cannot be explained by chance can be traced to this particular intellectual village. The common intellectual patriarch is Ben Graham. The children of this intellectual patriarch have called their "flips" in very different ways. They have gone to different places and bought and sold different stocks and companies, yet they have had a combined record that simply cannot be explained by the fact that they are all calling flips identically. The patriarch has merely set forth the intellectual theory for making coin-calling decisions, but each student has decided on his own manner of applying the theory. The common intellectual theme of the investors from Graham-and-Doddsville is this: they search for discrepancies between the value of a business and the price of small pieces of that business in the market.
If Ben Graham's three basic ideas are really ground into your intellectual framework, I don't see how you can help but do reasonably well in stocks. His three basic ideas - and none of them are complicated or require any mathematical talent or anything of the sort - are:
1. that you should look at stocks as part Ownership of a business,
2. that you should look at market fluctuations in terms of his "Mr. Market" example and make them your friend rather than your enemy by essentially profiting from folly rather than participating in it, and finally,
3. the three most important words in investing are "Margin of safety" - which Ben talked about in his last chapter of The Intelligent Investor - always building a 15,000 pound bridge if you're going to be driving 10,000 pound trucks across it.
I think those three ideas 100 years from now will still be regarded as the three cornerstones of sound investment. And that's what Ben was all about. He wasn't about brilliant investing. He wasn't about fads or fashion. He was about sound investing.
Despite our policy of candor, we discuss our activities in marketable securities only to the extent legally required. Good investment ideas are rare, valuable and subject to competitive appropriation just as good product or business acquisition ideas are. Therefore, we normally will not talk about our investment ideas. This ban extends even to securities we have sold (because we may purchase them again) and to stocks we are incorrectly rumored to be buying. If we deny those reports but say “no comment” on other occasions, the no-comments become confirmation.
Our long-term economic goal is to maximize the average annual rate of gain in intrinsic business value on a per-share basis. We measure the performance of Berkshire by its per-share progress. My partner, Charlie Munger and I can attain our long-standing goal of increasing Berkshire's per-share intrinsic value at an average annual rate of 15%. We are certain that the rate of per-share progress will diminish in the future because of our greatly enlarged capital base. We will be disappointed if our rate does not exceed that of the average large American corporation. What we have going for us is a growing collection of good-sized operating businesses that possess economic characteristics ranging from good to terrific, run by terrific managers. You can read about many of them in a new book by Robert P. Miles: The Warren Buffett CEO. The ability, energy and loyalty of these managers is simply extraordinary. (2002) We now have completed 37 Berkshire years without having a CEO of an operating business elect to leave us to work elsewhere. The capital-allocation work that Charlie and I do at the parent company, using the funds that our managers deliver to us, has a less certain outcome: It is not easy to find new businesses and managers comparable to those we have.
I attended Columbia University's business school in 1950-51, not because I cared about the degree it offered, but because I wanted to study under Ben Graham, then teaching there. The time I spent in Ben's classes was a personal high, and quickly induced me to learn all I could about my hero. Ben wrote: “Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike.” This quote comes from what I think is the best book on investing ever written - “The Intelligent Investor.”
On May 5, 1956, I formed my first investment partnership. Meeting with my seven founding limited partners that evening, I gave them a short paper titled "The Ground Rules" that included this sentence: "Whether we do a good job or a poor job is to be measured against the general experience in securities." We initially used the Dow Jones Industrials as our benchmark, but shifted to the S&P 500 when that index became widely used. Our comparative record since 1965 shows Berkshire’s advantage was 5.7 percentage points. One of my 1956 Ground Rules remains applicable today: "I cannot promise results to partners." But Charlie and I can promise that your economic result from Berkshire will parallel ours during the period of your ownership: We will not take cash compensation, restricted stock or option grants that would make our results superior to yours. I will keep well over 99% of my net worth in Berkshire. Charlie and I are disgusted by the situation in which shareholders have suffered billions in losses while the CEOs, promoters, and other higher-ups who fathered these disasters have walked away with extraordinary wealth. Indeed, many of these people were urging investors to buy shares while concurrently dumping their own, sometimes using methods that hid their actions. To their shame, these business leaders view shareholders as patsies, not partners.
One thought about Berkshire: In the future we won’t come close to replicating our past record. To be sure, Charlie and I will strive for above-average performance and will not be satisfied with less. But two conditions at Berkshire are far different from what they once were: Then, we could often buy businesses and securities at much lower valuations than now prevail; and more important, we were then working with far less money than we now have. Some years back, a good $10 million idea could do wonders for us Witness our investment in Washington Post in 1973 or GEICO in 1976. Today, the combination of ten such ideas and a triple in the value of each would increase the net worth of Berkshire by only ¼ of 1%. We need "elephants" to make significant gains now, and they are hard to find.
Our advantage, is attitude: we learned from Ben Graham that the key to successful investing was the purchase of shares in good businesses when market prices were at a large discount from underlying business values. Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. Because of the size of our shareholdings we also are controlling partners. We believe that our formula - the purchase at sensible prices of businesses that have good underlying economics and are run by honest and able people - is certain to produce reasonable success. We expect, therefore, to keep on doing well. Our managers look for ways to deploy their earnings advantageously in their businesses. What's left, they send to Charlie and me. We then try to use the funds in ways that build per-share intrinsic value. Our goal is to acquire either part or all of businesses that we believe we understand, that have good, sustainable underlying economics, and that are run by managers whom we like, admire and trust.
Charlie and I believe that American business will do fine over time but think that today's equity prices presage only moderate returns for investors. The market outperformed business for a very long period, and that phenomenon had to end. A market that no more than parallels business progress, however, is likely to leave many investors disappointed, particularly those relatively new to the game.
Here's one for those who enjoy an odd coincidence: The Great Bubble ended on March 10, 2000 (though we didn't realize that fact until some months later). On that day, the NASDAQ (recently 1,731) hit its all-time high of 5,132. That same day, Berkshire shares traded at $40,800, their lowest price since mid-1997. As we continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, allow me to introduce Mr. Market. Ben Graham explained Mr. Market in Chapter 8 of The Intelligent Investor. There he introduced "Mr. Market," an obliging fellow who shows up every day to either buy from you or sell to you, whichever you wish. The more manic-depressive this chap is, the greater the opportunities available to the investor. That's true because a wildly fluctuating market means that irrationally low prices will periodically be attached to solid businesses. It is impossible to see how the availability of such prices can be thought of as increasing the hazards for an investor who is totally free to either ignore the market or exploit its folly. Ben Graham taught me that the key to successful investing was the purchase of shares in good businesses when market prices were at a large discount from underlying business values. The true investor welcomes volatility. Ben Graham described "Mr. Market" as an obliging fellow who shows up every day to either buy from you or sell to you, whichever you wish. The more manic-depressive this chap is, the greater the opportunities available to the investor. That's true because a wildly fluctuating market means that irrationally low prices will periodically be attached to solid businesses. For example, we bought our Washington Post Company holdings in mid-1973 at a price of not more than one-fourth of the then per-share business value of the enterprise. Calculating the price/value ratio required no unusual insights. Most security analysts, media brokers, and media executives would have estimated WPC’s intrinsic business value at $400 to $500 million just as we did. And its $100 million stock market valuation was published daily for all to see.
Most institutional investors in the early 1970s, on the other hand, regarded business value as of only minor relevance when they were deciding the prices at which they would buy or sell. This now seems hard to believe. However, these institutions were then under the spell of academics at prestigious business schools who were preaching a newly-fashioned theory that the stock market was totally efficient. Under the Efficient Market Theory, calculations of business value and even thought, itself were of no importance in investment activities. We are enormously indebted to those academics: what could be more advantageous in an intellectual contest. Through 1973 and 1974, Washington Post Company (WPC) continued to do fine as a business, and intrinsic value grew. Nevertheless, by yearend 1974 our WPC holding showed a loss of about 25%, with market value at $8 million against our cost of $10.6 million. What we had thought ridiculously cheap a year earlier had become cheaper as the market, marked WPC stock down to well below 20 cents on the dollar of intrinsic value.
I have known many professors of finance and investments but I have never seen any, except for Ben Graham, who was the match of Dave Dodd. Dave Dodd was my friend and teacher for 38 years. He died in 1988 at age 93. Dave spent a lifetime teaching at Columbia University, and he co-authored Security Analysis with Ben Graham. From the moment I arrived at Columbia, Dave personally encouraged and educated me; one influence was as important as the other. Everything he taught me, directly or through his book, made sense. Later, through dozens of letters, he continued my education right up until his death. The proof of his talent is the record of his students: No other teacher of investments has sent forth so many who have achieved unusual success. When students left Dave’s classroom, they were equipped to invest intelligently for a lifetime because the principles he taught were simple, sound, useful, and enduring. Charlie and I have employed the principles taught by Dave Dodd and Ben Graham. Our prosperity is the fruit of their intellectual tree. Our managers will continue to earn extraordinary returns from what appear to be ordinary businesses. As a first step, these managers look for ways to deploy their earnings advantageously in their businesses. What's left, they send to Charlie and me. We then try to use those funds in ways that build per-share intrinsic value. Our goal is to acquire either part or all of businesses that we believe we understand, that have good, sustainable underlying economics, and that are run by managers whom we like, admire and trust.
Lorimer Davidson, GEICO's former Chairman, was another great friend, teacher and hero. Clearly, my life would have developed far differently had he not been a part of it. On a Saturday in January, 1951, I took the train to Washington and headed for GEICO's downtown headquarters. I met Lorimer Davidson, Assistant to the President. Davy Davidson graciously spent four hours or so showering me with both kindness and instruction. No one has ever received a better half-day course in how the insurance industry functions nor in the factors that enable one company to excel over others. As Davy made clear, GEICO's method of selling - direct marketing - gave it an enormous cost advantage over competitors that sold through agents, a form of distribution so ingrained in the business of these insurers that it was impossible for them to give it up. After my session with Davy, I was more excited about GEICO than I have ever been about a stock.
One question I always ask myself in appraising a business is how I would like, assuming I had ample capital and skilled personnel, to compete with it. I’d rather wrestle grizzlies than have competed with Mrs. Rose Blumkin and her progeny. They buy brilliantly, they operate at expense ratios competitors don’t even dream about, and they then pass on to their customers much of the savings. In neither the purchase of goods nor the hiring of personnel, do we ever consider the religious views, the gender, the race or the sexual orientation of the persons we are dealing with. It would not only be wrong to do so, it would be idiotic. We need all of the talent we can find, and we have learned that able and trustworthy managers, employees and suppliers come from a very wide spectrum of humanity.
The acquisition problem is often compounded by a biological bias: Many CEO's attain their positions in part because they possess an abundance of animal spirits and ego. If an executive is heavily endowed with these qualities - which sometimes have their advantages - they won't disappear when he reaches the top. When such a CEO is encouraged by his advisors to make deals, he responds much as would a teenage boy who is encouraged by his father to have a normal sex life. It's not a push he needs.
At Berkshire, our managers will continue to earn extraordinary returns from what appear to be ordinary businesses. As a first step, these managers will look for ways to deploy their earnings advantageously in their businesses. What's left, they send to Charlie and me. We then try to use those funds in ways that build per-share intrinsic value. Our goal is to acquire either part or all of businesses that we believe we understand, that have good, sustainable underlying economics, and that are run by managers whom we like, admire and trust. If able but greedy managers over-reach and try to dip too deeply into the shareholders' pockets, directors must slap their hands. In this plain-vanilla case, a director who sees something he doesn't like should attempt to persuade the other directors of his views. If he is successful, the board will have the muscle to make the appropriate change. Suppose, though, that the unhappy director can't get other directors to agree with him. He should then feel free to make his views known to the absentee owners. Directors seldom do that, of course. The temperament of many directors would in fact be incompatible with critical behavior of that sort. But I see nothing improper in such actions, assuming the issues are serious. Naturally, the complaining director can expect a vigorous rebuttal from the unpersuaded directors, a prospect that should discourage the dissenter from pursuing trivial or non-rational causes.
What we do know, is that two super-contagious diseases, fear and greed, will forever occur. The timing of these epidemics will be unpredictable. And the market aberrations produced by them will be equally unpredictable, both as to duration and degree. Therefore, we never try to anticipate the arrival or departure of either disease. Our goal is more modest: we simply attempt to be fearful when others are greedy and to be greedy only when others are fearful. What could be more exhilarating than to participate in a bull market in which the rewards to owners of businesses become gloriously uncoupled from the plodding performances of the businesses themselves. However, stocks can’t outperform businesses indefinitely.
Funny business in accounting is not new. I have an unpublished satire on accounting practices written by Ben Graham in 1936. Excesses similar to those he then lampooned have many times since found their way into the financial statements of major American corporations and been duly certified by big-name auditors. Clearly, investors must always keep their guard up and use accounting numbers as a beginning, not an end, in their attempts to calculate true "economic earnings" accruing to them. Berkshire's own reported earnings are misleading in a different and important, way: We have huge investments in companies "investees" whose earnings far exceed their dividends and in which we record our share of earnings only to the extent of the dividends we receive. Our perspective on such "forgotten-but-not-gone" earnings is simple: The way they are accounted for is of no importance, but their ownership and subsequent utilization is all-important.
Charlie said, lets go for the wonderful business. We both realized that time is the friend of the wonderful business and the enemy of the mediocre. You might think this principle is obvious, but I had to learn it the hard way. In fact, I had to learn it several times over. Shortly after purchasing Berkshire, I acquired a Baltimore department store, Hochschild Kohn, buying through a company called Diversified Retailing that later merged with Berkshire. I bought at a substantial discount from book value, the people were first-class, and the deal included some extras - unrecorded real estate values and a significant LIFO inventory cushion. How could I miss? So, three years later I was lucky to sell the business for about what I had paid. I could give you other personal examples of "bargain-purchase" folly but I'm sure you get the picture: It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie Munger understood this early; I was a slow learner. Now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements.
That leads right into a related lesson: Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire's textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand. When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. After many years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.
The finding may seem unfair, but in both business and investments it is usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult. On occasion, tough problems must be tackled as was the case when we started our Sunday paper in Buffalo. In other instances, a great investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business encounters a one-time huge, but solvable, problem as was the case many years back at both American Express and GEICO. Overall, however, we've done better by avoiding dragons than by slaying them.
We acknowledge that some acquisition records have been dazzling. Two major categories stand out. The first involves companies that, through design or accident, have purchased only businesses that are particularly well adapted to an inflationary environment. Such favored business must have two characteristics: (1) an ability to increase prices rather easily (even when product demand is flat and capacity is not fully utilized) without fear of significant loss of either market share or unit volume, and (2) an ability to accommodate large dollar volume increases in business (often produced more by inflation than by real growth) with only minor additional investment of capital. Managers of ordinary ability, focusing solely on acquisition possibilities meeting these tests, have achieved excellent results in recent decades. However, very few enterprises possess both characteristics, and competition to buy those that do has now become fierce to the point of being self-defeating.
We have tried occasionally to buy toads at bargain prices with results that have been chronicled in past reports. Clearly our kisses fell flat. We have done well with a couple of princes - but they were princes when purchased. At least our kisses didn’t turn them into toads. And, we have occasionally been quite successful in purchasing fractional interests in easily-identifiable princes at toad-like prices.
Our experience has been that pro-rata portions of truly outstanding businesses sometimes sell in the securities markets at very large discounts from the prices they would command in negotiated transactions involving entire companies. Consequently, bargains in business ownership, which simply are not available directly through corporate acquisition, can be obtained indirectly through stock ownership. When prices are appropriate, we are willing to take very large positions in selected companies, not with any intention of taking control and not foreseeing sell-out or merger, but with the expectation that excellent business results by corporations will translate over the long term into correspondingly excellent market value and dividend results for owners, minority as well as majority. The auction nature of security markets often allows finely-run companies the opportunity to purchase portions of their own businesses at a price under 50% of that needed to acquire the same earning power through the negotiated acquisition of another enterprise.
We select our marketable equity securities in much the same way we would evaluate a business for acquisition in its entirety. We want the business to be (1) one that we can understand, (2) with favorable long-term prospects, (3) operated by honest and competent people, and (4) available at a very attractive price. We ordinarily make no attempt to buy equities for anticipated favorable stock price behavior in the short term. In fact, if their business experience continues to satisfy us, we welcome lower market prices of stocks we own as an opportunity to acquire even more of a good thing at a better price.
Unfortunately, earnings reported in corporate financial statements are no longer the dominant variable that determines whether there are any real earnings for the owner. For only gains in purchasing power represent real earnings on investment. If you (a) forego ten hamburgers to purchase an investment; (b) receive dividends which, after tax, buy two hamburgers; and (c) receive, upon sale of your holdings, after-tax proceeds that will buy eight hamburgers, then (d) you have had no real income from your investment, no matter how much it appreciated in dollars. You may feel richer, but you won’t eat richer.
High rates of inflation create a tax on capital that makes much corporate investment unwise - at least if measured by the criterion of a positive real investment return to owners. This “hurdle rate” the return on equity that must be achieved by a corporation in order to produce any real return for its individual owners has increased dramatically in inflationary years. The average tax-paying investor is running up a down escalator whose pace has accelerated to the point where his upward progress is nil. For example, in a world of 12% inflation a business earning 20% on equity (which very few manage consistently to do) and distributing it all to individuals in the 50% bracket is chewing up their real capital, not enhancing it. Half of the 20% will go for income tax; the remaining 10% leaves the owners of the business with only 98% of the purchasing power they possessed at the start of the year - even though they have not spent a penny of their “earnings”. The investors in this bracket would actually be better off with a combination of stable prices and corporate earnings on equity capital of only a few percent.
Explicit income taxes alone, unaccompanied by any implicit inflation tax, can never turn a positive corporate return into a negative owner return. Even if there were 90% personal income tax rates on both dividends and capital gains, some real income would be left for the owner at a zero inflation rate. But the inflation tax is not limited by reported income. Inflation rates not far from those recently experienced can turn the level of positive returns achieved by a majority of corporations into negative returns for all owners, including those not required to pay explicit taxes. For example, if inflation reached 16%, earning less than this 16% rate of return would be realizing a negative real return, even if income taxes on dividends and capital gains were eliminated. The two forms of taxation co-exist and interact since explicit taxes are levied on nominal, not real, income. Thus you pay income taxes on what would be deficits if returns to stockholders were measured in constant dollars. At high inflation rates, individual owners in medium or high tax brackets should expect no real long-term return from the average American corporation, even though these individuals reinvest the entire after-tax proceeds from all dividends they receive. The average return on equity of corporations is fully offset by the combination of the implicit tax on capital levied by inflation and the explicit taxes levied both on dividends and gains in value produced by retained earnings.
Berkshire has no corporate solution to the inflation problem. Indexing is the insulation that all seek against inflation. But the great bulk (although there are important exceptions) of corporate capital is not even partially indexed. Earnings and dividends per share usually will rise if significant earnings are “saved” by a corporation; i.e., reinvested instead of paid as dividends. But that would be true without inflation. A thrifty wage earner, likewise, could achieve regular annual increases in his total income without ever getting a pay increase - if he were willing to take only half of his paycheck in cash (his wage “dividend”) and consistently add the other half (his “retained earnings”) to a savings account. Neither this high- saving wage earner nor the stockholder in a high-saving corporation whose annual dividend rate increases while its rate of return on equity remains flat is truly indexed. For capital to be truly indexed, return on equity must rise, i.e., business earnings consistently must increase in proportion to the increase in the price level without any need for the business to add to capital - including working capital - employed. Increased earnings produced by increased investment don’t count. Only a few businesses come close to exhibiting this ability. And Berkshire Hathaway isn’t one of them. We have a corporate policy of reinvesting earnings for growth, diversity and strength, which has the incidental effect of minimizing the current imposition of explicit taxes on our owners. On a day-by-day basis, you will be subjected to the implicit inflation tax, and when you wish to transfer your investment in Berkshire into another form of investment or into consumption, you also will face explicit taxes.
The term "earnings" has a precise ring to it. And when an earnings figure is accompanied by an unqualified auditor's certificate, a naive reader might think it comparable in certitude to pi, calculated to dozens of decimal places. In reality, however, earnings can be as pliable as putty when a charlatan heads the company reporting them. Eventually truth will surface, but in the meantime a lot of money can change hands. Funny business in accounting is not new. Excesses similar to those lampooned by Ben Graham in 1936 have many times since found their way into the financial statements of major American corporations and been duly certified by big-name auditors. Investors must always keep their guard up and use accounting numbers as a beginning, not an end, in their attempts to calculate true "economic earnings" accruing to them. Berkshire's own reported earnings are misleading in a different and important way: We have huge investments in companies ("investees") whose earnings far exceed their dividends and in which we record our share of earnings only to the extent of the dividends we receive. The extreme case is Capital Cities/ABC, Inc. Our 17% share of the company's earnings amounted to more than $83 million one year. Yet only about $530,000 ($600,000 of dividends it paid us less some $70,000 of tax) is counted in Berkshire's GAAP earnings. The residual $82 million-plus stayed with Cap Cities as retained earnings, which work for our benefit but go unrecorded on our books.
When Coca-Cola uses retained earnings to repurchase its shares, the company increases our percentage ownership in what I regard to be the most valuable franchise in the world. Coke also uses retained earnings in many other value-enhancing ways. Instead of repurchasing stock, Coca-Cola could pay those funds to us in dividends, which we could then use to purchase more Coke shares. That would be a less efficient scenario: Because of taxes we would pay on dividend income, we would not be able to increase our proportionate ownership to the degree that Coke can, acting for us. If the less efficient procedure were followed, however, Berkshire would report far greater "earnings."
I believe the best way to think about our earnings is in terms of "look-through" results, calculated as follows: Take $250 million, which is roughly our share of the 1990 operating earnings retained by our investees; subtract $30 million, for the incremental taxes we would have owed had that $250 million been paid to us in dividends; and add the remainder, $220 million, to our reported operating earnings of $371 million. Thus our 1990 "look-through earnings" were about $590 million. We hope to have look-through earnings grow about 15% annually. In 1990 we substantially exceeded that rate but in 1991 we will fall short of it. Our Gillette preferred has been called and we will convert it into common stock. This will reduce reported earnings by about $35 million annually and look-through earnings by a smaller amount. Additionally, our media earnings - both direct and look-through - appear sure to decline. Our perspective on such "forgotten-but-not-gone" earnings is simple: The way they are accounted for is of no importance, but their ownership and subsequent utilization is all-important.
Take a look at the 1990 figures. After-tax earnings on average equity in 1990 were 51%, a result that would have placed the group about 20th on the 1989 Fortune 500. Two factors make this return even more remarkable. First, leverage did not produce it: Almost all our major facilities are owned, not leased, and such small debt as these operations have is basically offset by cash they hold. In fact, if the measurement was return on assets - a calculation that eliminates the effect of debt upon returns - our group would rank in Fortune's top ten. Equally important, our return was not earned from industries, such as cigarettes or network television stations, possessing spectacular economics for all participating in them. Instead, it came from a group of businesses operating in such prosaic fields as furniture retailing, candy, vacuum cleaners, and even steel warehousing. The explanation is clear: Our extraordinary returns flow from outstanding operating managers, not fortuitous industry economics. Let's look at some of the larger operations:
It was a poor year for retailing but someone forgot to tell Ike Friedman at Borsheim's. Sales were up 18%. That is both a same-stores and all-stores percentage, since Borsheim's operates one establishment. We believe that this jewelry store does more volume than any other in the U.S., except for Tiffany's New York store. Borsheim's attracts business nationwide because we have several advantages that competitors can't match. The most important item in the equation is our operating costs, which run about 18% of sales compared to 40% or so at the typical competitor. Included in the 18% are occupancy and buying costs, which some public companies include in "cost of goods sold." Just as Wal-Mart, with its 15% operating costs, sells at prices that high-cost competitors can't touch and thereby constantly increases its market share, so does Borsheim's. What works with diapers works with diamonds. Our low prices create huge volume that in turn allows us to carry an extraordinarily broad inventory of goods, running ten or more times the size of that at the typical fine-jewelry store. Couple our breadth of selection and low prices with superb service and you can understand how Ike and his family have built a national jewelry phenomenon.
While Fran Blumkin was helping the Friedman family set records at Borsheim's, her sons, Irv and Ron, along with husband Louie, were setting records at The Nebraska Furniture Mart. Sales at our one-and-only location were $159 million, up 4% from 1989. The NFM formula for success parallels that of Borsheim's. First, operating costs are rock-bottom - 15% in 1990 against about 40% for Levitz, the country's largest furniture retailer, and 25% for Circuit City Stores, the leading discount retailer of electronics and appliances. Second, NFM's low costs allow the business to price well below all competitors. Indeed, major chains, knowing what they will face, steer clear of Omaha. Third, the huge volume generated by our bargain prices allows us to carry the broadest selection of merchandise. Some idea of NFM's merchandising power can be gleaned from a recent report of consumer behavior in Des Moines, which showed that NFM was Number 3 in popularity among 20 furniture retailers serving that city. That may sound like no big deal until you consider that 19 of those retailers are located in Des Moines, whereas our store is 130 miles away. In effect, NFM, like Borsheim's, has dramatically expanded the territory it serves - not by the traditional method of opening new stores but rather by creating an irresistible magnet that employs price and selection to pull in the crowds.
In 1990, at the Mart there occurred an historic event: I experienced a counterrevelation. I have long scorned the boasts of corporate executives about synergy, deriding such claims as the last refuge of scoundrels defending foolish acquisitions. Now I know better: In Berkshire's first synergistic explosion, NFM put a See's candy cart in the store late last year and sold more candy than that moved by some of the full-fledged stores See's operates in California. This success contradicts all tenets of retailing. At See's, physical volume set a record in 1990 - but only barely and only because of good sales early in the year. After the invasion of Kuwait, mall traffic in the West fell. Our poundage volume at Christmas dropped slightly, though our dollar sales were up because of a 5% price increase. That increase, and better control of expenses, improved profit margins. Against the backdrop of a weak retailing environment, Chuck Huggins delivered outstanding results, as he has in each of the years we have owned See's. Chuck's imprint on the business, a virtual fanaticism about quality and service, is visible at all of our 225 stores.
Charlie and I were surprised at developments this past year in the media industry, including newspapers such as our Buffalo News. The business showed far more vulnerability to the early stages of a recession than has been the case in the past. The question is whether this erosion is just part of an aberrational cycle - to be fully made up in the next upturn - or whether the business has slipped in a way that permanently reduces intrinsic business values. Since I didn't predict what has happened, you may question the value of my prediction about what will happen. Nevertheless, I'll proffer a judgment: While many media businesses will remain economic marvels in comparison with American industry generally, they will prove considerably less marvelous than I, the industry, or lenders thought would be the case only a few years ago.
The reason media businesses have been so outstanding in the past was not physical growth, but rather the unusual pricing power that most participants wielded. Now, however, advertising dollars are growing slowly. In addition, retailers that do little or no media advertising, though they sometimes use the Postal Service, have gradually taken market share in certain merchandise categories. Most important of all, the number of both print and electronic advertising channels has substantially increased. As a consequence, advertising dollars are more widely dispersed and the pricing power of ad vendors has diminished. These circumstances materially reduce the intrinsic value of our major media investments and also the value of our operating unit, Buffalo News - though all remain fine businesses. During 1990, our earnings held up much better than those of most metropolitan papers, falling only 5%. In the last few months of the year, however, the rate of decrease was far greater. I can safely make two promises about the News in 1991: (1) Stan Lipsey will again rank at the top among newspaper publishers; and (2) earnings will fall substantially. Despite a slowdown in the demand for newsprint, the price per ton will average significantly more in 1991 and the paper's labor costs will also be considerably higher. Since revenues may meanwhile be down, we face a real squeeze. Regardless of earnings pressures, we will maintain at least a 50% news hole. Cutting product quality is not a proper response to adversity. At Scott Fetzer, Ralph Schey runs 19 businesses with a mastery few bring to running one. In addition to overseeing three entities: - World Book, Kirby, and Scott Fetzer Manufacturing - Ralph directs a finance operation that earned a record $12.2 million pre-tax in 1990. Were Scott Fetzer an independent company, it would rank close to the top of the Fortune 500 in terms of return on equity, although it is not in businesses that one would expect to be economic champs.
(2001) Considering the recessionary environment plaguing them, our retailing operations did well in 2001. In jewelry, same-store sales fell 7.6% and pre-tax margins were 8.9% versus 10.7% in 2000. Return on invested capital remains high. Same-store sales at our home-furnishings retailers were unchanged and so was the margin, 9.1% pre-tax, these operations earned. Here, too, return on invested capital is excellent. Within the Scott Fetzer Manufacturing Group, Campbell Hausfeld, its largest unit, had a particularly fine year in 1990. This company, the country's leading producer of small and medium-sized air compressors, achieved record sales of $109 million, more than 30% of which came from products introduced during the last five years.
Our business in primary property insurance is small and we believe that Berkshire shareholders, if properly informed, can handle unusual volatility in profits so long as the swings carry with them the prospect of superior long-term results. Charlie Munger and I always have preferred a lumpy 15% return to a smooth 12%. We want to emphasize three points: (1) While we expect our super-cat reinsurance business to produce satisfactory results over, say, a decade, we're sure it will produce absolutely terrible results in at least an occasional year; (2) Our expectations can be based on little more than subjective judgments - for this kind of insurance, historical loss data are of very limited value to us as we decide what rates to charge today; and (3) Though we expect to write significant quantities of super-cat business, we will do so only at prices we believe to be commensurate with risk. If competitors become optimistic, our volume will fall. This insurance has tended in recent years to be woefully underpriced and most sellers have left the field on stretchers.
My most surprising discovery: the overwhelming importance in business of an unseen force that we might call "the institutional imperative.” In business school, I was given no hint of the imperative's existence and I did not intuitively understand it when I entered the business world. I thought then that decent, intelligent, and experienced managers would automatically make rational business decisions. But I learned over time that isn't so. Instead, rationality frequently wilts when the institutional imperative comes into play. For example: (1) As if governed by Newton's First Law of Motion, an institution will resist any change in its current direction; (2) Just as work expands to fill available time, corporate projects or acquisitions will materialize to soak up available funds; (3) Any business craving of the leader, however foolish, will be quickly supported by detailed rate-of-return and strategic studies prepared by his troops; and (4) The behavior of peer companies, whether they are expanding, acquiring, setting executive compensation or whatever, will be mindlessly imitated.
Institutional dynamics, not venality or stupidity, set businesses on these courses, which are too often misguided. After making some expensive mistakes because I ignored the power of the imperative, I have tried to organize and manage Berkshire in ways that minimize its influence. Furthermore, Charlie and I have attempted to concentrate our investments in companies that appear alert to the problem. After some other mistakes, I learned to go into business only with people whom I like, trust, and admire. As I noted before, this policy of itself will not ensure success: A second- class textile or department-store company won't prosper simply because its managers are men that you would be pleased to see your daughter marry. However, an owner or investor can accomplish wonders if he manages to associate himself with such people in businesses that possess decent economic characteristics. Conversely, we do not wish to join with managers who lack admirable qualities, no matter how attractive the prospects of their business.
Some of my worst mistakes were not publicly visible. These were stock and business purchases whose virtues I understood and yet didn't make. It's no sin to miss a great opportunity outside one's area of competence. But I have passed on a couple of really big purchases that were served up to me on a platter and that I was fully capable of understanding. For Berkshire's shareholders, myself included, the cost of this thumb-sucking has been huge. Our consistently-conservative financial policies may appear to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default. We wouldn't have liked those 99:1 odds - and never will. A small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be offset by a large chance of extra returns. If your actions are sensible, you are certain to get good results; in most such cases, leverage just moves things along faster. Charlie and I have never been in a big hurry: We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds - though we have learned to live with those also.
Ideally, the results of every Berkshire shareholder would closely mirror those of the company during his period of ownership. That is why Charlie Munger, Berkshire's Vice Chairman and my partner, and I hope for Berkshire to sell consistently at about intrinsic value. We prefer such steadiness to the value-ignoring volatility of the past two years. Berkshire's intrinsic value continues to exceed book value by a substantial margin. We can't tell you the exact differential because intrinsic value is necessarily an estimate; Charlie and I might, in fact, differ by 10% in our appraisals. We do know, however, that we own some exceptional businesses that are worth considerably more than the values at which they are carried on our books.
Much of the extra value that exists in our businesses has been created by the managers now running them. Charlie and I feel free to brag about this group because we had nothing to do with developing the skills they possess: These superstars just came that way. Our job is merely to identify talented managers and provide an environment in which they can do their stuff. Having done it, they send their cash to headquarters and we face our only other task: the intelligent deployment of these funds.
Charlie Munger, Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice Chairman, amplified investment return growth in several ways. The Role of Charlie Munger as "Devils-Advocate": Charlie Munger has played the role of therapist/analyst of investment decisions and he has encouraged limiting the portfolio towards "wonderful businesses" Has he also served as a check and balance mechanism?
It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. My pal and partner Charlie Munger is a Harvard Law graduate, who set up a major law firm. I ran into him in about 1960 and told him that law was fine as a hobby but he could do better. He set up a partnership quite the opposite of Walter Schloss'. His portfolio was concentrated in very few securities and therefore his record was much more volatile but it was based on the same discount-from-value approach. He was willing to accept greater peaks and valleys of performance, and he happens to be a fellow whose whole psyche goes toward concentration. When he ran his partnership, however, his portfolio holdings were almost completely different from mine and the other fellows, but he followed the Graham and Dodd approach of seeking a bargain.
After many years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. If you expect, as Charlie, and I do, that owning the S&P 500 will produce reasonably satisfactory results over time, it follows that, for long-term investors, gaining small advantages annually over that index must prove rewarding. Charlie and I believe that American business will do fine over time but think that today's equity prices presage only moderate returns for investors. The market outperformed business for a very long period, and that phenomenon had to end. A market that no more than parallels business progress, however, is likely to leave many investors disappointed, particularly those relatively new to the game. The majority of our companies have important competitive advantages that will endure over time. This attribute, which makes for good long-term investment results, is one Charlie and I occasionally believe we can identify. More often, however, we can't. Charlie and I have no special capital-allocation expertise. So we simply don't get into judgments in some fields. Our comments about investment bankers may have seemed harsh. But Charlie and I, in our old-fashioned way, believe that they should perform a gatekeeping role, guarding investors against the promoter's propensity to indulge in excess. Through Berkshire's investments, we have committed a very large amount of our own money to certain undertakings. In dealing with our investees, Charlie and I try to be supportive, analytical, and objective. We recognize that we are working with experienced CEOs who are very much in command of their own businesses but who nevertheless, at certain moments, appreciate the chance to test their thinking on someone without ties to their industry or to decisions of the past. Charlie and I have had considerable experience in allocating capital and try to go at that job rationally and objectively. The giant disadvantage we face is size: In the early years, we needed only good ideas, but now we need good big ideas. Unfortunately, the difficulty of finding these grows in direct proportion to our financial success.
We see the growth in corporate profits as being largely tied to the business done in the country (GDP), and we see GDP growing at a real rate of about 3%. In addition, we have hypothesized 2% inflation. Charlie and I have no particular conviction about the accuracy of 2%. However, it's the market's view: Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) yield about two percentage points less than the standard treasury bond. If profits do indeed grow along with GDP, at about a 5% rate, the valuation placed on American business is unlikely to climb by much more than that. Add in something for dividends, and you emerge with returns from equities that are dramatically less than most investors have either experienced in the past or expect in the future. If investor expectations become more realistic, and they almost certainly will, the market adjustment is apt to be severe, particularly in sectors in which speculation has been concentrated. We've long felt that the only value of stock forecasters is to make fortune tellers look good. Even now, Charlie and I continue to believe that short-term market forecasts are poison and should be kept locked up in a safe place, away from children and also from grown-ups who behave in the market like children.
(1989) Some of my worst mistakes were not publicly visible. These were stock and business purchases whose virtues I understood and yet didn't make. It's no sin to miss a great opportunity outside one's area of competence. But I have passed on a couple of really big purchases that were served up to me on a platter and that I was fully capable of understanding. For Berkshire's shareholders, myself included, the cost of this thumb-sucking has been huge. Our consistently-conservative financial policies may appear to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default.
To quote Robert Benchley, "Having a dog teaches a boy fidelity, perseverance, and to turn around three times before lying down." Such are the shortcomings of experience. Nevertheless, it is a good idea to review past mistakes before committing new ones. So let's take a quick look at the past. My first mistake was in buying control of Berkshire. Though I knew its business – textile manufacturing - to be unpromising, I was enticed to buy because the price looked cheap. Stock purchases of that kind had proved reasonably rewarding in my early years, though by the time Berkshire came along in 1965 I was becoming aware that the strategy was not ideal. If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the "cigar butt" approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the "bargain purchase" will make that puff all profit. Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish. First, the original "bargain" price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces - never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns. For example, if you buy a business for $8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return. The investment will disappoint if the business is sold for $10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost.
Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre. You might think this principle is obvious, but I had to learn it the hard way - in fact, I had to learn it several times over. Shortly after purchasing Berkshire, I acquired a Baltimore department store, Hochschild Kohn, buying through a company called Diversified Retailing that later merged with Berkshire. I bought at a substantial discount from book value, the people were first-class, and the deal included some extras - unrecorded real estate values and a significant LIFO inventory cushion. How could I miss? So-o-o - Three years later, I was lucky to sell the business for about what I had paid. I could give you other personal examples of "bargain-purchase" folly but I'm sure you get the picture: It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. Now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements. That leads into a related lesson: Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire's textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand.
I've said many times that when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. After many years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers. The finding may seem unfair, but in both business and investments, it is usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult. On occasion, tough problems must be tackled as was the case when we started our Sunday paper in Buffalo. In other instances, a great investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business encounters a one-time huge, but solvable, problem as was the case many years back at both American Express and GEICO. Overall, however, we've done better by avoiding dragons than by slaying them.
In the end, alchemy, whether it is metallurgical or financial, fails. A base business can not be transformed into a golden business by tricks of accounting or capital structure. The man claiming to be a financial alchemist may become rich. But gullible investors rather than business achievements will usually be the source of his wealth. Whatever their weaknesses, we should add, many zero-coupon and PIK bonds will not default. We have in fact owned some and may buy more if their market becomes sufficiently distressed. We've not, however, even considered buying a new issue from a weak credit. No financial instrument is evil per se; it's just that some variations have far more potential for mischief than others.
The blue ribbon for mischief-making should go to the zero-coupon issuer unable to make its interest payments on a current basis. Our advice: Whenever an investment banker starts talking about EBDIT - or whenever someone creates a capital structure that does not allow all interest, both payable and accrued, to be comfortably met out of current cash flow net of ample capital expenditures - zip up your wallet. Turn the tables by suggesting that the promoter and his high-priced entourage accept zero-coupon fees, deferring their take until the zero-coupon bonds have been paid in full. See then how much enthusiasm for the deal endures. Our comments about investment bankers may seem harsh. But Charlie and I believe that they should perform a gatekeeping role, guarding investors against the promoter's propensity to indulge in excess. Promoters, after all, have throughout time exercised the same judgment and restraint in accepting money that alcoholics have exercised in accepting liquor. At a minimum, therefore, the banker's conduct should rise to that of a responsible bartender who, when necessary, refuses the profit from the next drink to avoid sending a drunk out on the highway. In recent years, unfortunately, many leading investment firms have found bartender morality to be an intolerably restrictive standard.
(2001) Our shoe operations (included in "other businesses") lost $46.2 million pre-tax, with profits at H.H. Brown and Justin swamped by losses at Dexter. I've made three decisions relating to Dexter that have hurt you in a major way: (1) buying it in the first place; (2) paying for it with stock and (3) procrastinating when the need for changes in its operations was obvious. I would like to lay these mistakes on Charlie (or anyone else, for that matter) but they were mine. Dexter, prior to our purchase, and indeed for a few years after, prospered despite low-cost foreign competition that was brutal. I concluded that Dexter could continue to cope with that problem, and I was wrong. We have now placed the Dexter operation, which is still substantial in size, under the management of Frank Rooney and Jim Issler at H.H. Brown. These men have performed outstandingly for Berkshire, skillfully contending with the extraordinary changes that have bedeviled the footwear industry. During part of 2002, Dexter will be hurt by unprofitable sales commitments it made last year. After that, we believe our shoe business will be reasonably profitable.
The majority of these companies have important competitive advantages that will endure over time. This attribute, which makes for good long-term investment results, is one Charlie and I occasionally believe we can identify. More often, however, we can't. This explains why we don't own stocks of tech companies, even though we share the general view that our society will be transformed by their products and services. Our problem -- which we can't solve by studying up -- is that we have no insights into which participants in the tech field possess a truly durable competitive advantage.
Our lack of tech insights, we should add, does not distress us. After all, there are great many business areas in which Charlie and I have no special capital-allocation expertise. For instance, we bring nothing to the table when it comes to evaluating patents, manufacturing processes or geological prospects. So we simply don't get into judgments in those fields. If we have a strength, it is in recognizing when we are operating well within our circle of competence and when we are approaching the perimeter. Predicting the long-term economics of companies that operate in fast-changing industries is simply far beyond our perimeter. If others claim predictive skill in those industries -- and seem to have their claims validated by the behavior of the stock market -- we neither envy nor emulate them. Instead, we just stick with what we understand. If we stray, we will have done so inadvertently, not because we got restless and substituted hope for rationality. Fortunately, it's almost certain there will be opportunities from time to time for Berkshire to do well within the circle we've staked out.
If the choice is between a questionable business at a comfortable price or a comfortable business at a questionable price, we much prefer the latter. What really gets our attention, however, is a comfortable business at a comfortable price. Our reservations about the prices of securities we own apply also to the general level of equity prices. We have never attempted to forecast what the stock market is going to do in the next month or the next year, and we are not trying to do that now.
Our main business, though we have others of great importance, is insurance. To understand Berkshire, therefore, it is necessary that you understand how to evaluate an insurance company. In early 1967 cash generated by the textile operation was used to fund our entry into insurance via the purchase of National Indemnity Company. Since 1967, when we entered the insurance business, our float has grown at an annual compounded rate of 20.7%. In more years than not, our cost of funds has been less than nothing. This access to "free" money has boosted Berkshire's performance in a major way. The key determinants are: (1) the amount of float that the business generates; (2) its cost to us; and (3) most critical of all, the long-term outlook for both of these factors. Float is money we hold but don't own. In an insurance operation, float arises because most policies require that premiums be prepaid and, more importantly, because it usually takes time for an insurer to hear about and resolve loss claims. Typically, the premiums that an insurer takes in do not cover the losses and expenses it must pay. That leaves it running an "underwriting loss". That underwriting loss is the cost of float. An insurance business is profitable over time if its cost of float is less than the cost the company would otherwise incur to obtain funds. The business has a negative value if the cost of its float is higher than market rates for money.
In 1995, National Indemnity's traditional business had a combined ratio ( losses / premiums earned ) of 84.2 and developed a large amount of float compared to premium volume. Over the last three years, this segment has had an average combined ratio of 85.6. Our homestate operation, grew at a good rate in 1995 and achieved a combined ratio of 81.4. Berkshire's California workers' compensation business, faced fierce price-cutting in 1995 and lost a great many renewals when we refused to accept inadequate rates. Though this operation's volume dropped materially, it produced an excellent underwriting profit. At Central States Indemnity, premium volume was up 23% in 1995, and underwriting profit grew by 59%. To sum up, we entered 1995 with an exceptional insurance operation of moderate size. By adding GEICO, we entered 1996 with a business still better in quality, much improved in its growth prospects, and doubled in size.
In our insurance operations we have an advantage in attitude, we have an advantage in capital, and we are developing an advantage in personnel. Additionally, I think we have some long-term edge in investing the float developed from policyholder funds. The nature of the business suggests that we will need all of these advantages in order to prosper. The volatility I predict reflects the fact that we have become a large seller of insurance against truly major catastrophes ("super-cats"), which could for example be hurricanes, windstorms or earthquakes. The buyers of these policies are reinsurance companies that themselves are in the business of writing catastrophe coverage for primary insurers and that wish to "lay off," or rid themselves, of part of their exposure to catastrophes of special severity. Because the need for these buyers to collect on such a policy will only arise at times of extreme stress, perhaps even chaos in the insurance business, they seek financially strong sellers. And here we have a major competitive advantage: In the industry, our strength is unmatched. A typical super-cat contract is complicated. But in a plain-vanilla instance we might write a one-year, $10 million policy providing that the buyer, a reinsurer, would be paid that sum only if a catastrophe caused two results: (1) specific losses for the reinsurer above a threshold amount; and (2) aggregate losses for the insurance industry of, say, more than $5 billion. Under virtually all circumstances, loss levels that satisfy the second condition will also have caused the first to be met.
Berkshire's insurance business has been a huge winner. We have calculated our float, which we generate in exceptional amounts relative to our premium volume, by adding loss reserves, loss adjustment reserves, funds held under reinsurance assumed and unearned premium reserves, and then subtracting agents' balances, prepaid acquisition costs, prepaid taxes and deferred charges applicable to assumed reinsurance. Our cost of float is determined by our underwriting loss or profit. In those years when we have had an underwriting profit, our cost of float has been negative, which means we have calculated our insurance earnings by adding underwriting profit to float income.
Any company's level of profitability is determined by three items: (1) what its assets earn; (2) what its liabilities cost; and (3) its utilization of "leverage" - that is, the degree to which its assets are funded by liabilities rather than by equity. Over the years, we have done well on Point 1, having produced high returns on our assets. We have also benefited greatly because our liabilities have cost us very little. An important reason for this low cost is that we have obtained float on very advantageous terms. The same cannot be said by many other property and casualty insurers, who may generate plenty of float, but at a cost that exceeds what the funds are worth to them. In those circumstances, leverage becomes a disadvantage.
Since our float has cost us virtually nothing over the years, it has in effect served as equity. It differs from true equity in that it doesn't belong to us. Nevertheless, let's assume that instead of our having $3.4 billion of float at the end of 1994, we had replaced it with $3.4 billion of equity. Under this scenario, we would have owned no more assets than we did during 1995. We would, however, have had somewhat lower earnings because the cost of float was negative in 1994. That is, our float threw off profits. And, to obtain the replacement equity, we would have needed to sell many new shares of Berkshire. The net result - more shares, equal assets and lower earnings - would have materially reduced the value of our stock. So you can understand why float wonderfully benefits a business if it is obtained at a low cost. Our acquisition of GEICO immediately increased our float by nearly $3 billion. We also expect GEICO to operate at a decent underwriting profit in most years, a fact that will increase the probability that our total float will cost us nothing.
In the super-cat business we sell policies that insurance and reinsurance companies buy to protect themselves from the effects of mega-catastrophes. Since truly major catastrophes occur infrequently, our super-cat business can be expected to show large profits in most years but occasionally to record a huge loss. In other words, the attractiveness of our super-cat business will take many years to measure. There were plenty of catastrophes in 1995, but no super-cats of the insured variety. The Southeast had a close call with Hurricane Opal. However, the storm abated before hitting land, and so a second Hurricane Andrew was dodged. For insurers, the Kobe earthquake was another close call: The economic damage was huge - but only a tiny portion of it was insured. The insurance industry won't always be that lucky.
At the National Indemnity reinsurance operation, Ajit Jain is the guiding genius of our super-cat business and he writes important non-cat business as well. In insurance, the term "catastrophe" is applied to an event, such as a hurricane or earthquake, that causes a great many insured losses. The other deals Ajit enters into usually cover only a single large loss. A simplified description of three transactions from one year will illustrate both what I mean and Ajit's versatility. We insured: (1) The life of Mike Tyson for a sum that is large initially and that, fight-by-fight, gradually declines to zero over the next few years; (2) Lloyd's against more than 225 of its "names" dying during the year; and (3) The launch, and a year of orbit, of two Chinese satellites. Ajit Jain continues to add enormous value to Berkshire. Working with only 18 associates, Ajit manages one of the world's largest reinsurance operations measured by assets, and the largest, based upon the size of individual risks assumed. I have known the details of almost every policy that Ajit has written since he came with us in 1986, and never on even a single occasion have I seen him break any of our three underwriting rules. His extraordinary discipline, of course, does not eliminate losses; it does, however, prevent foolish losses. And that's the key: Just as is the case in investing, insurers produce outstanding long-term results primarily by avoiding dumb decisions, rather than by making brilliant ones.
Since September 11th, Ajit has been particularly busy. Among the policies we have written and retained entirely for our own account are (1) $578 million of property coverage for a South American refinery once a loss there exceeds $1 billion; (2) $1 billion of non-cancelable third-party liability coverage for losses arising from acts of terrorism at several large international airlines; (3) £500 million of property coverage on a large North Sea oil platform, covering losses from terrorism and sabotage, above £600 million that the insured retained or reinsured elsewhere; and (4) significant coverage on the Sears Tower, including losses caused by terrorism, above a $500 million threshold. We have written many other jumbo risks as well, such as protection for the World Cup Soccer Tournament and the 2002 Winter Olympics. In all cases, however, we have attempted to avoid writing groups of policies from which losses might seriously aggregate. We will not, for example, write coverages on a large number of office and apartment towers in a single metropolis without excluding losses from both a nuclear explosion and the fires that would follow it. No one can match the speed with which Ajit can offer huge policies. After September 11th, his quickness to respond, always important, has become a major competitive advantage. So, too, has our unsurpassed financial strength. Some reinsurers, particularly those who are accustomed to laying off much of their business on a second layer of reinsurers known as retrocessionaires, are in a weakened condition and would have difficulty surviving a second mega-cat. When a daisy chain of retrocessionaires exists, a single weak link can pose trouble for all. In assessing the soundness of their reinsurance protection, insurers must therefore apply a stress test to all participants in the chain, and must contemplate a catastrophe loss occurring during a very unfavorable economic environment.
Berkshire is sought out for many kinds of insurance, both super-cat and large single-risk, because: (1) our financial strength is unmatched, and insures now we can and will pay our losses under the most adverse of circumstances; (2) we can supply a quote faster than anyone in the business; and (3) we will issue policies with limits larger than anyone else is prepared to write. Most of our competitors have extensive reinsurance treaties and lay off much of their business. While this helps them avoid shock losses, it also hurts their flexibility and reaction time. As you know, Berkshire moves quickly to seize investment and acquisition opportunities; in insurance we respond with the same exceptional speed. In another important point, large coverages don't frighten us but, on the contrary, intensify our interest. We have offered a policy under which we could have lost $1 billion; the largest coverage that a client accepted was $400 million. We will get hit from time to time with large losses. Charlie and I are quite willing to accept relatively volatile results in exchange for better long-term earnings than we would otherwise have had. In other words, we prefer a lumpy 15% to a smooth 12%. Since most managers opt for smoothness, we are left with a competitive advantage that we try to maximize. We do, though, monitor our aggregate exposure in order to keep our "worst case" at a level that leaves us comfortable.
Indeed, our worst case from a "once-in-a-century" super-cat is far less severe - relative to net worth - than that faced by many well-known primary companies writing great numbers of property policies. These insurers don't issue single huge-limit policies as we do, but their small policies, in aggregate, can create a risk of staggering size. In our case, losses would be large, but capped at levels we could easily handle. Prices are weakening in the super-cat field. That is understandable considering the influx of capital into the reinsurance business a few years ago and the natural desire of those holding the capital to employ it. No matter what others may do, we will not knowingly write business at inadequate rates. We unwittingly did this in the early 1970's and, after more than 20 years, regularly receive significant bills stemming from the mistakes of that era. My guess is that we will still be getting surprises from that business 20 years from now. A bad reinsurance contract is like hell: easy to enter and impossible to exit.
I actively participated in those early reinsurance decisions, and Berkshire paid a heavy tuition for my education in the business. GEICO suffered a similar, disastrous experience in the early 1980's, when it plunged enthusiastically into the writing of reinsurance and large risks. GEICO's folly was brief, but it will be cleaning things up for at least another decade. The problems at Lloyd's further illustrate the perils of reinsurance and also underscore how vital it is that the interests of the people who write insurance business be aligned with those of the people putting up the capital. When that symmetry is missing, insurers almost invariably run into trouble, though its existence may remain hidden for some time. At Berkshire, it's our money.
Because float funds are available to be invested, the typical property-casualty insurer can absorb losses and expenses that exceed premiums by 7% to 11% and still be able to break even on its business. Again, this calculation excludes the earnings the insurer realizes on net worth, that is, on the funds provided by shareholders. However, many exceptions to this 7% to 11% range exist. For example, insurance covering losses to crops from hail damage produces virtually no float at all. Premiums on this kind of business are paid to the insurer just prior to the time hailstorms are a threat. If a farmer sustains a loss he will be paid almost immediately. Thus, a combined ratio ( losses / premiums earned ) of 100 for crop hail insurance produces no profit for the insurer. At the other extreme, malpractice insurance covering the potential liabilities of doctors, lawyers and accountants produces a very high amount of float compared to annual premium volume. The float materializes because claims are often brought long after the alleged wrongdoing takes place and because their payment may be still further delayed by lengthy litigation. The industry calls malpractice and certain other kinds of liability insurance "long-tail" business, in recognition of the extended period during which insurers get to hold large sums that in the end will go to claimants and their lawyers, and to the insurer's lawyers as well. In long-tail situations a combined ratio of 115 (or even more) can prove profitable, since earnings produced by the float will exceed the 15% by which claims and expenses overrun premiums. The catch, though, is that "long-tail" means exactly that: Liability business written in a given year and presumed at first to have produced a combined ratio of 115 may eventually smack the insurer with 200, 300 or worse when the years have rolled by and all claims have finally been settled. The pitfalls of this business mandate an operating principle that too often is ignored: Though certain long-tail lines may prove profitable at combined ratios of 110 or 115, insurers will invariably find it unprofitable to price using those ratios as targets. Instead, prices must provide a healthy margin of safety against the societal trends that are forever springing expensive surprises on the insurance industry. Setting a target of 100 can itself result in heavy losses; aiming for 110 - 115 is business suicide.
All of that said, what should the measure of an insurer's profitability be? Analysts and managers customarily look to the combined ratio ( losses / premiums earned ), and it's true that this yardstick usually is a good indicator of where a company ranks in profitability. We believe a better measure, however, to be a comparison of underwriting loss to float developed. This loss/float ratio, like any statistic used in evaluating insurance results, is meaningless over short time periods: Quarterly underwriting figures and even annual ones are too heavily based on estimates to be much good. But when the loss/float ratio takes in a period of years, it gives a rough indication of the cost of funds generated by insurance operations. A low cost of funds signifies a good business; a high cost translates into a poor business.
We show the underwriting loss, if any, of our insurance group in each year since we entered the business and relate that bottom line to the average float we have held during the year. From this data we have computed a "cost of funds developed from insurance." You should keep at least three points in mind as you evaluate this data. The first point concerns the many businesses we operate whose annual earnings are unaffected by changes in stock market valuations. The impact of these businesses on both our absolute and relative performance has changed over the years. Early on, returns from our textile operation, which then represented a significant portion of our net worth, were a major drag on performance, averaging far less than would have been the case if the money invested in that business had instead been invested in the S&P 500. In more recent years, as we assembled our collection of exceptional businesses run by equally exceptional managers, the returns from our operating businesses have been well in excess of the returns achieved by the S&P. A second important factor to consider - and one that significantly hurts our relative performance - is that both the income and capital gains from our securities are burdened by a substantial corporate tax liability whereas the S&P returns are pre-tax. To comprehend the damage, imagine that Berkshire had owned nothing other than the S&P index during the 28-year period covered. In that case, the tax bite would have caused our corporate performance to be appreciably below the record shown in the table for the S&P. Under present tax laws, a gain for the S&P of 18% delivers a corporate holder of that index a return well short of 13%. And this problem would be intensified if corporate tax rates were to rise. This is a structural disadvantage we simply have to live with; there is no antidote for it. The third point incorporates two predictions: Charlie Munger, Berkshire's Vice Chairman and my partner, and I are virtually certain that the return over the next decade from an investment in the S&P index will be far less than that of the past decade, and we are dead certain that the drag exerted by Berkshire's expanding capital base will substantially reduce our historical advantage relative to the index.
Making the first prediction goes somewhat against our grain: We've long felt that the only value of stock forecasters is to make fortune tellers look good. Even now, Charlie and I continue to believe that short-term market forecasts are poison. However, it is clear that stocks cannot forever overperform their underlying businesses, as they have so dramatically done for some time, and that fact makes us quite confident of our forecast that the rewards from investing in stocks over the next decade will be significantly smaller than they were in the last. Our second conclusion - that an increased capital base will act as an anchor on our relative performance - seems incontestable. The only open question is whether we can drag the anchor along at some tolerable, though slowed, pace. We will continue to experience considerable volatility in our annual results. That's assured by the general volatility of the stock market, by the concentration of our equity holdings in just a few companies, and by certain business decisions we have made, most especially our move to commit large resources to super-catastrophe insurance. We not only accept this volatility, we welcome it: A tolerance for short-term swings improves our long-term prospects.
Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking. When companies or investment professionals use terms such as "EBITDA" and "pro forma," they want you to unthinkingly accept concepts that are dangerously flawed. In golf, my score is frequently below par on a pro forma basis: I have firm plans to "restructure" my putting stroke and therefore only count the swings I take before reaching the green. In insurance reporting, "loss development" is a widely used term that is seriously misleading. First, a definition: Loss reserves at an insurer are not funds tucked away for a rainy day, but rather a liability account. If properly calculated, the liability states the amount that an insurer will have to pay for all losses including associated costs that have occurred prior to the reporting date but have not yet been paid. When calculating the reserve, the insurer will have been notified of many of the losses it is destined to pay, but others will not yet have been reported to it. These losses are called IBNR, for incurred but not reported. Indeed, in some cases (involving, say, product liability or embezzlement) the insured itself will not yet be aware that a loss has occurred. It's difficult for an insurer to put a figure on the ultimate cost of all such reported and unreported events. But the ability to do so with reasonable accuracy is vital. Otherwise the insurer's managers won't know what its actual loss costs are and how these compare to the premiums being charged. GEICO got into huge trouble in the early 1970s because for several years it severely underreserved, and therefore believed its product (insurance protection) was costing considerably less than was truly the case. Consequently, the company sailed blissfully along, underpricing its product and selling more and more policies at ever-larger losses.
On December 21 1998, we completed our $22 billion acquisition of General Re Corp. In addition to owning 100% of General Reinsurance Corporation, the largest U.S. property-casualty reinsurer, the company also owns (including stock it has an arrangement to buy) 82% of the oldest reinsurance company in the world, Cologne Re. The two companies together reinsure all lines of insurance and operate in 124 countries. For many decades, General Re's name has stood for quality, integrity and professionalism in reinsurance. We believe that Berkshire's ownership will benefit General Re in important ways and that its earnings a decade from now will materially exceed those that would have been attainable absent the merger. We base this optimism on the fact that we can offer General Re's management a freedom to operate in whatever manner will best allow the company to exploit its strengths.
Let's look at the reinsurance business to understand why General Re could not on its own do what it can under Berkshire. Most of the demand for reinsurance comes from primary insurers who want to escape the wide swings in earnings that result from large and unusual losses. In effect, a reinsurer gets paid for absorbing the volatility that the client insurer wants to shed. Ironically, though, a publicly-held reinsurer gets graded by both its owners and those who evaluate its credit on the smoothness of its own results. Wide swings in earnings hurt both credit ratings and p/e ratios, even when the business that produces such swings has an expectancy of satisfactory profits over time. This market reality sometimes causes a reinsurer to make costly moves, among them laying off a significant portion of the business it writes (in transactions that are called "retrocessions") or rejecting good business simply because it threatens to bring on too much volatility. Berkshire, in contrast, happily accepts volatility, just as long as it carries with it the expectation of increased profits over time. Furthermore, we are a Fort Knox of capital, and that means volatile earnings can't impair our premier credit ratings. Thus we have the perfect structure for writing and retaining reinsurance in virtually any amount. In fact, we've used this strength over the past decade to build a powerful super-cat business. What General Re gives us, however, is the distribution force, technical facilities and management that will allow us to employ our structural strength in every facet of the industry. In particular, General Re and Cologne Re can now accelerate their push into international markets, where the preponderance of industry growth will almost certainly occur. As the merger proxy statement spelled out, Berkshire also brings tax and investment benefits to General Re. But the most compelling reason for the merger is simply that General Re's outstanding management can now do what it does best, unfettered by the constraints that have limited its growth. Berkshire is assuming responsibility for General Re's investment portfolio, though not for Cologne Re's. We will not, however, be involved in General Re's underwriting. We will simply ask the company to exercise the discipline of the past while increasing the proportion of its business that is retained, expanding its product line, and widening its geographical coverage -- making these moves in recognition of Berkshire's financial strength and tolerance for wide swings in earnings. As we've long said, we prefer a lumpy 15% return to a smooth 12%. Over time, Ron Ferguson and his team will maximize General Re's new potential. He and I have known each other for many years, and each of our companies has initiated significant business that it has reinsured with the other. Indeed, General Re played a key role in the resuscitation of GEICO from its near-death status in 1976.
GEICO, by far our largest primary insurer, made major progress in 2001, thanks to Tony Nicely, its CEO, and his associates. GEICO's premium volume grew 6.6% last year, its float grew $308 million, and it achieved an underwriting profit of $221 million. This means we were actually paid that amount last year to hold the $4.25 billion in float, which of course doesn't belong to Berkshire but can be used by us for investment. The only disappointment at GEICO in 2001, and it's an important one, was our inability to add policyholders. Our preferred customers (81% of our total) grew by 1.6% but our standard and non-standard policies fell by 10.1%. Overall, policies in force fell .8%. New business has improved in recent months. Our closure rate from telephone inquiries has climbed, and our Internet business continues its steady growth. We, therefore, expect at least a modest gain in policy count during 2002. Tony and I are eager to commit much more to marketing than the $219 million we spent last year, but at the moment we cannot see how to do so effectively. In the meantime, our operating costs are low and far below those of our major competitors; our prices are attractive; and our float is cost-free and growing.
When it becomes evident that reserves at past reporting dates understated the liability that truly existed at the time, companies speak of "loss development." In the year discovered, these shortfalls penalize reported earnings because the "catch-up" costs from prior years must be added to current-year costs when results are calculated. This is what happened at General Re in 2001: a staggering $800 million of loss costs that actually occurred in earlier years, but that were not then recorded, were belatedly recognized last year and charged against current earnings. The mistake was an honest one, I can assure you of that. Nevertheless, for several years, this underreserving caused us to believe that our costs were much lower than they truly were, an error that contributed to woefully inadequate pricing. Additionally, the overstated profit figures led us to pay substantial incentive compensation that we should not have and to incur income taxes far earlier than was necessary. We recommend scrapping the term "loss development" and its equally ugly twin, "reserve strengthening." Can you imagine an insurer, upon finding its reserves excessive, describing the reduction that follows as "reserve weakening"? "Loss development" suggests to investors that some natural, uncontrollable event has occurred in the current year, and "reserve strengthening" implies that adequate amounts have been further buttressed. The truth, however, is that management made an error in estimation that in turn produced an error in the earnings previously reported. The losses didn't "develop", they were there all along. What developed was management's understanding of the losses Or, in the instances of chicanery, management's willingness to finally fess up. A more forthright label for the phenomenon at issue would be "loss costs we failed to recognize when they occurred" (or maybe just "oops"). Underreserving is a common, and serious, problem throughout the property/casualty insurance industry. At Berkshire we told you of our own problems with underestimation in 1984 and 1986. Generally, however, our reserving has been conservative. Major underreserving is common in cases of companies struggling for survival. In effect, insurance accounting is a self-graded exam, in that the insurer gives some figures to its auditing firm and generally doesn't get an argument. What the auditor gets, however, is a letter from management that is designed to take his firm off the hook if the numbers later look silly. A company experiencing financial difficulties, of a kind that could put it out of business, seldom proves to be a tough grader. Who, after all, wants to prepare his own execution papers? Even when companies have the best of intentions, it's not easy to reserve properly. I've told the story in the past about the fellow traveling abroad whose sister called to tell him that their dad had died. The brother replied that it was impossible for him to get home for the funeral, and he volunteered to shoulder its cost. Upon returning, the brother received a bill from the mortuary for $4,500, which he promptly paid. A month later, and a month after that also, he paid $10 pursuant to an add-on invoice. When a third $10 invoice came, he called his sister for an explanation. "Oh," she replied, "I forgot to tell you. We buried dad in a rented suit."
There are a lot of "rented suits" buried in the past operations of insurance companies. Sometimes the problems they signify lie dormant for decades, as was the case with asbestos liability, before virulently manifesting themselves. Difficult as the job may be, it's management's responsibility to adequately account for all possibilities. Conservatism is essential. When a claims manager walks into the CEO's office and says "Guess what just happened," his boss, if a veteran, does not expect to hear it's good news. Surprises in the insurance world have been far from symmetrical in their effect on earnings. Because of this one-sided experience, it is folly to suggest, as some are doing, that all property/casualty insurance reserves be discounted, an approach reflecting the fact that they will be paid in the future and that therefore their present value is less than the stated liability for them. Discounting might be acceptable if reserves could be precisely established. They can't, however, because a myriad of forces, judicial broadening of policy language and medical inflation, to name just two chronic problems, are constantly working to make reserves inadequate. Discounting would exacerbate this already-serious situation.
Historically, Berkshire has obtained its float at a very low cost. Indeed, our cost has been less than zero in about half of the years in which we've operated; that is, we've actually been paid for holding other people's money. Over the last few years, however, our cost has been too high, and in 2001 it was terrible. The table that follows shows (at intervals) the float generated by the various segments of Berkshire's insurance operations since we entered the business 35 years ago upon acquiring National Indemnity Company (whose traditional lines are included in the segment "Other Primary"). For the table we have calculated our float, which we generate in large amounts relative to our premium volume, by adding net loss reserves, loss adjustment reserves, funds held under reinsurance assumed and unearned premium reserves, and then subtracting insurance-related receivables, prepaid acquisition costs, prepaid taxes and deferred charges applicable to assumed reinsurance.
Yearend Float (in $ millions)
Year GEICO General Re Other
1967 20 20
1977 40 131 171
1987 701 807 1,508
1997 2,917 4,014 455 7,386
1998 3,125 14,909 4,305 415 22,754
1999 3,444 15,166 6,285 403 25,298
2000 3,943 15,525 7,805 598 27,871
2001 4,251 19,310 11,262 685 35,508
Last year I told you that, barring a mega-catastrophe, our cost of float would probably drop from its 2000 level of 6%. I had in mind natural catastrophes when I said that, but instead we were hit by a man-made catastrophe on September 11th, an event that delivered the insurance industry its largest loss in history. Our float cost therefore came in at a staggering 12.8%. It was our worst year in float cost since 1984, and a result that to a significant degree, as I will explain in the next section, we brought upon ourselves. If no mega-catastrophe occurs, I, once again, expect the cost of our float to be low in the coming year. We will indeed need a low cost, as will all insurers. Some years back, float costing, say, 4% was tolerable because government bonds yielded twice as much, and stocks prospectively offered still loftier returns. Today, fat returns are nowhere to be found and short-term funds earn less than 2%. Under these conditions, each of our insurance operations, save one, must deliver an underwriting profit if it is to be judged a good business. The exception is our retroactive reinsurance operation, which has desirable economics even though it currently hits us with an annual underwriting loss of about $425 million.
Insurers have always found it costly to ignore new exposures. Doing that in the case of terrorism, however, could literally bankrupt the industry. No one knows the probability of a nuclear detonation in a major metropolis or even multiple detonations. Nor can anyone, with assurance, assess the probability in this year, or another, of deadly biological or chemical agents being introduced simultaneously (say, through ventilation systems) into multiple office buildings and manufacturing plants. An attack like that would produce astronomical workers' compensation claims. Here's what we do know: The probability of such mind-boggling disasters, though likely very low at present, is not zero. The probabilities are increasing, in an irregular and immeasurable manner, as knowledge and materials become available to those who wish us ill. Fear may recede with time, but the danger won't, the war against terrorism can never be won. The best the nation can achieve is a long succession of stalemates. There can be no checkmate against hydra-headed foes. Until now, insurers and reinsurers have blithely assumed the financial consequences from the incalculable risks I have described. Under a "close-to-worst-case" scenario, which could conceivably involve $1 trillion of damage, the insurance industry would be destroyed unless it manages in some manner to dramatically limit its assumption of terrorism risks. Only the U.S. Government has the resources to absorb such a blow. If it is unwilling to do so on a prospective basis, the general citizenry must bear its own risks and count on the Government to come to its rescue after a disaster occurs.
Why, you might ask, didn't I recognize the above facts before September 11th? The answer, sadly, is that I did, but I didn't convert thought into action. I violated the Noah rule: Predicting rain doesn't count; building arks does. I consequently let Berkshire operate with a dangerous level of risk, at General Re in particular. I'm sorry to say that much risk for which we haven't been compensated remains on our books, but it is running off by the day. We have for some years been willing to assume more risk than any other insurer has knowingly taken on. That's still the case. We are perfectly willing to lose $2 billion to $2½ billion in a single event (as we did on September 11th) if we have been paid properly for assuming the risk that caused the loss (which on that occasion we weren't).
Indeed, we have a major competitive advantage because of our tolerance for huge losses. Berkshire has massive liquid resources, substantial non-insurance earnings, a favorable tax position and a knowledgeable shareholder constituency willing to accept volatility in earnings. This unique combination enables us to assume risks that far exceed the appetite of even our largest competitors. Over time, insuring these jumbo risks should be profitable, though periodically they will bring on a terrible year. We will write some coverage for terrorist-related losses, including a few non-correlated policies with very large limits. But we will not knowingly expose Berkshire to losses beyond what we can comfortably handle. We will control our total exposure, no matter what the competition does.
Over the years, our insurance business has provided ever-growing, low-cost funds that have fueled much of Berkshire's growth. Charlie and I believe this will continue to be the case. But we stumbled in a big way in 2001, largely because of underwriting losses at General Re. In the past I assured you that General Re was underwriting with discipline, and I have been proven wrong. Though its managers' intentions were good, the company broke each of the three underwriting rules I set forth and has paid a huge price for doing so. One obvious cause for its failure is that it did not reserve correctly and therefore severely miscalculated the cost of the product it was selling. Not knowing your costs will cause problems in any business. In long-tail reinsurance, where years of unawareness will promote and prolong severe underpricing, ignorance of true costs is dynamite. Additionally, General Re was overly-competitive in going after, and retaining, business. While all concerned may intend to underwrite with care, it is nonetheless difficult for able, hard-driving professionals to curb their urge to prevail over competitors. If "winning," however, is equated with market share rather than profits, trouble awaits. "No" must be an important part of any underwriter's vocabulary. I assure you that underwriting discipline is being restored at General Re and its Cologne Re subsidiary with appropriate urgency. Joe Brandon was appointed General Re's CEO in September and, along with Tad Montross, its new president, is committed to producing underwriting profits.
When property/casualty companies are judged by their cost of float, very few stack up as satisfactory businesses. Unlike the situation prevailing in many other industries, neither size nor brand name determines an insurer's profitability. Indeed, many of the biggest and best-known companies regularly deliver mediocre results. What counts in this business is underwriting discipline. The winners are those that unfailingly stick to three key principles: First, they accept only those risks that they are able to properly evaluate (staying within their circle of competence) and that, after they have evaluated all relevant factors including remote loss scenarios, carry the expectancy of profit. Secondly, these insurers ignore market-share considerations and are sanguine about losing business to competitors that are offering foolish prices or policy conditions. They limit the business they accept in a manner that guarantees they will suffer no aggregation of losses from a single event or from related events that will threaten their solvency. Thirdly, they ceaselessly search for possible correlation among seemingly-unrelated risks. They avoid business involving moral risk: No matter what the rate, trying to write good contracts with bad people doesn't work. While most policyholders and clients are honorable and ethical, doing business with the few exceptions is usually expensive, sometimes extraordinarily so. The events of September 11th made it clear that our implementation of rules 1 and 2 at General Re had been dangerously weak. In setting prices and also in evaluating aggregation risk, we had either overlooked or dismissed the possibility of large-scale terrorism losses. That was a relevant underwriting factor, and we ignored it. In pricing property coverages, we had looked to the past and taken into account only costs we might expect to incur from windstorm, fire, explosion and earthquake. But what will be the largest insured property loss in history (after adding related business-interruption claims) originated from none of these forces. In short, all of us in the industry made a fundamental underwriting mistake by focusing on experience, rather than exposure, thereby assuming a huge terrorism risk for which we received no premium.
Gillette's business is very much the kind we like. Charlie and I think we understand the company's economics and therefore believe we can make a reasonably intelligent guess about its future. However, we have no ability to forecast the economics of the investment banking business (in which we have a position through our 1987 purchase of Salomon convertible preferred), the airline industry, or the paper industry. This does not mean that we predict a negative future for these industries: we're agnostics, not atheists. Our lack of strong convictions about these businesses, however, means that we must structure our investments in them differently from what we do when we invest in a business appearing to have splendid economic characteristics.
In one major respect, however, these purchases are not different: We only want to link up with people whom we like, admire, and trust. John Gutfreund at Salomon, Colman Mockler, Jr. at Gillette, Ed Colodny at USAir, and Andy Sigler at Champion meet this test. They in turn have demonstrated some confidence in us, insisting in each case that our preferreds have unrestricted voting rights on a fully-converted basis, an arrangement that is far from standard in corporate finance. In effect they trust us to be intelligent owners, thinking about tomorrow instead of today, just as we are trusting them to be intelligent managers, thinking about tomorrow as well as today.
The preferred-stock structures we have negotiated will provide a mediocre return for us if industry economics hinder the performance of our investees, but will produce reasonably attractive results for us if they can earn a return comparable to that of American industry in general. Under almost any conditions, we expect these preferreds to return us our money plus dividends. If that is all we get, though, the result will be disappointing, because we will have given up flexibility and consequently will have missed some significant opportunities that are bound to present themselves during the decade. Under that scenario, we will have obtained only a preferred-stock yield during a period when the typical preferred stock will have held no appeal for us whatsoever. The only way Berkshire can achieve satisfactory results from its four preferred issues is to have the common stocks of the investee companies do well. Good management and at least tolerable industry conditions will be needed if that is to happen. We believe Berkshire's investment will also help and that the other shareholders of each investee will profit over the years ahead from our preferred-stock purchase. The help will come from the fact that each company now has a major, stable, and interested shareholder whose Chairman and Vice Chairman have, through Berkshire's investments, indirectly committed a very large amount of their own money to these undertakings. In dealing with our investees, Charlie and I will be supportive, analytical, and objective. We recognize that we are working with experienced CEOs who are very much in command of their own businesses but who nevertheless, at certain moments, appreciate the chance to test their thinking on someone without ties to their industry or to decisions of the past.
As a group, these convertible preferreds will not produce the returns we can achieve when we find a business with wonderful economic prospects that is unappreciated by the market. Nor will the returns be as attractive as those produced when we make our favorite form of capital deployment, the acquisition of 80% or more of a fine business with a fine management. But both opportunities are rare, particularly in a size befitting our present and anticipated resources. Charlie and I feel that our preferred stock investments should produce returns moderately above those achieved by most fixed-income portfolios and that we can play a minor but enjoyable and constructive role in the investee companies.
Charlie and I haven't lost our skepticism about acquisitions: We believe most deals do damage to the shareholders of the acquiring company. Sellers and their representatives invariably present financial projections having more entertainment value than educational value. In any case, why potential buyers even look at projections prepared by sellers baffles me.
At Berkshire, we have all the difficulties in perceiving the future that other acquisition-minded companies do. We face the inherent problem that the seller of a business practically always knows far more about it than the buyer and also picks the time of sale - a time when the business is likely to be walking "just fine." Even so, we do have a few advantages, perhaps the greatest being that we don't have a strategic plan. Thus we feel no need to proceed in an ordained direction (a course leading almost invariably to silly purchase prices) but can instead simply decide what makes sense for our owners. In doing that, we always mentally compare any move we are contemplating with dozens of other opportunities open to us, including the purchase of small pieces of the best businesses in the world via the stock market. Our practice of making this comparison - acquisitions against passive investments - is a discipline that managers focused simply on expansion seldom use.
In making acquisitions, we have a further advantage: As payment, we can offer sellers a stock backed by an extraordinary collection of outstanding businesses. An individual or a family wishing to dispose of a single fine business, but also wishing to defer personal taxes indefinitely, is apt to find Berkshire stock a particularly comfortable holding. Beyond that, sellers sometimes care about placing their companies in a corporate home that will both endure and provide pleasant, productive working conditions for their managers. Here again, Berkshire offers something special. Our managers operate with extraordinary autonomy. Additionally, our ownership structure enables sellers to know that when I say we are buying to keep, the promise means something. We like dealing with owners who care what happens to their companies and people. A buyer is likely to find fewer unpleasant surprises dealing with that type of seller than with one simply auctioning off his business. We are never going to lose our appetite for buying companies with good economics and excellent management. At Berkshire, we have all the difficulties in perceiving the future that other acquisition-minded companies do.
Concluding this little dissertation on acquisitions, I can't resist repeating a tale told me last year by a corporate executive. The business he grew up in was a fine one, with a long-time record of leadership in its industry. Its main product, however, was distressingly glamorless. So several decades ago, the company hired a management consultant who - naturally - advised diversification, the then-current fad. ("Focus" was not yet in style.) Before long, the company acquired a number of businesses, each after the consulting firm had gone through a long - and expensive - acquisition study. And the outcome? Said the executive sadly, "When we started, we were getting 100% of our earnings from the original business. After ten years, we were getting 150%."
Our star-studded group grew in 2001. First, we completed the purchases of two businesses that we had agreed to buy in 2000, Shaw and Johns Manville. Then we acquired two others, MiTek and XTRA, and contracted to buy two more: Larson-Juhl, an acquisition that has just closed, and Fruit of the Loom, which will close shortly if creditors approve our offer. Additionally, all of our purchases last year were for cash, which means our shareholders became owners of these additional businesses without relinquishing any interest in the fine companies they already owned. We will continue to follow our familiar formula, striving to increase the value of the excellent businesses we have, adding new businesses of similar quality, and issuing shares only grudgingly.
Gene Toombs, CEO of MiTek explained that MiTek is the world’s leading producer of this thing I’d received, a "connector plate," which is used in making roofing trusses. Gene also said that the U.K. parent of MiTek wished to sell the company. Liking the sound of his letter, I gave Gene a call. It took me only a minute to realize that he was our kind of manager and MiTek our kind of business. We made a cash offer to the U.K. owner and made a deal. Gene’s managerial crew is exceptionally enthusiastic about the company and wanted to participate in the purchase. Therefore, we arranged for 55 members of the MiTek team to buy 10% of the company, with each putting up a minimum of $100,000 in cash. Many borrowed money so they could participate. As they would not be owners if they had options, all of these managers are true owners. They face the downside of decisions as well as the upside. They incur a cost of capital. And they can’t "reprice" their stakes: What they paid is what they live with. Charlie and I love this high-grade entrepreneurial attitude that exists at MiTek, and we predict it will be a winner for all involved.
Creditors are considering an offer we have made for Fruit of the Loom. The company entered bankruptcy a few years back, a victim both of too much debt and poor management. And, a good many years before that, I had some Fruit of the Loom experience of my own.
In August 1955, I was one of five employees, including two secretaries, working for the three managers of Graham-Newman Corporation, a New York investment company. Graham-Newman controlled Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron ("P&R"), an anthracite producer that had excess cash, a tax loss carryforward, and a declining business. At the time, I had a significant portion of my limited net worth invested in P&R shares, reflecting my faith in the business talents of my bosses, Ben Graham, Jerry Newman and Howard (Micky) Newman.
This faith was rewarded when P&R purchased the Union Underwear Company from Jack Goldfarb for $15 million. Union (though it was then only a licensee of the name) produced Fruit of the Loom underwear. The company possessed $5 million in cash, $2.5 million of which P&R used for the purchase, and was earning about $3 million pre-tax, earnings that could be sheltered by the tax position of P&R. And, oh yes: Fully $9 million of the remaining $12.5 million due was satisfied by non-interest-bearing notes, payable from 50% of any earnings Union had in excess of $1 million. (Those were the days; I get goosebumps just thinking about such deals.) Subsequently, Union bought the licensor of the Fruit of the Loom name and, along with P&R, was merged into Northwest Industries. Fruit went on to achieve annual pre-tax earnings exceeding $200 million.
John Holland was responsible for Fruit’s operations in its most bountiful years. In 1996, however, John retired, and management loaded the company with debt, in part to make a series of acquisitions that proved disappointing. Bankruptcy followed. John was then rehired, and he undertook a major reworking of operations. Before John’s return, deliveries were chaotic, costs soared and relations with key customers deteriorated. While correcting these problems, John also reduced employment from a bloated 40,000 to 23,000. In short, he’s been restoring the old Fruit of the Loom, albeit in a much more competitive environment. Stepping into Fruit’s bankruptcy proceedings, we made a proposal to creditors to which we attached no financing conditions, even though our offer had to remain outstanding for many months. We did, however, insist on a very unusual proviso: John had to be available to continue serving as CEO after we took over. To us, John and the brand are Fruit’s key assets. I was helped in this transaction by my friend and former boss, Micky Newman, now 81. What goes around truly does come around.
In early 2000, my friend, Julian Robertson, announced that he would terminate his investment partnership, Tiger Fund, and that he would liquidate it entirely except for four large holdings. One of these was XTRA, a leading lessor of truck trailers. I then called Julian, asking whether he might consider selling his XTRA block or whether, for that matter, the company’s management might entertain an offer for the entire company. Julian referred me to Lew Rubin, XTRA’s CEO. He and I had a nice conversation, but it was apparent that no deal was to be done.
Then in June 2001, Julian called to say that he had decided to sell his XTRA shares, and I resumed conversations with Lew. The XTRA board accepted a proposal we made, which was to be effectuated through a tender offer expiring on September 11th. The tender conditions included the usual "out," allowing us to withdraw if the stock market were to close before the offer’s expiration. Throughout much of the 11th, Lew went through a particularly wrenching experience: First, he had a son-in-law working in the World Trade Center who couldn’t be located; and second, he knew we had the option of backing away from our purchase. The story ended happily: Lew’s son-in-law escaped serious harm, and Berkshire completed the transaction. Trailer leasing is a cyclical business but one in which we should earn decent returns over time. Lew brings a new talent to Berkshire, and we hope to expand in leasing.
In late 2000, we began purchasing the obligations of FINOVA Group, a troubled finance company, and that, too, led to our making a major transaction. FINOVA then had about $11 billion of debt outstanding, of which we purchased 13% at about two-thirds of face value. We expected the company to go into bankruptcy, but believed that liquidation of its assets would produce a payoff for creditors that would be well above our cost. As default loomed in early 2001, we joined forces with Leucadia National Corporation to present the company with a prepackaged plan for bankruptcy.
The plan as subsequently modified (and I'm simplifying here) provided that creditors would be paid 70% of face value (along with full interest) and that they would receive a newly-issued 7½% note for the 30% of their claims not satisfied by cash. To fund FINOVA's 70% distribution, Leucadia and Berkshire formed a jointly-owned entity, mellifluently christened Berkadia, that borrowed $5.6 billion through FleetBoston and, in turn, re-lent this sum to FINOVA, concurrently obtaining a priority claim on its assets. Berkshire guaranteed 90% of the Berkadia borrowing and also has a secondary guarantee on the 10% for which Leucadia has primary responsibility. (Did I mention that I am simplifying?).
There is a spread of about two percentage points between what Berkadia pays on its borrowing and what it receives from FINOVA, with this spread flowing 90% to Berkshire and 10% to Leucadia. As I write this, each loan has been paid down to $3.9 billion.
As part of the bankruptcy plan, which was approved on August 10, 2001, Berkshire also agreed to offer 70% of face value for up to $500 million principal amount of the $3.25 billion of new 7½% bonds that were issued by FINOVA. (Of these, we had already received $426.8 million in principal amount because of our 13% ownership of the original debt.) Our offer, which was to run until September 26, 2001, could be withdrawn under a variety of conditions, one of which became operative if the New York Stock Exchange closed during the offering period. When that indeed occurred in the week of September 11th, we promptly terminated the offer.
Many of FINOVA's loans involve aircraft assets whose values were significantly diminished by the events of September 11th. Other receivables held by the company also were imperiled by the economic consequences of the attack that day. FINOVA's prospects, therefore, are not as good as when we made our proposal to the bankruptcy court. Nevertheless we feel that overall the transaction will prove satisfactory for Berkshire. Leucadia has day-to-day operating responsibility for FINOVA, and we have long been impressed with the business acumen and managerial talent of its key executives.
It's déjà vu time again: In early 1965, when the investment partnership I ran took control of Berkshire, that company had its main banking relationships with First National Bank of Boston and a large New York City bank. Previously, I had done no business with either.
Fast forward to 1969, when I wanted Berkshire to buy the Illinois National Bank and Trust of Rockford. We needed $10 million, and I contacted both banks. There was no response from New York. However, two representatives of the Boston bank immediately came to Omaha. They told me they would supply the money for our purchase and that we would work out the details later.
For the next three decades, we borrowed almost nothing from banks. (Debt is a four-letter word around Berkshire.) Then, in February, when we were structuring the FINOVA transaction, I again called Boston, where First National had morphed into FleetBoston. Chad Gifford, the company's president, responded just as Bill Brown and Ira Stepanian had back in 1969, "you've got the money and we'll work out the details later." FleetBoston syndicated a loan for $6 billion (as it turned out, we didn't need $400 million of it), and it was quickly oversubscribed by 17 banks throughout the world.
Is it really so difficult to conclude that Coca-Cola and Gillette possess far less business risk over the long term than, say, any computer company or retailer? Worldwide, Coke sells about 44% of all soft drinks, and Gillette has more than a 60% share (in value) of the blade market. Leaving aside chewing gum, in which Wrigley is dominant, I know of no other significant businesses in which the leading company has long enjoyed such global power. Moreover, both Coke and Gillette have actually increased their worldwide shares of market in recent years. The might of their brand names, the attributes of their products, and the strength of their distribution systems give them an enormous competitive advantage, setting up a protective moat around their economic castles. The average company, in contrast, does battle daily without any such means of protection. The theoretician bred on beta has no mechanism for differentiating the risk inherent in, say, a single-product toy company selling pet rocks or hula hoops from that of another toy company whose sole product is Monopoly or Barbie. But it's quite possible for ordinary investors to make such distinctions if they have a reasonable understanding of consumer behavior and the factors that create long-term competitive strength or weakness. Obviously, every investor will make mistakes. By confining himself to a relatively few, easy-to-understand cases, a reasonably intelligent, informed and diligent person can judge investment risks with a useful degree of accuracy.
We'll stick instead with the easy cases. Why search for a needle buried in a haystack when one is sitting in plain sight? Our goal is to acquire either part or all of businesses that we believe we understand, that have good, sustainable underlying economics, and ones that are run by managers whom we like, admire and trust. GEICO's sustainable cost advantage is what attracted me to the company way back in 1951, when the entire business was valued at $7 million. It is also why I felt Berkshire should pay $2.3 billion for the 49% of the company that we didn't then own. Maximizing the results of such a wonderful business requires management and focus. Lucky for us, we have in Tony a superb manager whose business focus never wavers. Wanting also to get the entire GEICO organization concentrating as he does, we needed a compensation plan that was itself sharply focused - and immediately after our purchase, we put one in.
Today, the bonuses received by dozens of top executives, starting with Tony, are based upon only two key variables: (1) growth in voluntary auto policies and (2) underwriting profitability on "seasoned" auto business (meaning policies that have been on the books for more than one year). In addition, we use the same yardsticks to calculate the annual contribution to the company's profit-sharing plan. Everyone at GEICO knows what counts.
The GEICO plan exemplifies Berkshire's incentive compensation principles: Goals should be (1) tailored to the economics of the specific operating business; (2) simple in character so that the degree to which they are being realized can be easily measured; and (3) directly related to the daily activities of plan participants. As a corollary, we shun "lottery ticket" arrangements, such as options on Berkshire shares, whose ultimate value - which could range from zero to huge - is totally out of the control of the person whose behavior we would like to affect. In our view, a system that produces quixotic payoffs will not only be wasteful for owners but may actually discourage the focused behavior we value in managers. We will continue to push in the directions we always have. We will try to build earnings by running our present businesses well - a job made easy because of the extraordinary talents of our operating managers - and by purchasing other businesses, in whole or in part, that are not likely to be roiled by change and that possess important competitive advantages.
Currently two trends are affecting acquisition costs. The bad news is that it has become more expensive to develop inquiries. Media rates have risen, and we are also seeing diminishing returns -- that is, as both we and our competitors step up advertising, inquiries per ad fall for all of us. These negatives are partly offset, however, by the fact that our closure ratio -- the percentage of inquiries converted to sales -- has steadily improved. Overall, we believe that our cost of new business, though definitely rising, is well below that of the industry. Of even greater importance, our operating costs for renewal business are the lowest among broad-based national auto insurers. Both of these major competitive advantages are sustainable. Others may copy our model, but they will be unable to replicate our economics.
As Davy (Lorimer Davidson) made clear, GEICO's method of selling - direct marketing - gave it an enormous cost advantage over competitors that sold through agents, a form of distribution so ingrained in the business of these insurers that it was impossible for them to give it up. After my session with Davy, I was more excited about GEICO than I have ever been about a stock.
When I finished at Columbia and returned to Omaha to sell securities, I naturally focused almost exclusively on GEICO. My first sales call - on my Aunt Alice, who always supported me 100% - was successful. I was then a skinny, unpolished 20-year-old who looked about 17, and my pitch usually failed. Undaunted, I wrote a short report late in 1951 about GEICO for "The Security I Like Best" column in The Commercial and Financial Chronicle, a leading financial publication of the time. More important, I bought stock for my own account.
I have kept copies of every tax return I filed, starting with the return for 1944. Checking back, I find that I purchased GEICO shares on four occasions during 1951, the last purchase being made on September 26. This pattern of persistence suggests to me that my tendency toward self-intoxication was developed early. I probably came back on that September day from unsuccessfully trying to sell some prospect and decided - despite my already having more than 50% of my net worth in GEICO - to load up further. In any event, I accumulated 350 shares of GEICO during the year, at a cost of $10,282. At yearend, this holding was worth $13,125, more than 65% of my net worth.
You can see why GEICO was my first business love. Furthermore, I should add that I earned most of the funds I used to buy GEICO shares by delivering The Washington Post, the chief product of a company that much later made it possible for Berkshire to turn $10 million into $500 million.
Alas, I sold my entire GEICO position in 1952 for $15,259, primarily to switch into Western Insurance Securities. This act of infidelity can partially be excused by the fact that Western was selling for slightly more than one times its current earnings, a p/e ratio that for some reason caught my eye. In the next 20 years, the GEICO stock I sold grew in value to about $1.3 million, which taught me a lesson about the inadvisability of selling a stake in an identifiably-wonderful company.
In the early 1970's, after Davy retired, the executives running GEICO made some serious errors in estimating their claims costs, a mistake that led the company to underprice its policies - and that almost caused it to go bankrupt. The company was saved only because Jack Byrne came in as CEO in 1976 and took drastic remedial measures. Because I believed both in Jack and in GEICO's fundamental competitive strength, Berkshire purchased a large interest in the company during the second half of 1976, and also made smaller purchases later. By yearend 1980, we had put $45.7 million into GEICO and owned 33.3% of its shares. During the next 15 years, we did not make further purchases. Our interest in the company, nonetheless, grew to about 50% because it was a big repurchaser of its own shares. Then, in 1995, we agreed to pay $2.3 billion for the half of the company we didn't own. That steep price gave us full ownership of a growing enterprise whose business remains exceptional for precisely the same reasons that prevailed in 1951.
GEICO has two extraordinary managers: Tony Nicely, who runs the insurance side of the operation, and Lou Simpson, who runs investments. Tony, has been with GEICO for over 34 years. There's no one I would rather have managing GEICO's insurance operation. He has brains, energy, integrity and focus. Lou Simpson runs investments just as ably. Between 1980 and 1995, the equities under Lou's management returned an average of 22.8% annually vs. 15.7% for the S&P. Lou takes the same conservative, concentrated approach to investments that we do at Berkshire, and it is an enormous plus for us to have him on board. One point that goes beyond Lou's GEICO work: His presence on the scene assures us that Berkshire would have an extraordinary professional immediately available to handle its investments if something were to happen to Charlie and me.
GEICO must continue both to attract good policyholders and keep them happy. It must also reserve and price properly. The ultimate key to the company's success is its rock-bottom operating costs, which virtually no competitor can match. In 1995, Tony and his management team pushed underwriting and loss adjustment expenses down further to 23.6% of premiums, nearly one percentage point below 1994's ratio. In business, I look for economic castles protected by unbreachable "moats."
Berkshire has a special advantage in the super-cat business because of our towering financial strength, which helps us in two ways. First, a prudent insurer will want its protection against true mega-catastrophes - such as a $50 billion windstorm loss on Long Island or an earthquake of similar cost in California - to be absolutely certain. That same insurer knows that the disaster making it dependent on a large super-cat recovery is also the disaster that could cause many reinsurers to default. There's not much sense in paying premiums for coverage that will evaporate precisely when it is needed. So the certainty that Berkshire will be both solvent and liquid after a catastrophe of unthinkable proportions is a major competitive advantage for us.
The second benefit of our capital strength is that we can write policies for amounts that no one else can even consider. For example, during 1994, a primary insurer wished to buy a short-term policy for $400 million of California earthquake coverage and we wrote the policy immediately. We know of no one else in the world who would take a $400 million risk, or anything close to it, for their own account.
Our investments continue to be few in number and simple in concept: The truly big investment idea can usually be explained in a short paragraph. We like a business with enduring competitive advantages that is run by able and owner-oriented people. When these attributes exist, and when we can make purchases at sensible prices, it is hard to go wrong. ( This is a challenge we periodically manage to overcome).
Investors should remember that their scorecard is not computed using Olympic-diving methods: Degree-of-difficulty doesn't count. If you are right about a business whose value is largely dependent on a single key factor that is both easy to understand and enduring, the payoff is the same as if you had correctly analyzed an investment alternative characterized by many constantly shifting and complex variables.
We try to price, rather than time, purchases. In our view, it is folly to forego buying shares in an outstanding business whose long-term future is predictable, because of short-term worries about an economy or a stock market that we know to be unpredictable. Why scrap an informed decision because of an uninformed guess?
We proceed with two advantages: First, our operating managers are outstanding and, in most cases, have an unusually strong attachment to Berkshire. Second, Charlie and I have had considerable experience in allocating capital and try to go at that job rationally and objectively. The giant disadvantage we face is size: In the early years, we needed only good ideas, but now we need good big ideas. Unfortunately, the difficulty of finding these grows in direct proportion to our financial success.
Our NetJets® fractional ownership program sold a record number of planes in 2001 and also showed a gain of 21.9% in service income from management fees and hourly charges. Nevertheless, it operated at a small loss, versus a small profit in 2000. We made a little money in the U.S., but these earnings were more than offset by European losses. Measured by the value of our customers' planes, NetJets accounts for about half of the industry. We believe the other participants, in aggregate, lost significant money.
Maintaining a premier level of safety, security and service was always expensive, and the cost of sticking to those standards was exacerbated by September 11th. No matter how much the cost, we will continue to be the industry leader in all three respects. An uncompromising insistence on delivering only the best to his customers is embedded in the DNA of Rich Santulli, CEO of the company and the inventor of fractional ownership. I'm delighted with his fanaticism on these matters for both the company's sake and my family's: I believe the Buffetts fly more fractional-ownership hours, we log in excess of 800 annually, than does any other family. In case you're wondering, we use exactly the same planes and crews that serve NetJet's other customers. NetJets experienced a spurt in new orders shortly after September 11th, but its sales pace has since returned to normal. Per-customer usage declined somewhat during the year, probably because of the recession. Both we and our customers derive significant operational benefits from our being the runaway leader in the fractional ownership business. We have more than 300 planes constantly on the go in the U.S. and can therefore be wherever a customer needs us on very short notice. The ubiquity of our fleet also reduces our "positioning" costs below those incurred by operators with smaller fleets. These advantages of scale, and others we have, give NetJets a significant economic edge over competition. Under the competitive conditions likely to prevail for a few years, however, our advantage will at best produce modest profits.
(1977) It is comforting to be in a business where some mistakes can be made and yet a quite satisfactory overall performance can be achieved. In a sense, this is the opposite case from our textile business where even very good management probably can average only modest results.
(1978) Our present thinking is that our underwriting performance relative to the industry will improve somewhat in 1979, but every other insurance management probably views its relative prospects with similar optimism - someone is going to be disappointed.
(1979) To some extent, the day of reckoning has been postponed because of marked reduction in the frequency of auto accidents - probably brought on in major part by changes in driving habits induced by higher gas prices.
(1979) The chances for very low rates of inflation are not nil. Inflation is man-made; perhaps it can be man-mastered. The threat which alarms us may also alarm legislators and other powerful groups, prompting some appropriate response.
(1982) Our willingness to purchase either partial or total ownership positions in favorably-situated businesses, coupled with reasonable discipline about the prices we are willing to pay, should give us a good chance of achieving our goal.
(1984) Were Charlie and I to deal with 50 similar evaluations over a lifetime, we would expect our judgment to prove reasonably satisfactory. But we do not get the chance to make 50 or even 5 such decisions in a single year. Even though our long-term results may turn out fine, in any given year we run a risk that we will look extraordinarily foolish. Most managers have very little incentive to make the intelligent-but-with-some-chance-of-looking-like-an-idiot decision. With 47% of Berkshire's stock, Charlie and I don't worry about being fired, and we receive our rewards as owners, not managers. Thus we behave with Berkshire's money as we would with our own. That frequently leads us to unconventional behavior both in investments and general business management.
(1986) We intend to continue our practice of working only with people whom we like and admire. This policy not only maximizes our chances for good results, it also ensures us an extraordinarily good time. On the other hand, working with people who cause your stomach to churn seems much like marrying for money - probably a bad idea under any circumstances, but absolute madness if you are already rich.
(1988) We just read the newspapers, think about a few of the big propositions, and go by our own sense of probabilities.
(1989) The contribution Charlie and I make is to leave these managers alone. In my judgment, these businesses, in aggregate, will continue to produce superb returns. We'll need these: Without this help Berkshire would not have a chance of achieving our 15% goal.
(1989) If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the "cigar butt" approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the "bargain purchase" will make that puff all profit. Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish. First, the original "bargain" price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all.
(1989) Obviously, if we write $250 million of catastrophe coverage and retain it all ourselves, there is some probability that we will lose the full $250 million in a single quarter. That probability is low, but it is not zero. If we had a loss of that magnitude, our after-tax cost would be about $165 million.
(1989) Some of my worst mistakes were not publicly visible. These were stock and business purchases whose virtues I understood and yet didn't make. It's no sin to miss a great opportunity outside one's area of competence. For Berkshire's shareholders, myself included, the cost of this thumb-sucking has been huge. Our consistently-conservative financial policies may appear to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default. We wouldn't have liked those 99:1 odds - and never will. A small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be offset by a large chance of extra returns.
(1990) Our purchases of Wells Fargo in 1990 were helped by a chaotic market in bank stocks. As one huge loss after another was unveiled - often on the heels of managerial assurances that all was well - investors understandably concluded that no bank's numbers were to be trusted. Aided by their flight from bank stocks, we purchased our 10% interest in Wells Fargo for $290 million, less than five times after-tax earnings, and less than three times pre-tax earnings. Of course, ownership of a bank is far from riskless. California banks face the specific risk of a major earthquake, which might wreak enough havoc on borrowers to in turn destroy the banks lending to them. A second risk is systemic - the possibility of a business contraction or financial panic so severe that it would endanger almost every highly-leveraged institution, no matter how intelligently run. Finally, the market's major fear of the moment is that West Coast real estate values will tumble because of overbuilding and deliver huge losses to banks that have financed the expansion. Because it is a leading real estate lender, Wells Fargo is thought to be particularly vulnerable. None of these eventualities can be ruled out. The probability of the first two occurring, however, is low and even a meaningful drop in real estate values is unlikely to cause major problems for well-managed institutions. Consider some mathematics: Wells Fargo currently earns well over $1 billion pre-tax annually after expensing more than $300 million for loan losses. If 10% of all $48 billion of the bank's loans - not just its real estate loans - were hit by problems in 1991, and these produced losses (including foregone interest) averaging 30% of principal, the company would roughly break even.
A year like that - which we consider only a low-level possibility, not a likelihood - would not distress us. In fact, at Berkshire we would love to acquire businesses or invest in capital projects that produced no return for a year, but that could then be expected to earn 20% on growing equity. Nevertheless, fears of a California real estate disaster similar to that experienced in New England caused the price of Wells Fargo stock to fall almost 50% within a few months during 1990. Even though we had bought some shares at the prices prevailing before the fall, we welcomed the decline because it allowed us to pick up many more shares at the new, panic prices.
(1991) We continually search for large businesses with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements. This focus doesn't guarantee results: We both have to buy at a sensible price and get business performance from our companies that validates our assessment. But this investment approach, searching for the superstars, offers us our only chance for real success. Charlie and I are simply not smart enough to get great results by adroitly buying and selling portions of far-from-great businesses. Nor do we think many others can achieve long-term investment success by flitting from flower to flower.
(1993) Through my favorite comic strip, Li'l Abner, I got a chance during my youth to see the benefits of delayed taxes, though I missed the lesson at the time. Making his readers feel superior, Li'l Abner bungled happily, but moronically, through life in Dogpatch. At one point he became infatuated with a New York temptress, Appassionatta Van Climax, but despaired of marrying her because he had only a single silver dollar and she was interested solely in millionaires. Dejected, Abner took his problem to Old Man Mose, the font of all knowledge in Dogpatch. Said the sage: Double your money 20 times and Appassionatta will be yours (1, 2, 4, 8 . . . . 1,048,576). My last memory of the strip is Abner entering a roadhouse, dropping his dollar into a slot machine, and hitting a jackpot that spilled money all over the floor. Meticulously following Mose's advice, Abner picked up two dollars and went off to find his next double. Whereupon I dumped Abner and began reading Ben Graham.
Mose clearly was overrated as a guru: Besides failing to anticipate Abner's slavish obedience to instructions, he also forgot about taxes. Had Abner been subject, say, to the 35% federal tax rate that Berkshire pays, and had he managed one double annually, he would after 20 years only have accumulated $22,370. Indeed, had he kept on both getting his annual doubles and paying a 35% tax on each, he would have needed 7 1/2 years more to reach the $1 million required to win Appassionatta. If Abner had instead put his dollar in a single investment and held it until it doubled the same 27 1/2 times, he would have realized about $200 million pre-tax or, after paying a $70 million tax in the final year, about $130 million after-tax. For that, Appassionatta would have crawled to Dogpatch. What this little tale tells us is that tax-paying investors will realize a far, far greater sum from a single investment that compounds internally at a given rate than from a succession of investments compounding at the same rate. But I suspect many Berkshire shareholders figured that out long ago.
(1994) Before looking at new investments, we consider adding to old ones. If a business is attractive enough to buy once, it may well pay to repeat the process. We would love to increase our economic interest in See's or Scott Fetzer, but we haven't found a way to add to a 100% holding. In the stock market, however, an investor frequently gets the chance to increase his economic interest in businesses he knows and likes. Last year we went that direction by enlarging our holdings in Coca-Cola and American Express.
Our history with American Express goes way back and, in fact, fits the pattern of my pulling current investment decisions out of past associations. In 1951, for example, GEICO shares comprised 70% of my personal portfolio and GEICO was also the first stock I sold - I was then 20 - as a security salesman (the sale was 100 shares to my Aunt Alice who, bless her, would have bought anything I suggested). Twenty-five years later, Berkshire purchased a major stake in GEICO at the time it was threatened with insolvency. As for Coca-Cola, my first business venture - this was in the 1930's - was buying a six-pack of Coke for 25 cents and selling each bottle for 5 cents. It took only fifty years before I finally got it: The real money was in the syrup.
(1995)Our acquisition of GEICO will immediately increase our float by nearly $3 billion, with additional growth almost certain. We also expect GEICO to operate at a decent underwriting profit in most years, a fact that will increase the probability that our total float will cost us nothing.
(1996) A few facts about our exposure to California earthquakes - our largest risk - seem in order. The Northridge quake of 1994 laid homeowners' losses on insurers that greatly exceeded what computer models had told them to expect. Yet the intensity of that quake was mild compared to the "worst-case" possibility for California. Understandably, insurers became shaken and started contemplating a retreat. In a thoughtful response, Chuck Quackenbush, California's insurance commissioner, designed a new residential earthquake policy to be written by a state-sponsored insurer, The California Earthquake Authority. This entity, which went into operation on December 1, 1996, needed large layers of reinsurance - and that's where we came in. Berkshire's layer of approximately $1 billion will be called upon if the Authority's aggregate losses in the period ending March 31, 2001 exceed about $5 billion. (The press originally reported larger figures, but these would have applied only if all California insurers had entered into the arrangement; instead only 72% signed up.)
So what are the true odds of our having to make a payout during the policy's term? We don't know - nor do we think computer models will help us, since we believe the precision they project is a chimera. In fact, such models can lull decision-makers into a false sense of security and thereby increase their chances of making a really huge mistake. We've already seen such debacles in both insurance and investments. Witness "portfolio insurance," whose destructive effects in the 1987 market crash led one wag to observe that it was the computers that should have been jumping out of windows.
Even if perfection in assessing risks is unattainable, insurers can underwrite sensibly. After all, you need not know a man's precise age to know that he is old enough to vote nor know his exact weight to recognize his need to diet. In insurance, it is essential to remember that virtually all surprises are unpleasant, and with that in mind we try to price our super-cat exposures so that about 90% of total premiums end up being eventually paid out in losses and expenses. Over time, we will find out how smart our pricing has been, but that will not be quickly. The super-cat business is just like the investment business in that it often takes a long time to find out whether you knew what you were doing.
(1996) Inactivity strikes us as intelligent behavior. Neither we nor most business managers would dream of feverishly trading highly-profitable subsidiaries because a small move in the Federal Reserve's discount rate was predicted or because some Wall Street pundit had reversed his views on the market. Why, then, should we behave differently with our minority positions in wonderful businesses? The art of investing in public companies successfully is little different from the art of successfully acquiring subsidiaries. In each case you simply want to acquire, at a sensible price, a business with excellent economics and able, honest management. Thereafter, you need only monitor whether these qualities are being preserved. When carried out capably, an investment strategy of that type will often result in its practitioner owning a few securities that will come to represent a very large portion of his portfolio. This investor would get a similar result if he followed a policy of purchasing an interest in, say, 20% of the future earnings of a number of outstanding college basketball stars. A handful of these would go on to achieve NBA stardom, and the investor's take from them would soon dominate his royalty stream.
In studying the investments we have made in both subsidiary companies and common stocks, you will see that we favor businesses and industries unlikely to experience major change. The reason for that is simple: Making either type of purchase, we are searching for operations that we believe are virtually certain to possess enormous competitive strength ten or twenty years from now. A fast-changing industry environment may offer the chance for huge wins, but it precludes the certainty we seek. I should emphasize that, as citizens, Charlie and I welcome change: Fresh ideas, new products, innovative processes and the like cause our country's standard of living to rise, and that's clearly good. As investors, however, our reaction to a fermenting industry is much like our attitude toward space exploration: We applaud the endeavor but prefer to skip the ride.
Obviously all businesses change to some extent. Today, See's is different in many ways from what it was in 1972 when we bought it: It offers a different assortment of candy, employs different machinery and sells through different distribution channels. But the reasons why people today buy boxed chocolates, and why they buy them from us rather than from someone else, are virtually unchanged from what they were in the 1920s when the See family was building the business. Moreover, these motivations are not likely to change over the next 20 years, or even 50.
We look for similar predictability in marketable securities. Take Coca-Cola: The fundamentals of the business - the qualities that underlie Coke's competitive dominance and stunning economics - have remained constant through the years. I was recently studying the 1896 report of Coke (and you think that you are behind in your reading!). At that time Coke, though it was already the leading soft drink, had been around for only a decade. But its blueprint for the next 100 years was already drawn. Reporting sales of $148,000 that year, Asa Candler, the company's president, said: "We have not lagged in our efforts to go into all the world teaching that Coca-Cola is the article, par excellence, for the health and good feeling of all people." Though "health" may have been a reach, I love the fact that Coke still relies on Candler's basic theme today - a century later. Candler went on to say, "No article of like character has ever so firmly entrenched itself in public favor." Sales of syrup that year, incidentally, were 116,492 gallons versus about 3.2 billion in 1996.
Companies such as Coca-Cola and Gillette might well be labeled "The Inevitables." Forecasters may differ a bit in their predictions of exactly how much soft drink or shaving-equipment business these companies will be doing in ten or twenty years. Nor is our talk of inevitability meant to play down the vital work that these companies must continue to carry out, in such areas as manufacturing, distribution, packaging and product innovation. In the end, however, no sensible observer - not even these companies' most vigorous competitors, assuming they are assessing the matter honestly - questions that Coke and Gillette will dominate their fields worldwide for an investment lifetime. Indeed, their dominance will probably strengthen. Both companies have significantly expanded their already huge shares of market during the past ten years, and all signs point to their repeating that performance in the next decade.
Obviously many companies in high-tech businesses or embryonic industries will grow much faster in percentage terms than will The Inevitables. But I would rather be certain of a good result than hopeful of a great one.
(1997)Last year, we were very lucky in our super-cat operation. The world suffered no catastrophes that caused huge amounts of insured damage. This pleasant result has a dark side, however. Many investors who are "innocents" -- meaning that they rely on representations of salespeople rather than on underwriting knowledge of their own -- have come into the reinsurance business by means of purchasing pieces of paper that are called "catastrophe bonds." A true bond obliges the issuer to pay; these bonds, in effect, are contracts that lay a provisional promise to pay on the purchaser. This convoluted arrangement came into being because the promoters of the contracts wished to circumvent laws that prohibit the writing of insurance by entities that haven't been licensed by the state. A side benefit for the promoters is that calling the insurance contract a "bond" may also cause unsophisticated buyers to assume that these instruments involve far less risk. Truly outsized risks will exist in these contracts if they are not properly priced. A pernicious aspect of catastrophe insurance, however, makes it likely that mispricing, even of a severe variety, will not be discovered for a very long time. Consider, for example, the odds of throwing a 12 with a pair of dice -- 1 out of 36. Now assume that the dice will be thrown once a year; that you, the "bond-buyer," agree to pay $50 million if a 12 appears; and that for "insuring" this risk you take in an annual "premium" of $1 million. That would mean you had significantly underpriced the risk. Nevertheless, you could go along for years thinking you were making easy money. There is a 75.4% probability that you would go for a decade without paying out a dime. Eventually, however, you would go broke. Calculations involving monster hurricanes and earthquakes are necessarily much fuzzier, and the best we can do at Berkshire is to estimate a range of probabilities for such events. The lack of precise data, coupled with the rarity of such catastrophes, plays into the hands of promoters, who typically employ an "expert" to advise the potential bond-buyer about the probability of losses. The expert puts no money on the table. Instead, he receives an up-front payment that is forever his no matter how inaccurate his predictions.
The ability of management can dramatically affect the equity "coupons." The quality of management affects the bond coupon only rarely - chiefly when management is so inept or dishonest that payment of interest is suspended. When buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements. We achieved our gains through the efforts of a superb corps of operating managers who get extraordinary results from some ordinary-appearing businesses. Casey Stengel described managing a baseball team as "getting paid for home runs other fellows hit." That's my formula at Berkshire, also. The businesses in which we have partial interests are equally important to Berkshire's success. A few statistics will illustrate their significance: In 1994, Coca-Cola sold about 280 billion 8-ounce servings and earned a little less than a penny on each. But pennies add up. Through Berkshire's 7.8% ownership of Coke, we have an economic interest in 21 billion of its servings, which produce "soft-drink earnings" for us of nearly $200 million.
What we have going for us is a growing collection of good-sized operating businesses that possess economic characteristics ranging from good to terrific, run by terrific managers. You can read about many of them in a new book by Robert P. Miles: The Warren Buffett CEO. The ability, energy and loyalty of these managers is simply extraordinary. We now (2001) have completed 37 Berkshire years without having a CEO of an operating business elect to leave us to work elsewhere. The capital-allocation work that Charlie and I do at the parent company, using the funds that our managers deliver to us, has a less certain outcome: It is not easy to find new businesses and managers comparable to those we have.
The discussion about arbitrage makes a small discussion of “efficient market theory” (EMT) also seem relevant. This doctrine became almost holy scripture in academic circles during the 1970s. Essentially, it said that analyzing stocks was useless because all public information about them was appropriately reflected in their prices. In other words, the market always knew everything. As a corollary, the professors who taught EMT said that someone throwing darts at the stock tables could select a stock portfolio having prospects just as good as one selected by the brightest, most hard-working security analyst. Amazingly, EMT was embraced not only by academics, but by many investment professionals and corporate managers as well. Observing correctly that the market was frequently efficient, they went on to conclude incorrectly that it was always efficient. The difference between these propositions is night and day.
In my opinion, the continuous 63-year arbitrage experience of Graham-Newman Corp. Buffett Partnership, and Berkshire illustrates just how foolish EMT is. There is plenty of other evidence, also. While at Graham-Newman, I made a study of its earnings from arbitrage during the entire 1926-1956 lifespan of the company. Unleveraged returns averaged 20% per year. Starting in 1956, I applied Ben Graham’s arbitrage principles, first at Buffett Partnership and then Berkshire. Though I’ve not made an exact calculation, I have done enough work to know that the 1956-1988 returns averaged well over 20%.
I operated in an environment far more favorable than Ben’s; he had 1929-1932 to contend with.
All of the conditions are present that are required for a fair test of portfolio performance: (1) the three organizations traded hundreds of different securities while building this 63-year record; (2) the results are not skewed by a few fortunate experiences; (3) we did not have to dig for obscure facts or develop keen insights about products or managements. We simply acted on highly-publicized events; and (4) our arbitrage positions were a clearly identified universe - they have not been selected by hindsight.
Over the 63 years, the general market delivered just under a 10% annual return, including dividends. That means $1,000 would have grown to $405,000 if all income had been reinvested. A 20% rate of return, however, would have produced $97 million. That strikes us as a statistically-significant differential that might, conceivably, arouse one’s curiosity. Yet proponents of the theory have never seemed interested in discordant evidence of this type. No one, to my knowledge, has ever said he was wrong, no matter how many thousands of students he has sent forth misinstructed. EMT, moreover, continues to be an integral part of the investment curriculum at major business schools. Apparently, a reluctance to recant, and thereby to demystify the priesthood, is not limited to theologians.
Naturally the disservice done students and gullible investment professionals who have swallowed EMT has been an extraordinary service to us and other followers of Graham. In any sort of a contest - financial, mental, or physical - it’s an enormous advantage to have opponents who have been taught that it’s useless to even try. From a selfish point of view, Grahamites should probably endow chairs to ensure the perpetual teaching of EMT.
All this said, a warning is appropriate. Arbitrage has looked easy recently. This is not a form of investing that guarantees profits of 20% a year or, for that matter, profits of any kind. As noted, the market is reasonably efficient much of the time: For every arbitrage opportunity we seized in that 63- year period, many more were foregone because they seemed properly-priced.
An investor cannot obtain superior profits from stocks by simply committing to a specific investment category or style. He can earn them only by carefully evaluating facts and continuously exercising discipline. Investing in arbitrage situations, per se, is no better a strategy than selecting a portfolio by throwing darts. When the leveraged buy-out raze began some years back, purchasers could borrow only on a reasonably sound basis, in which conservatively-estimated free cash flow - that is, operating earnings plus depreciation and amortization less normalized capital expenditures - was adequate to cover both interest and modest reductions in debt.
Later, as the adrenalin of deal-makers surged, businesses began to be purchased at prices so high that all free cash flow necessarily had to be allocated to the payment of interest. That left nothing for the paydown of debt. In effect, a Scarlett O'Hara "I'll think about it tomorrow" position in respect to principal payments was taken by borrowers and accepted by a new breed of lender, the buyer of original-issue junk bonds. Debt now became something to be refinanced rather than repaid.
Soon borrowers found even the new, lax standards intolerably binding. To induce lenders to finance even sillier transactions, they introduced an abomination, EBDIT - Earnings Before Depreciation, Interest and Taxes - as the test of a company's ability to pay interest. Using this sawed-off yardstick, the borrower ignored depreciation as an expense on the theory that it did not require a current cash outlay.
Such an attitude is clearly delusional. At 95% of American businesses, capital expenditures that over time roughly approximate depreciation are a necessity and are every bit as real an expense as labor or utility costs. Even a high school dropout knows that to finance a car he must have income that covers not only interest and operating expenses, but also realistically-calculated depreciation. He would be laughed out of the bank if he started talking about EBDIT.
Capital outlays at a business can be skipped in any given month, just as a human can skip a day or even a week of eating. If the skipping becomes routine and is not made up, the body weakens and eventually dies. Furthermore, a start-and- stop feeding policy will over time produce a less healthy organism, human or corporate, than that produced by a steady diet. As businessmen, Charlie and I relish having competitors who are unable to fund capital expenditures.
You might think that waving away a major expense such as depreciation in an attempt to make a terrible deal look like a good one hits the limits of Wall Street's ingenuity. If so, you haven't been paying attention during the past few years. Promoters needed to find a way to justify even pricier acquisitions. Otherwise, they risked losing deals to other promoters with more "imagination." So, promoters and their investment bankers proclaimed that EBDIT should now be measured against cash interest only, which meant that interest accruing on zero-coupon or PIK bonds could be ignored when the financial feasibility of a transaction was being assessed. This approach not only relegated depreciation expense to the let's-ignore-it corner, but gave similar treatment to what was usually a significant portion of interest expense. To their shame, many professional investment managers went along with this nonsense, though they usually were careful to do so only with clients' money, not their own. Calling these managers "professionals" is actually too kind; they should be designated "promotees." Under this new standard, a business earning, say, $100 million pre-tax and having debt on which $90 million of interest must be paid currently, might use a zero-coupon or PIK issue to incur another $60 million of annual interest that would accrue and compound but not come due for some years. The rate on these issues would typically be very high, which means that the situation in year 2 might be $90 million cash interest plus $69 million accrued interest, and so on as the compounding proceeds. Such high-rate reborrowing schemes, which a few years ago were appropriately confined to the waterfront, soon became models of modern finance at virtually all major investment banking houses.
When they make these offerings, investment bankers display their humorous side: They dispense income and balance sheet projections extending five or more years into the future for companies they barely had heard of a few months earlier. If you are shown such schedules, I suggest that you join in the fun: Ask the investment banker for the one-year budgets that his own firm prepared as the last few years began and then compare these with what actually happened.
Some time ago Ken Galbraith, in his witty and insightful The Great Crash, coined a new economic term: "the bezzle," defined as the current amount of undiscovered embezzlement. This financial creature has a magical quality: The embezzlers are richer by the amount of the bezzle, while the embezzlees do not yet feel poorer. Professor Galbraith astutely pointed out that this sum should be added to the National Wealth so that we might know the Psychic National Wealth. Logically, a society that wanted to feel enormously prosperous would both encourage its citizens to embezzle and try not to detect the crime. By this means, "wealth" would balloon though not an erg of productive work had been done.
The satirical nonsense of the bezzle is dwarfed by the real-world nonsense of the zero-coupon bond. With zeros, one party to a contract can experience "income" without his opposite experiencing the pain of expenditure. In our illustration, a company capable of earning only $100 million dollars annually - and therefore capable of paying only that much in interest - magically creates "earnings" for bondholders of $150 million. As long as major investors willingly don their Peter Pan wings and repeatedly say "I believe," there is no limit to how much "income" can be created by the zero-coupon bond.
Wall Street welcomed this invention with the enthusiasm less-enlightened folk might reserve for the wheel or the plow. Here, finally, was an instrument that would let the Street make deals at prices no longer limited by actual earning power. The result, obviously, would be more transactions: Silly prices will always attract sellers. The zero-coupon or PIK bond possesses one additional attraction for the promoter and investment banker, which is that the time elapsing between folly and failure can be stretched out. This is no small benefit. If the period before all costs must be faced is long, promoters can create a string of foolish deals, and take in lots of fees, before any chickens come home to roost from their earlier ventures.
This is an abridged version of "THE SUPERINVESTORS OF GRAHAM-AND-DODDSVILLE" written by Warren E. Buffett. The tables mentioned can be found in the The Intelligent Investor.
Is the Graham and Dodd "look for values with a significant margin of safety relative to prices" approach to security analysis out of date? I present to you a group of investors who have, year in and year out, beaten the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. The hypothesis that they do this by pure chance is at least worth examining. If you found any really extraordinary concentrations of success, you might want to see if you could identify concentrations of unusual characteristics that might be causal factors.
I submit to you that in addition to geographical origins, there can be what I call an intellectual origin. I think you will find that a disproportionate number of successful coin-flippers in the investment world came from a very small intellectual village that could be called Graham-and-Doddsville. A concentration of winners that simply cannot be explained by chance can be traced to this particular intellectual village. In this group of successful investors that I want to consider, there has been a common intellectual patriarch, Ben Graham. The children who left the house of this intellectual patriarch have called their "flips" in very different ways. They have gone to different places and bought and sold different stocks and companies, yet they have had a combined record that simply cannot be explained by the fact that they are all calling flips identically because a leader is signaling the calls. The patriarch has merely set forth the intellectual theory for making coin-calling decisions, but each student has decided on his own manner of applying the theory.
The common intellectual theme of the investors from Graham-and-Doddsville is this: they search for discrepancies between the value of a business and the price of small pieces of that business in the market. Essentially, they exploit those discrepancies without the efficient market theorist's concern as to whether the stocks are bought on Monday or Thursday, or whether it is January or July, etc. Our Graham & Dodd investors, needless to say, do not discuss beta, the capital asset pricing model, or covariance in returns among securities. These are not subjects of any interest to them. In fact, most of them would have difficulty defining those terms. The investors simply focus on two variables: price and value. I always find it extraordinary that so many studies are made of price and volume behavior, the stuff of chartists. Can you imagine buying an entire business simply because the price of the business had been marked up substantially last week and the week before? I think the group that we have identified by a common intellectual home is worthy of study.
I begin this study of results by going back to a group of four of us who worked at Graham-Newman Corporation from 1954 through 1956. There were only four. I have not selected these names from among thousands. I offered to go to work at Graham-Newman for nothing after I took Ben Graham's class, but he turned me down as overvalued. He took this value stuff very seriously! After much pestering he finally hired me. There were three partners and four of us as the "peasant" level. All four left between 1955 and 1957 when the firm was wound up, and it's possible to trace the record of three.
The first example is that of Walter Schloss. Walter never went to college, but took a course from Ben Graham at night at the New York Institute of Finance. Walter left Graham-Newman in 1955 and achieved the record shown here over 28 years. He has total integrity and a realistic picture of himself. Money is real to him and stocks are real -- and from this flows an attraction to the "margin of safety" principle. Walter has diversified enormously, owning well over 100 stocks. He knows how to identify securities that sell at considerably less than their value to a private owner. And that's all he does. He doesn't worry about whether it it's January, he doesn't worry about whether it's Monday, he doesn't worry about whether it's an election year. He simply says, if a business is worth a dollar and I can buy it for 40 cents, something good may happen to me. And he does it over and over and over again. He owns many more stocks than I do -- and is far less interested in the underlying nature of the business; I don't seem to have very much influence on Walter. That's one of his strengths; no one has much influence on him.
The second case is Tom Knapp, who also worked at Graham-Newman with me. Tom was a chemistry major at Princeton before the war; when he came back from the war, he was a beach bum. And then one day he read that Dave Dodd was giving a night course in investments at Columbia. Tom took it on a noncredit basis, and he got so interested in the subject from taking that course that he came up and enrolled at Columbia Business School, where he got the MBA degree. He took Dodd's course again, and took Ben Graham's course. Incidentally, 35 years later I called Tom to ascertain some of the facts involved here and I found him on the beach again. In 1968, Tom Knapp and Ed Anderson, also a Graham disciple, along with one or two other fellows of similar persuasion, formed Tweedy, Browne Partners. Tweedy, Browne built that record with very wide diversification. They occasionally bought control of businesses, but the record of the passive investments is equal to the record of the control investments.
Table 3 describes the third member of the group who formed Buffett Partnership in 1957. The best thing he did was to quit in 1969. Since then, in a sense, Berkshire Hathaway has been a continuation of the partnership in some respects. There is no single index I can give you that I would feel would be a fair test of investment management at Berkshire. But I think that any way you figure it, it has been satisfactory.
Table 4 shows the record of the Sequoia Fund, which is managed by a man whom I met in 1951 in Ben Graham's class, Bill Ruane. After getting out of Harvard Business School, he went to Wall Street. Then he realized that he needed to get a real business education so he came up to take Ben's course at Columbia, where we met in early 1951. Bill's record from 1951 to 1970, working with relatively small sums, was far better than average. When I wound up Buffett Partnership I asked Bill if he would set up a fund to handle all our partners, so he set up the Sequoia Fund. He set it up at a terrible time, just when I was quitting. He went right into the two-tier market and all the difficulties that made for comparative performance for value-oriented investors. I am happy to say that my partners, to an amazing degree, not only stayed with him but added money. There's no hindsight involved here. Bill was the only person I recommended to my partners, and I said at the time that if he achieved a four-point-per-annum advantage over the Standard & Poor's, that would be solid performance. Bill has achieved well over that, working with progressively larger sums of money. That makes things much more difficult. Size is the anchor of performance. There is no question about it. It doesn't mean you can't do better than average when you get larger, but the margin shrinks.
I should add that in the records we've looked at so far, throughout this whole period there was practically no duplication in these portfolios. These are men who select securities based on discrepancies between price and value, but they make their selections very differently. The overlap among these portfolios has been very, very low.
Table 5 is the record of a friend of mine who is a Harvard Law graduate, who set up a major law firm. I ran into him in about 1960 and told him that law was fine as a hobby but he could do better. He set up a partnership quite the opposite of Walter's. His portfolio was concentrated in very few securities and therefore his record was much more volatile but it was based on the same discount-from-value approach. He was willing to accept greater peaks and valleys of performance, and he happens to be a fellow whose whole psyche goes toward concentration, with the results shown. Incidentally, this record belongs to Charlie Munger, my partner for a long time in the operation of Berkshire Hathaway. When he ran his partnership, however, his portfolio holdings were almost completely different from mine and the other fellows.
Table 6 is the record of a fellow who was a pal of Charlie Munger's -- another non-business school type -- who was a math major at USC. He went to work for IBM after graduation and was an IBM salesman for a while. After I got to Charlie, Charlie got to him. This happens to be the record of Rick Guerin. Rick, from 1965 to 1983, against a compounded gain of 316 percent for the S&P, came off with 22,200 percent, which probably because he lacks a business school education, he regards as statistically significant. One sidelight here: it is extraordinary to me that the idea of buying dollar bills for 40 cents takes immediately to people or it doesn't take at all. It's like an inoculation. If it doesn't grab a person right away, I find that you can talk to him for years and show him records, and it doesn't make any difference. They just don't seem able to grasp the concept, simple as it is. A fellow like Rick Guerin, who had no formal education in business, understands immediately the value approach to investing and he's applying it five minutes later.
Table 7 is the record of Stan Perlmeter. Stan was a liberal arts major at the University of Michigan who was a partner in the advertising agency of Bozell & Jacobs. We happened to be in the same building in Omaha. In 1965 he figured out I had a better business than he did, so he left advertising. Again, it took five minutes for Stan Perlmeter to embrace the value approach. Perlmeter does not own what Walter Schloss owns. He does not own what Bill Ruane owns. These are records made independently. But every time Perlmeter buys a stock it's because he's getting more for his money than he's paying. That's the only thing he's thinking about. He's not looking at quarterly earnings projections, he's not looking at next year's earnings, he's not thinking about what day of the week it is, he doesn't care what investment research from any place says, he's not interested in price momentum, volume, or anything. He's simply asking: what is the business worth?
Table 8 and Table 9 are the records of two pension funds I've been involved in. They are not selected from dozens of pension funds with which I have had involvement; they are the only two I have influenced. In both cases I have steered them toward value-oriented managers. Very, very few pension funds are managed from a value standpoint. Table 8 is the Washington Post Company's Pension Fund. It was with a large bank some years ago, and I suggested that they would do well to select managers who had a value orientation. Overall they have been in the top percentile ever since they made the change. The Post told the managers to keep at least 25 percent of these funds in bonds, which would not have been necessarily the choice of these managers. So I've included the bond performance simply to illustrate that this group has no particular expertise about bonds. They wouldn't have said they did. Even with this drag of 25 percent of their fund in an area that was not their game, they were in the top percentile of fund management. The Washington Post experience does not cover a terribly long period but it does represent many investment decisions by three managers who were not identified retroactively.
Table 9 is the record of the FMC Corporation fund. I don't manage a dime of it myself but I did, in 1974, influence their decision to select value-oriented managers. Prior to that time they had selected managers much the same way as most larger companies. They now rank number one in the Becker survey of pension funds for their size over the period of time subsequent to this "conversion" to the value approach. Last year they had eight equity managers of any duration beyond a year. Seven of them had a cumulative record better than the S&P. The net difference now between a median performance and the actual performance of the FMC fund over this period is $243 million. Those managers are not the managers I would necessarily select but they have the common denominators of selecting securities based on value.
So these are nine records of "coin-flippers" from Graham-and-Doddsville. I haven't selected them with hindsight from among thousands. It's not like I am reciting to you the names of a bunch of lottery winners. I selected these men years ago based upon their framework for investment decision-making. I knew what they had been taught and additionally I had some personal knowledge of their intellect, character, and temperament. It's very important to understand that this group has assumed far less risk than average; note their record in years when the general market was weak. While they differ greatly in style, these investors are, mentally, always buying the business, not buying the stock. A few of them sometimes buy whole businesses. Far more often they simply buy small pieces of businesses. Their attitude, whether buying all or a tiny piece of a business, is the same. Some of them hold portfolios with dozens of stocks; others concentrate on a handful. But all exploit the difference between the market price of a business and its intrinsic value.
I'm convinced that there is much inefficiency in the market. These Graham-and-Doddsville investors have successfully exploited gaps between price and value. When the price of a stock can be influenced by a "herd" on Wall Street with prices set at the margin by the most emotional person, or the greediest person, or the most depressed person, it is hard to argue that the market always prices rationally. In fact, market prices are frequently nonsensical. Sometimes risk and reward are correlated in a positive fashion. If someone were to say to me, "I have here a six-shooter and I have slipped one cartridge into it. Why don't you just spin it and pull it once? If you survive, I will give you $1 million." I would decline -- perhaps stating that $1 million is not enough. Then he might offer me $5 million to pull the trigger twice -- now that would be a positive correlation between risk and reward! The exact opposite is true with value investing. If you buy a dollar bill for 60 cents, it's riskier than if you buy a dollar bill for 40 cents, but the expectation of reward is greater in the latter case. The greater the potential for reward in the value portfolio, the less risk there is. One quick example: The Washington Post Company in 1973 was selling for $80 million in the market. At the time, that day, you could have sold the assets to any one of ten buyers for not less than $400 million, probably appreciably more. The company owned the Post, Newsweek, plus several television stations in major markets. Those same properties are worth $2 billion now, so the person who would have paid $400 million would not have been crazy. Now, if the stock had declined even further to a price that made the valuation $40 million instead of $80 million, its beta would have been greater. And to people that think beta measures risk, the cheaper price would have made it look riskier. I have never been able to figure out why it's riskier to buy $400 million worth of properties for $40 million than $80 million. And, as a matter of fact, if you buy a group of such securities and you know anything at all about business valuation, there is essentially no risk in buying $400 million for $80 million. Since you don't have your hands on the $400 million, you want to be sure you are in with honest and reasonably competent people, but that's not a difficult job. You also have to have the knowledge to enable you to make a very general estimate about the value of the underlying businesses. But you do not cut it close. That is what Ben Graham meant by having a margin of safety. You don't try and buy businesses worth $83 million for $80 million. You leave yourself an enormous margin. When you build a bridge, you insist it can carry 30,000 pounds, but you only drive 10,000 pound trucks across it. And that same principle works in investing.
In conclusion, some of the more commercially minded among you may wonder why I am writing this article. Adding many converts to the value approach will perforce narrow the spreads between price and value. I can only tell you that the secret has been out for 50 years, ever since Ben Graham and Dave Dodd wrote Security Analysis, yet I have seen no trend toward value investing in the 35 years that I've practiced it. There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult. The academic world, if anything, has actually backed away from the teaching of value investing over the last 30 years. It's likely to continue that way. There will continue to be wide discrepancies between price and value in the marketplace, and those who read their Graham & Dodd will continue to prosper.
From October, 1983 through June, 1984 Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries continuously purchased large quantities of bonds of Projects 1, 2, and 3 of the Washington Public Power Supply System (“WPPSS”). This is the same entity that, on July 1, 1983, defaulted on $2.2 billion of bonds issued to finance partial construction of the now-abandoned Projects 4 and 5. While there are material differences in the obligors, promises, and properties underlying the two categories of bonds, the problems of Projects 4 and 5 have cast a major cloud over Projects 1, 2, and 3, and might possibly cause serious problems for the latter issues. In addition, there has been a multitude of problems related directly to Projects 1, 2, and 3 that could weaken or destroy an otherwise strong credit position arising from guarantees by Bonneville Power Administration.
Despite these important negatives, Charlie and I judged the risks at the time we purchased the bonds and at the prices Berkshire paid (much lower than present prices) to be considerably more than compensated for by prospects of profit.
As you know, we buy marketable stocks for our insurance companies based upon the criteria we would apply in the purchase of an entire business. This business-valuation approach is not widespread among professional money managers and is scorned by many academics. Nevertheless, it has served its followers well (to which the academics seem to say, “Well, it may be all right in practice, but it will never work in theory.”) Simply put, we feel that if we can buy small pieces of businesses with satisfactory underlying economics at a fraction of the per-share value of the entire business, something good is likely to happen to us - particularly if we own a group of such securities. We extend this business-valuation approach even to bond purchases such as WPPSS. We compare the $139 million cost of our yearend investment in WPPSS to a similar $139 million investment in an operating business. In the case of WPPSS, the “business” contractually earns $22.7 million after tax via the interest paid on the bonds, and those earnings are available to us currently in cash. We are unable to buy operating businesses with economics close to these. Only a relatively few businesses earn the 16.3% after tax on unleveraged capital that our WPPSS investment does. Those businesses, when available for purchase, sell at large premiums to that capital. In the average negotiated business transaction, unleveraged corporate earnings of $22.7 million after-tax (equivalent to about $45 million pre- tax) might command a price of $250 - $300 million (or sometimes far more). For a business we understand well and strongly like, we will gladly pay that much. But it is double the price we paid to realize the same earnings from WPPSS bonds. However, in the case of WPPSS, there is what we view to be a very slight risk that the “business” could be worth nothing within a year or two. There also is the risk that interest payments might be interrupted for a considerable period of time. Furthermore, the most that the “business” could be worth is about the $205 million face value of the bonds that we own, an amount only 48% higher than the price we paid.
This ceiling on upside potential is an important minus. It should be realized, however, that the great majority of operating businesses have a limited upside potential also unless more capital is continuously invested in them. That is so because most businesses are unable to significantly improve their average returns on equity - even under inflationary conditions, though these were once thought to automatically raise returns.
Let’s push our bond-as-a-business example one notch further. If you elect to “retain” the annual earnings of a 12% bond by using the proceeds from coupons to buy more bonds, earnings of that bond “business” will grow at a rate comparable to that of most operating businesses that similarly reinvest all earnings. In the first instance, a 30-year, zero-coupon, 12% bond purchased today for $10 million will be worth $300 million in 2015. In the second, a $10 million business that regularly earns 12% on equity and retains all earnings to grow, will also end up with $300 million of capital in 2015. Both the business and the bond will earn over $32 million in the final year.
Our approach to bond investment - treating it as an unusual sort of “business” with special advantages and disadvantages - may strike you as a bit quirky. However, we believe that many
staggering errors by investors could have been avoided if they had viewed bond investment with a businessman’s perspective. For example, in 1946, 20-year AAA tax-exempt bonds traded at slightly below a 1% yield. In effect, the buyer of those bonds at that time bought a “business” that earned about 1% on “book value” (and that, moreover, could never earn a dime more than 1% on book), and paid 100 cents on the dollar for that abominable business.
If an investor had been business-minded enough to think in those terms - and that was the precise reality of the bargain struck - he would have laughed at the proposition and walked away. For, at the same time, businesses with excellent future prospects could have been bought at, or close to, book value while earning 10%, 12%, or 15% after tax on book. Probably no business in America changed hands in 1946 at book value that the buyer believed lacked the ability to earn more than 1% on book. But investors with bond-buying habits eagerly made economic commitments throughout the year on just that basis. Similar, although less extreme, conditions prevailed for the next two decades as bond investors happily signed up for twenty or thirty years on terms outrageously inadequate by business standards. (In what I think is by far the best book on investing ever written - “The Intelligent Investor”, by Ben Graham - the last section of the last chapter begins with, “Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike.” This section is called “A Final Word”, and it is appropriately titled.)
We will emphasize again that there is unquestionably some risk in the WPPSS commitment. It is also the sort of risk that is difficult to evaluate. Were Charlie and I to deal with 50 similar evaluations over a lifetime, we would expect our judgment to prove reasonably satisfactory. But we do not get the chance to make 50 or even 5 such decisions in a single year. Even though our long-term results may turn out fine, in any given year we run a risk that we will look extraordinarily foolish. (That’s why all of these sentences say “Charlie and I”, or “we”.) Most managers have very little incentive to make the intelligent-but-with-some-chance-of-looking-like-an-idiot decision. Their personal gain/loss ratio is all too obvious: if an unconventional decision works out well, they get a pat on the back and, if it works out poorly, they get a pink slip.
Our equation is different. With 47% of Berkshire’s stock, Charlie and I don’t worry about being fired, and we receive our rewards as owners, not managers. Thus we behave with Berkshire’s money as we would with our own. That frequently leads us to unconventional behavior both in investments and general business management.
We remain unconventional in the degree to which we concentrate the investments of our insurance companies, including those in WPPSS bonds. This concentration makes sense only because our insurance business is conducted from a position of exceptional financial strength. For almost all other insurers, a comparable degree of concentration would be totally inappropriate. Their capital positions are not strong enough to withstand a big error, no matter how attractive an investment opportunity might appear when analyzed on the basis of probabilities.
With our financial strength we can own large blocks of a few securities that we have thought hard about and bought at attractive prices. Over time our policy of concentration should produce superior results, though these will be tempered by our large size.
We made the major part of our WPPSS investment at different prices and under somewhat different factual circumstances than exist at present. If we decide to change our position, we will not inform shareholders until long after the change has been completed. We may be buying or selling as you read this. The buying and selling of securities is a competitive business, and even a modest amount of added competition on either side can cost us a great deal of money. Our WPPSS purchases illustrate this principle. From October, 1983 through June, 1984, we attempted to buy almost all the bonds that we could of Projects 1, 2, and 3. Yet we purchased less than 3% of the bonds outstanding. Had we faced even a few additional well-heeled investors, stimulated to buy because they knew we were, we could have ended up with a materially smaller amount of bonds, purchased at a materially higher price. A couple of coat-tail riders easily could have cost us $5 million. For this reason, we will not comment about our activities in securities - neither to the press, nor shareholders, nor to anyone else - unless legally required to do so.
One final observation regarding our WPPSS purchases: we dislike the purchase of most long-term bonds under most circumstances and have bought very few in recent years. That’s because bonds are as sound as a dollar - and we view the long- term outlook for dollars as dismal. We believe substantial inflation lies ahead, although we have no idea what the average rate will turn out to be. Furthermore, we think there is a small, but not insignificant, chance of runaway inflation.
Such a possibility may seem absurd, considering the rate to which inflation has dropped. But we believe that present fiscal policy - featuring a huge deficit - is both extremely dangerous and difficult to reverse. (So far, most politicians in both parties have followed Charlie Brown’s advice: “No problem is so big that it can’t be run away from.”) Without a reversal, high rates of inflation may be delayed (perhaps for a long time), but will not be avoided.
While there is not much to choose between bonds and stocks (as a class) when annual inflation is in the 5%-10% range, runaway inflation is a different story. In that circumstance, a diversified stock portfolio would almost surely suffer an enormous loss in real value. But bonds already outstanding would suffer far more. Thus, we think an all-bond portfolio carries a small but unacceptable “wipe out” risk, and we require any purchase of long-term bonds to clear a special hurdle. Only when bond purchases appear decidedly superior to other business opportunities will we engage in them. Those occasions are likely to be few and far between.
During 2001, we were somewhat more active than usual in "junk" bonds. These are not, we should emphasize, suitable investments for the general public, because too often these securities live up to their name. We have never purchased a newly-issued junk bond, which is the only kind most investors are urged to buy. When losses occur in this field, furthermore, they are often disastrous: Many issues end up at a small fraction of their original offering price and some become entirely worthless.
Despite these dangers, we periodically find a few, a very few, junk securities that are interesting to us. And, so far, our 50-year experience in distressed debt has proven rewarding. In our 1984 annual report, we described our purchases of Washington Public Power System bonds when that issuer fell into disrepute. We've also, over the years, stepped into other apparent calamities such as Chrysler Financial, Texaco and RJR Nabisco, all of which returned to grace. Still, if we stay active in junk bonds, you can expect us to have losses from time to time.
Occasionally, a purchase of distressed bonds leads us into something bigger. Early in the Fruit of the Loom bankruptcy, we purchased the company's public and bank debt at about 50% of face value. This was an unusual bankruptcy in that interest payments on senior debt were continued without interruption, which meant we earned about a 15% current return. Our holdings grew to 10% of Fruit's senior debt, which will probably end up returning us about 70% of face value. Through this investment, we indirectly reduced our purchase price for the whole company by a small amount.
In September of 1989, Berkshire issued $902.6 million principal amount of Zero-Coupon Convertible Subordinated Debentures and listed on the New York Stock Exchange thru Salomon Brothers. Most bonds, require regular payments of interest, usually semi-annually. A zero-coupon bond, conversely, requires no current interest payments; instead, the investor receives his yield by purchasing the security at a significant discount from maturity value. The effective interest rate is determined by the original issue price, the maturity value, and the amount of time between issuance and maturity. The bonds were issued at 44.314% of maturity value and are due in 15 years. For investors purchasing the bonds, that is the mathematical equivalent of a 5.5% current payment compounded semi-annually. Because we received only 44.31 cents on the dollar, our proceeds from this offering were $400 million (less about $9.5 million of offering expenses).
The bonds were issued in denominations of $10,000 and each bond is convertible into .4515 shares of Berkshire Hathaway. Because a $10,000 bond cost $4,431, this means that the conversion price was $9,815 per Berkshire share, a 15% premium to the market price then existing. Berkshire could call the bonds at any time after September 28, 1992 at their accreted value (the original issue price plus 5.5% compounded semi-annually) and on two specified days, September 28 of 1994 and 1999, the bondholders can require Berkshire to buy the securities at their accreted value.
For tax purposes, Berkshire is entitled to deduct the 5.5% interest accrual each year, even though we make no payments to the bondholders. Thus the net effect to us, resulting from the reduced taxes, is positive cash flow. That is a very significant benefit. Some unknowable variables prevent us from calculating our exact effective rate of interest, but under all circumstances it will be well below 5.5%. There is meanwhile a symmetry to the tax law: Any taxable holder of the bonds must pay tax each year on the 5.5% interest, even though he receives no cash.
Neither our bonds nor those of certain other companies that issued similar bonds (notably Loews and Motorola) resemble the great bulk of zero-coupon bonds that have been issued in recent years. Charlie and I have been outspoken critics of zero-coupon bonds that have been used in deceptive ways and with deadly consequences to investors.
If you're my age you bought your first zero-coupon bonds during World War II, by purchasing he famous Series E U. S. Savings Bond, the most widely-sold bond issue in history. (After the war, these bonds were held by one out of two U. S. households.) Nobody called the Series E a zero-coupon bond, a term in fact that I doubt had been invented. But that's precisely what the Series E was. These bonds came in denominations as small as $18.75. That amount purchased a $25 obligation of the United States government due in 10 years, terms that gave the buyer a compounded annual return of 2.9%. At the time, this was an attractive offer: the 2.9% rate was higher than that generally available on Government bonds and the holder faced no market-fluctuation risk, since he could at any time cash in his bonds with only a minor reduction in interest.
A second form of zero-coupon U. S. Treasury issue, also benign and useful, surfaced in the last decade. One problem with a normal bond is that even though it pays a given interest rate - say 10% - the holder cannot be assured that a compounded 10% return will be realized. For that rate to materialize, each semi- annual coupon must be reinvested at 10% as it is received. If current interest rates are, say, only 6% or 7% when these coupons come due, the holder will be unable to compound his money over the life of the bond at the advertised rate. For pension funds or other investors with long-term liabilities, "reinvestment risk" of this type can be a serious problem. Savings Bonds might have solved it, except that they are issued only to individuals and are unavailable in large denominations. What big buyers needed was huge quantities of "Savings Bond Equivalents."
Enter some ingenious and, in this case, highly useful investment bankers (led by Salomon Brothers). They created the instrument desired by "stripping" the semi-annual coupons from standard Government issues. Each coupon, once detached, takes on the essential character of a Savings Bond since it represents a single sum due sometime in the future. For example, if you strip the 40 semi-annual coupons from a U. S. Government Bond due in the year 2010, you will have 40 zero-coupon bonds, with maturities from six months to 20 years, each of which can then be bundled with other coupons of like maturity and marketed. If current interest rates are, say, 10% for all maturities, the six-month issue will sell for 95.24% of maturity value and the 20-year issue will sell for 14.20%. The purchaser of any given maturity is thus guaranteed a compounded rate of 10% for his entire holding period. Stripping of government bonds has occurred on a large scale in recent years, as long-term investors, ranging from pension funds to individual IRA accounts, recognized these high-grade, zero-coupon issues to be well suited to their needs.
But as happens in Wall Street all too often, what the wise do in the beginning, fools do in the end. In the last few years zero-coupon bonds (and their functional equivalent, pay-in-kind bonds, which distribute additional PIK bonds semi-annually as interest instead of paying cash) have been issued in enormous quantities by ever-junkier credits. To these issuers, zero (or PIK) bonds offer one overwhelming advantage: It is impossible to default on a promise to pay nothing. Indeed, if LDC governments had issued no debt in the 1970's other than long-term zero-coupon obligations, they would now have a spotless record as debtors.
This principle at work - that you need not default for a long time if you solemnly promise to pay nothing for a long time - has not been lost on promoters and investment bankers seeking to finance ever-shakier deals. When the leveraged buy-out craze began some years back, purchasers could borrow only on a reasonably sound basis, in which conservatively-estimated free cash flow - that is, operating earnings plus depreciation and amortization less normalized capital expenditures - was adequate to cover both interest and modest reductions in debt.
Later, as the adrenalin of deal-makers surged, businesses began to be purchased at prices so high that all free cash flow necessarily had to be allocated to the payment of interest. That left nothing for the paydown of debt. In effect, a Scarlett O'Hara "I'll think about it tomorrow" position in respect to principal payments was taken by borrowers and accepted by a new breed of lender, the buyer of original-issue junk bonds. Debt now became something to be refinanced rather than repaid. Soon borrowers found even the new, lax standards intolerably binding. To induce lenders to finance even sillier transactions, they introduced an abomination, EBDIT - Earnings Before Depreciation, Interest and Taxes - as the test of a company's ability to pay interest. Using this sawed-off yardstick, the borrower ignored depreciation as an expense on the theory that it did not require a current cash outlay.
Such an attitude is clearly delusional. At 95% of American businesses, capital expenditures that over time roughly approximate depreciation are a necessity and are every bit as real an expense as labor or utility costs. Even a high school dropout knows that to finance a car he must have income that covers not only interest and operating expenses, but also realistically-calculated depreciation. He would be laughed out of the bank if he started talking about EBDIT.
Capital outlays at a business can be skipped in any given month, just as a human can skip a day or even a week of eating. If the skipping becomes routine and is not made up, the body weakens and eventually dies. Furthermore, a start-and- stop feeding policy will over time produce a less healthy organism, human or corporate, than that produced by a steady diet. As businessmen, Charlie and I relish having competitors who are unable to fund capital expenditures.
You might think that waving away a major expense such as depreciation in an attempt to make a terrible deal look like a good one hits the limits of Wall Street's ingenuity. If so, you haven't been paying attention during the past few years. Promoters needed to find a way to justify even pricier acquisitions. Otherwise, they risked losing deals to other promoters with more "imagination."
So, stepping through the Looking Glass, promoters and their investment bankers proclaimed that EBDIT should now be measured against cash interest only, which meant that interest accruing on zero-coupon or PIK bonds could be ignored when the financial feasibility of a transaction was being assessed. This approach not only relegated depreciation expense to the let's-ignore-it corner, but gave similar treatment to what was usually a significant portion of interest expense. To their shame, many professional investment managers went along with this nonsense, though they usually were careful to do so only with clients' money, not their own. Calling these managers "professionals" is actually too kind; they should be designated "promotees." Under this new standard, a business earning, say, $100 million pre-tax and having debt on which $90 million of interest must be paid currently, might use a zero-coupon or PIK issue to incur another $60 million of annual interest that would accrue and compound but not come due for some years. The rate on these issues would typically be very high, which means that the situation in year 2 might be $90 million cash interest plus $69 million accrued interest, and so on as the compounding proceeds. Such high-rate reborrowing schemes, which a few years ago were appropriately confined to the waterfront, soon became models of modern finance at virtually all major investment banking houses.
Some time ago Ken Galbraith, in his witty and insightful The Great Crash, coined a new economic term: "the bezzle," defined as the current amount of undiscovered embezzlement. This financial creature has a magical quality: The embezzlers are richer by the amount of the bezzle, while the embezzlees do not yet feel poorer. Professor Galbraith astutely pointed out that this sum should be added to the National Wealth so that we might know the Psychic National Wealth. Logically, a society that wanted to feel enormously prosperous would both encourage its citizens to embezzle and try not to detect the crime. By this means, "wealth" would balloon though not an erg of productive work had been done. The satirical nonsense of the bezzle is dwarfed by the real-world nonsense of the zero-coupon bond. With zeros, one party to a contract can experience "income" without his opposite experiencing the pain of expenditure. In our illustration, a company capable of earning only $100 million dollars annually - and therefore capable of paying only that much in interest - magically creates "earnings" for bondholders of $150 million.
Wall Street welcomed this invention with the enthusiasm less-enlightened folk might reserve for the wheel or the plow. Here, finally, was an instrument that would let the Street make deals at prices no longer limited by actual earning power. The result, obviously, would be more transactions: Silly prices will always attract sellers. The zero-coupon or PIK bond possesses one additional attraction for the promoter and investment banker, which is that the time elapsing between folly and failure can be stretched out. This is no small benefit. If the period before all costs must be faced is long, promoters can create a string of foolish deals - and take in lots of fees - before any chickens come home to roost from their earlier ventures.
In the end, alchemy, whether it is metallurgical or financial, fails. A base business can not be transformed into a golden business by tricks of accounting or capital structure. The man claiming to be a financial alchemist may become rich. But gullible investors rather than business achievements will usually be the source of his wealth.
Whatever their weaknesses, we should add, many zero-coupon and PIK bonds will not default. We have in fact owned some and may buy more if their market becomes sufficiently distressed. We've not, however, even considered buying a new issue from a weak credit. No financial instrument is evil per se; it's just that some variations have far more potential for mischief than others.
The blue ribbon for mischief-making should go to the zero-coupon issuer unable to make its interest payments on a current basis. Our advice: Whenever an investment banker starts talking about EBDIT - or whenever someone creates a capital structure that does not allow all interest, both payable and accrued, to be comfortably met out of current cash flow net of ample capital expenditures - zip up your wallet.
In Berkshire’s investments, Charlie Munger and I have employed the principles taught by Dave Dodd and Ben Graham. I think the best book on investing ever written is “The Intelligent Investor”, by Ben Graham. Ben wrote “Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike.” I learned from Ben that the key to successful investing was the purchase of shares in good businesses when market prices were at a large discount from underlying business values. Ben identified this "margin of safety" in bargain purchasing as the cornerstone of intelligent investing. The failure of investors to heed this simple message caused them staggering losses.
Our equity-investing strategy remains little changed from what it was years ago: "We select our marketable equity securities in much the way we would evaluate a business for acquisition in its entirety. We want the business to be one (a) that we can understand; (b) with favorable long-term prospects; (c) operated by honest and competent people; and (d) available at a very attractive price." We have seen cause to make only one change in this creed: Because of both market conditions and our size, we now substitute "an attractive price" for "a very attractive price." But how does one decide what's "attractive"? In answering this question, most analysts feel they must choose between two approaches customarily thought to be in opposition: "value" and "growth." Indeed, many investment professionals see mixing of the two terms as a form of intellectual cross-dressing. We view that as fuzzy thinking (in which, it must be confessed, I myself engaged some years ago). In our opinion, the two approaches are joined at the hip: Growth is always a component in the calculation of value, constituting a variable whose importance can range from negligible to enormous and whose impact can be negative as well as positive.
In addition, we think the very term "value investing" is redundant. What is "investing" if it is not the act of seeking value at least sufficient to justify the amount paid? Consciously paying more for a stock than its calculated value in the hope that it can soon be sold for a still-higher price should be labeled speculation. Speculation is neither illegal, immoral nor - in our view - financially fattening.
Whether appropriate or not, the term "value investing" is widely used. Typically, it connotes the purchase of stocks having attributes such as a low ratio of price to book value, a low price-earnings ratio, or a high dividend yield. Unfortunately, such characteristics, even if they appear in combination, are far from determinative as to whether an investor is indeed buying something for what it is worth and is therefore truly operating on the principle of obtaining value in his investments. Correspondingly, opposite characteristics - a high ratio of price to book value, a high price-earnings ratio, and a low dividend yield - are in no way inconsistent with a "value" purchase. Similarly, business growth, per se, tells us little about value. It's true that growth often has a positive impact on value, sometimes one of spectacular proportions. But such an effect is far from certain. For example, investors have regularly poured money into the domestic airline business to finance profitless growth. For these investors, it would have been far better if Orville had failed to get off the ground at Kitty Hawk. Growth benefits investors only when the business in point can invest at incremental returns that are enticing - in other words, only when each dollar used to finance the growth creates over a dollar of long-term market value. In the case of a low-return business requiring incremental funds, growth hurts the investor.
In The Theory of Investment Value, written over 50 years ago, John Burr Williams set forth the equation for value, which we condense here: The value of any stock, bond or business today is determined by the cash inflows and outflows - discounted at an appropriate interest rate - that can be expected to occur during the remaining life of the asset. Note that the formula is the same for stocks as for bonds. Even so, there is an important, and difficult to deal with, difference between the two: A bond has a coupon and maturity date that define future cash flows; but in the case of equities, the investment analyst must himself estimate the future "coupons." Furthermore, the quality of management affects the bond coupon only rarely - chiefly when management is so inept or dishonest that payment of interest is suspended. In contrast, the ability of management can dramatically affect the equity "coupons." The investment shown by the discounted-flows-of-cash calculation to be the cheapest is the one that the investor should purchase - irrespective of whether the business grows or doesn't, displays volatility or smoothness in its earnings, or carries a high price or low in relation to its current earnings and book value. Moreover, though the value equation has usually shown equities to be cheaper than bonds, that result is not inevitable: When bonds are calculated to be the more attractive investment, they should be bought. Leaving the question of price aside, the best business to own is one that over an extended period can employ large amounts of incremental capital at very high rates of return. The worst business to own is one that must, or will, do the opposite - that is, consistently employ ever-greater amounts of capital at very low rates of return. Unfortunately, the first type of business is very hard to find: Most high-return businesses need relatively little capital. Shareholders of such a business usually will benefit if it pays out most of its earnings in dividends or makes significant stock repurchases.
Though the mathematical calculations required to evaluate equities are not difficult, an analyst - even one who is experienced and intelligent - can easily go wrong in estimating future "coupons." At Berkshire, we attempt to deal with this problem in two ways. First, we try to stick to businesses we believe we understand. That means they must be relatively simple and stable in character. If a business is complex or subject to constant change, we're not smart enough to predict future cash flows. Incidentally, that shortcoming doesn't bother us. What counts for most people in investing is not how much they know, but rather how realistically they define what they don't know. An investor needs to do very few things right as long as he or she avoids big mistakes.
Second, and equally important, we insist on a margin of safety in our purchase price. If we calculate the value of a common stock to be only slightly higher than its price, we're not interested in buying. We believe this margin-of-safety principle, so strongly emphasized by Ben Graham, to be the cornerstone of investment success. Now, we believe that it's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. When buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements. We have a corporate policy of reinvesting earnings for growth, diversity and strength, which has the incidental effect of minimizing the current imposition of explicit taxes on our owners. However, you can be subjected to the implicit inflation tax, and when you wish to transfer your investment in Berkshire into another form of investment, or into consumption, you will also face explicit taxes.
An investor cannot obtain superior profits from stocks by simply committing to a specific investment category or style. He can earn them only by carefully evaluating facts and continuously exercising discipline. Investing in arbitrage situations, per se, is no better a strategy than selecting a portfolio by throwing darts.
Common stocks are the most fun. When conditions are right that is, when companies with good economics and good management sell well below intrinsic business value - stocks sometimes provide grand-slam home runs. We often find no equities that come close to meeting our tests. We do not predict markets, we think of the business. We have no idea, and never have had, whether the market is going to go up, down, or sideways in the near or intermediate term future. Again, the true investor welcomes volatility. The more manic-depressive Ben Graham's "Mr. Market" is, the greater the opportunities available to the investor. A wildly fluctuating market means that irrationally low prices will periodically be attached to solid businesses. It is impossible to see how the availability of such prices can be thought of as increasing the hazards for an investor who is totally free to either ignore the market or exploit its folly. In periods of folly, the fiduciary sensitivities of the executives managing the typical fallen angel are often more finely developed than those of the junk-bond-issuing financiopath. Wall Street's enthusiasm for an idea was proportional not to its merit, but rather to the revenue it would produce. Mountains of junk bonds were sold by those who didn't care to those who didn't think and there was no shortage of either.
In assessing risk, a beta purist will disdain examining what a company produces, what its competitors are doing, or how much borrowed money the business employs. In contrast, we'll happily forgo knowing the price history. Instead, we will seek whatever information will further our understanding of the company's business. After we buy a stock, consequently, we would not be disturbed if markets closed for a year or two. The real risk that an investor must assess is whether his aggregate after-tax receipts from an investment including those he receives on sale will, over his prospective holding period, give him at least as much purchasing power as he had to begin with, plus a modest rate of interest on that initial stake. Though this risk cannot be calculated with engineering precision, it can in some cases be judged with a degree of accuracy that is useful. The primary factors bearing upon this evaluation are:
1) The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated;
2) The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;
3) The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself;
4) The purchase price of the business;
5) The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor's purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return.
These factors will probably strike many analysts as unbearably fuzzy, since they cannot be extracted from a database of any kind. Is it really so difficult to conclude that Coca-Cola and Gillette possess far less business risk over the long term than any computer company or retailer? Worldwide, Coke sells about 44% of all soft drinks, and Gillette has more than a 60% share (in value) of the blade market. Leaving aside chewing gum, in which Wrigley is dominant, I know of no other significant businesses in which the leading company has long enjoyed such global power.
Obviously, every investor will make mistakes. By confining himself to a relatively few, easy-to-understand cases, a reasonably intelligent, informed and diligent person can judge investment risks with a useful degree of accuracy. In many industries, Charlie and I can't determine whether we are dealing with a "pet rock" or a "Barbie." We couldn't solve this problem, moreover, even if we were to spend years intensely studying those industries. Sometimes our own intellectual shortcomings would stand in the way of understanding. In other cases, the nature of the industry would be the roadblock. For example, a business that must deal with fast-moving technology is not going to lend itself to reliable evaluations of its long-term economics. Did we foresee thirty years ago what would transpire in the television-manufacturing or computer industries? Of course not. Nor did most of the investors and corporate managers who enthusiastically entered those industries. Why, then, should Charlie and I now think we can predict the future of other rapidly-evolving businesses? We'll stick instead with the easy cases.
Some investment strategies - for instance, our efforts in arbitrage over the years - require wide diversification. If significant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one of many mutually- independent commitments. Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment if you believe that your gain, weighted for probabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number of similar, but unrelated opportunities. Most venture capitalists employ this strategy. Should you choose to pursue this course, you should adopt the outlook of the casino that owns a roulette wheel, which will want to see lots of action because it is favored by probabilities, but will refuse to accept a single, huge bet.
Another situation requiring wide diversification occurs when an investor who does not understand the economics of specific businesses nevertheless believes it in his interest to be a long-term owner of American industry. That investor should both own a large number of equities and space out his purchases. By periodically investing in an index fund, for example, the know-nothing investor can actually out-perform most investment professionals. Paradoxically, when "dumb" money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb.
On the other hand, if you are a know-something investor, able to understand business economics and to find five to ten sensibly-priced companies that possess important long-term competitive advantages, conventional diversification makes no sense for you. It is apt simply to hurt your results and increase your risk. I cannot understand why an investor of that sort elects to put money into a business that is his 20th favorite rather than simply adding that money to his top choices. His top choices should be the businesses he understands best and that present the least risk, along with the greatest profit potential.
Charlie and I predict that the future performance of Berkshire won't come close to matching the performance of the past. The problem is not that what has worked in the past will cease to work in the future. To the contrary, we believe that our formula - the purchase at sensible prices of businesses that have good underlying economics and are run by honest and able people - is certain to produce reasonable success. We expect, therefore, to keep on doing well. However, a fat wallet is the enemy of superior investment results. Though there are as many good businesses as ever, it is useless for us to make purchases that are inconsequential in relation to Berkshire's capital. As Charlie regularly reminds me, "If something is not worth doing at all, it's not worth doing well." We now consider a security for purchase only if we believe we can deploy at least $100 million in it. Given that minimum, Berkshire's investment universe has shrunk dramatically. Nevertheless, we will stick with the approach that got us here and try not to relax our standards. Ted Williams, in “The Story of My Life”, explains why: "My argument is, to be a good hitter, you've got to get a good ball to hit. It's the first rule in the book. If I have to bite at stuff that is out of my happy zone, I'm not a .344 hitter. I might only be a .250 hitter." Charlie and I agree and we will try to wait for opportunities that are well within our own "happy zone."
We will continue to ignore political and economic forecasts, which are an expensive distraction for many investors and businessmen. Years ago, no one could have foreseen the huge expansion of the Vietnam War, wage and price controls, two oil shocks, the resignation of a president, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a one-day drop in the Dow of 508 points, or treasury bill yields fluctuating between 2.8% and 17.4%. But, surprise, none of these blockbuster events made the slightest dent in Ben Graham's investment principles. Nor did they render unsound the negotiated purchases of fine businesses at sensible prices. Imagine the cost to us, then, if we had let a fear of unknowns cause us to defer or alter the deployment of capital. Indeed, we have usually made our best purchases when apprehensions about some macro event were at a peak. Fear is the foe of the faddist, but the friend of the fundamentalist.
A different set of major shocks is sure to occur in the next 30 years. We will neither try to predict these nor to profit from them. If we can identify businesses similar to those we have purchased in the past, external surprises will have little effect on our long-term results. What we promise you ( the shareholder ) - along with more modest gains - is that during your ownership of Berkshire, you will fare just as Charlie and I do. If you suffer, we will suffer; if we prosper, so will you. And we will not break this bond by introducing compensation arrangements that give us a greater participation in the upside than the downside. We further promise you that our personal fortunes will remain overwhelmingly concentrated in Berkshire shares: We will not ask you to invest with us and then put our own money elsewhere. In addition, Berkshire dominates both the investment portfolios of most members of our families and of a great many friends who belonged to partnerships that Charlie and I ran in the 1960's. We could not be more motivated to do our best.
Luckily, we have a good base from which to work. We achieved our gains through the efforts of a superb corps of operating managers who get extraordinary results from some ordinary-appearing businesses. Casey Stengel described managing a baseball team as "getting paid for home runs other fellows hit." That's my formula at Berkshire, also. The businesses in which we have partial interests are equally important to Berkshire's success. A few statistics will illustrate their significance: In 1994, Coca-Cola sold about 280 billion 8-ounce servings and earned a little less than a penny on each. But pennies add up. Through Berkshire's 7.8% ownership of Coke, we have an economic interest in 21 billion of its servings, which produce "soft-drink earnings" for us of nearly $200 million. Similarly, by way of its Gillette stock, Berkshire has a 7% share of the world's razor and blade market (measured by revenues, not by units), a proportion according us about $250 million of sales in 1994. And, at Wells Fargo, a $53 billion bank, our 13% ownership translates into a $7 billion "Berkshire Bank" that earned about $100 million during 1994.
It's far better to own a significant portion of the Hope diamond than 100% of a rhinestone, and the companies just mentioned easily qualify as rare gems. After we buy a stock we would not be disturbed if markets closed for a year or two. We don't need a daily quote on our 100% position in See's or H. H. Brown to validate our well-being. Why, then, should we need a quote on our 7% interest in Coke? Both Coke and Gillette have actually increased their worldwide shares of market in recent years. The might of their brand names, the attributes of their products, and the strength of their distribution systems give them an enormous competitive advantage, setting up a protective moat around their economic castles. The average company, in contrast, does battle daily without any such means of protection. The competitive strengths of a Coke or Gillette are obvious to even the casual observer of business. Yet the beta of their stocks is similar to that of a great many run-of-the-mill companies who possess little or no competitive advantage. Should we conclude from this similarity that the competitive strength of Coke and Gillette gains them nothing when business risk is being measured? Or should we conclude that the risk in owning a piece of a company - its stock - is somehow divorced from the long-term risk inherent in its business operations? We believe neither conclusion makes sense and that equating beta with investment risk also makes no sense.
The theoretician bred on beta has no mechanism for differentiating the risk inherent in, say, a single-product toy company selling pet rocks or hula hoops from that of another toy company whose sole product is Monopoly or Barbie. It's quite possible for ordinary investors to make such distinctions if they have a reasonable understanding of consumer behavior and the factors that create long-term competitive strength or weakness. A business that must deal with fast-moving technology is not going to lend itself to reliable evaluations of its long-term economics. Did we foresee thirty years ago what would transpire in the television-manufacturing or computer industries? Of course not. Why, then, should Charlie and I now think we can predict the future of other rapidly-evolving businesses? We'll stick instead with the easy cases.
As you know, we buy marketable stocks for our insurance companies based upon the criteria we would apply in the purchase of an entire business. This business-valuation approach is not widespread among professional money managers and is scorned by many academics. Nevertheless, it has served its followers well. Most of the funds generated by GEICO’s core insurance operation are made available to Lou Simpson for investment. Lou has the rare combination of temperamental and intellectual characteristics that produce outstanding long-term investment performance. Operating with below-average risk, he has generated returns that have been by far the best in the insurance industry. In most businesses, insolvent companies run out of cash. Insurance is different: you can be broke but flush. Since cash comes in at the inception of an insurance policy and losses are paid much later, insolvent insurers don’t run out of cash until long after they have run out of net worth. In fact, these “walking dead” often redouble their efforts to write business, accepting almost any price or risk, simply to keep the cash flowing in. With an attitude like that of an embezzler who has gambled away his purloined funds, these companies hope that somehow they can get lucky on the next batch of business and thereby cover up earlier shortfalls. Even if they don’t get lucky, the penalty to managers is usually no greater for a $100 million shortfall than one of $10 million; in the meantime, while the losses mount, the managers keep their jobs and perquisites.
In any reinsurance arrangement, a key question is how the premiums paid for the policy should be divided among the various “layers” of risk. In our "D & O" (directors and officers liability) policy, for example. what part of the premium received should be kept by the issuing company to compensate it fairly for taking the first $1 million of risk and how much should be passed on to the reinsurers to compensate them fairly for taking the risk between $1 million and $25 million? One way to solve this problem might be deemed the Patrick Henry approach: “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” In other words, how much of the total premium would reinsurers have needed in the past to compensate them fairly for the losses they actually had to bear? Unfortunately, the lamp of experience has always provided imperfect illumination for reinsurers because so much of their business is “long-tail”, meaning it takes many years before they know what their losses are. Lately, however, the light has not only been dim but also grossly misleading in the images it has revealed. That is, the courts’ tendency to grant awards that are both huge and lacking in precedent makes reinsurers’ usual extrapolations or inferences from past data a formula for disaster.
The burgeoning uncertainties of the business, coupled with the entry into reinsurance of many unsophisticated participants, worked in recent years in favor of issuing companies writing a small net line: they were able to keep a far greater percentage of the premiums than the risk. By doing so, the issuing companies sometimes made money on business that was distinctly unprofitable for the issuing and reinsuring companies combined. This result was not necessarily by intent: issuing companies generally knew no more than reinsurers did about the ultimate costs that would be experienced at higher layers of risk. Inequities of this sort have been particularly pronounced in lines of insurance in which much change was occurring and losses were soaring; e.g., professional malpractice, "D & O" liability policy, products liability, etc. Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that issuing companies remained enthusiastic about writing business long after premiums became woefully inadequate on a gross basis.
An example of just how disparate results have been for issuing companies versus their reinsurers is provided by the 1984 financials of one of the leaders in large and unusual risks. In that year the company wrote about $6 billion of business and kept around $2 1/2 billion of the premiums, or about 40%. It gave the remaining $3 1/2 billion to reinsurers. On the part of the business kept, the company’s underwriting loss was less than $200 million - an excellent result in that year. Meanwhile, the part laid off produced a loss of over $1.5 billion for the reinsurers. Thus, the issuing company wrote at a combined ratio ( losses / premiums earned ) of well under 110 while its reinsurers, participating in precisely the same policies, came in considerably over 140. This result was not attributable to natural catastrophes; it came from run-of-the-mill insurance losses (occurring, however, in surprising frequency and size).
Unlike most businesses, Berkshire did not finance because of any specific immediate needs. Rather, we borrowed because we think that, over a period far shorter than the life of the loan, we will have many opportunities to put the money to good use. The most attractive opportunities may present themselves at a time when credit is extremely expensive or even unavailable. At such a time we want to have plenty of financial firepower. Our acquisition preferences run toward businesses that generate cash, not those that consume it. As inflation intensifies, more and more companies find that they must spend all funds they generate internally just to maintain their existing physical volume of business. There is a mirage-like quality to such operations. However attractive the earnings numbers, we remain leery of businesses that never seem able to convert such pretty numbers into no-strings-attached cash.
Businesses meeting our standards are not easy to find. Each year we read of hundreds of corporate acquisitions; only a handful would have been of interest to us. And logical expansion of our present operations is not easy to implement. But we’ll continue to utilize both avenues in our attempts to further Berkshire’s growth. Under all circumstances we plan to operate with plenty of liquidity, with debt that is moderate in size and properly structured, and with an abundance of capital strength. Our return on equity is penalized somewhat by this conservative approach, but it is the only one with which we feel comfortable.
Except for special cases (for example, companies with unusual debt-equity ratios or those with important assets carried at unrealistic balance sheet values), we believe a more appropriate measure of managerial economic performance to be return on equity capital. In 1977 our operating earnings on beginning equity capital amounted to 19%, slightly better than 1976 and above both our own long-term average and that of American industry in aggregate. While our operating earnings per share were up 37% from 1976, our beginning capital was up 24%, making the gain in earnings per share considerably less impressive than it might appear at first glance.
Phil Fisher, a respected investor and author, once likened the policies of a corporation in attracting shareholders to those of a restaurant attracting potential customers. A restaurant could seek a given clientele and eventually obtain an appropriate group of devotees. If the job were expertly done, that clientele, pleased with the service, menu, and price level offered, would return consistently. But the restaurant could not change its character constantly and end up with a happy and stable clientele. So it is with corporations and the shareholder constituency they seek. You can’t be all things to all men, simultaneously seeking different owners whose primary interests run from high current yield to long-term capital growth to stock market pyrotechnics, etc. The reasoning of managements that seek large trading activity in their shares puzzles us. In effect, such managements are saying that they want a good many of the existing clientele to continually desert them in favor of new ones. You can’t add lots of new owners with new expectations without losing lots of former owners. We prefer owners who like our service and menu and who return year after year. It would be hard to find a better group to sit in the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder “seats” than those already occupying them. So we hope to continue to have a very low turnover among our owners. This reflects a constituency that understands our operation, approves of our policies, and shares our expectations. And we hope to deliver on those expectations.
In general, I believe that directors have stiffened their spines and that shareholders are now being treated somewhat more like true owners than was the case not long ago. Commentators on corporate governance seldom make any distinction among three fundamentally different manager/owner situations that exist in publicly-held companies. Though the legal responsibility of directors is identical throughout, their ability to effect change differs in each of the cases. Attention usually falls on the first case, because it prevails on the corporate scene. Since Berkshire falls into the second category, however, and will someday fall into the third, we will discuss all three variations.
The first, and by far most common, board situation is one in which a corporation has no controlling shareholder. In that case, I believe directors should behave as if there is a single absentee owner, whose long-term interest they should try to further in all proper ways. Unfortunately, "long-term" gives directors a lot of wiggle room. If they lack either integrity or the ability to think independently, directors can do great violence to shareholders while still claiming to be acting in their long-term interest. Assume the board is functioning well and must deal with a management that is mediocre or worse. Directors then have the responsibility for changing that management, just as an intelligent owner would do if he were present. If able but greedy managers over-reach and try to dip too deeply into the shareholders' pockets, directors must slap their hands.
In this plain-vanilla case, a director who sees something he doesn't like should attempt to persuade the other directors of his views. If he is successful, the board will have the muscle to make the appropriate change. Suppose that the unhappy director can't get other directors to agree with him. He should then feel free to make his views known to the absentee owners. Directors seldom do that, of course. The temperament of many directors would in fact be incompatible with critical behavior of that sort. I see nothing improper in such actions, assuming the issues are serious. Naturally, the complaining director can expect a vigorous rebuttal from the unpersuaded directors, a prospect that should discourage the dissenter from pursuing trivial or non-rational causes.
For the boards just discussed, I believe the directors ought to be relatively few in number - say, ten or less - and ought to come mostly from the outside. The outside board members should establish standards for the CEO's performance and should also periodically meet, without his being present, to evaluate his performance against those standards.
The requisites for board membership should be business savvy, interest in the job, and owner-orientation. Too often, directors are selected simply because they are prominent or add diversity to the board. That practice is a mistake. Mistakes in selecting directors are particularly serious because appointments are so hard to undo. The pleasant but vacuous director need never worry about job security.
The second case is that existing at Berkshire, where the controlling owner is also the manager. At some companies, this arrangement is facilitated by the existence of two classes of stock endowed with disproportionate voting power. In these situations, it's obvious that the board does not act as an agent between owners and management and that the directors cannot effect change except through persuasion. If the owner/manager is mediocre or over-reaching there is little a director can do about it except object. If the directors having no connections to the owner/manager and they make a unified argument, it may have some effect. If change does not come, and the matter is sufficiently serious, the outside directors should resign. Their resignation will signal their doubts about management, and it will emphasize that no outsider is in a position to correct the owner/manager's shortcomings.
The third governance case occurs when there is a controlling owner who is not involved in management. This case, examples of which are Hershey Foods and Dow Jones, puts the outside directors in a potentially useful position. If they become unhappy with either the competence or integrity of the manager, they can go directly to the owner (who may also be on the board) and report their dissatisfaction. This situation is ideal for an outside director, since he need make his case only to a single, presumably interested owner, who can forthwith effect change if the argument is persuasive. Even so, the dissatisfied director has only that single course of action. If he remains unsatisfied about a critical matter, he has no choice but to resign.
Logically, the third case should be the most effective in insuring first-class management. In the second case the owner is not going to fire himself, and in the first case, directors often find it very difficult to deal with mediocrity or mild over- reaching. Unless the unhappy directors can win over a majority of the board - an awkward social and logistical task, particularly if management's behavior is merely odious, not egregious - their hands are effectively tied. In practice, directors trapped in situations of this kind usually convince themselves that by staying around they can do at least some good. Meanwhile, management proceeds unfettered.
In the third case, the owner is neither judging himself nor burdened with the problem of garnering a majority. He can also insure that outside directors are selected who will bring useful qualities to the board. These directors, in turn, will know that the good advice they give will reach the right ears, rather than being stifled by a recalcitrant management. If the controlling owner is intelligent and self-confident, he will make decisions in respect to management that are meritocratic and pro-shareholder. Moreover - and this is critically important - he can readily correct any mistake he makes.
At Berkshire we operate in the second mode now and will for as long as I remain functional. My health, let me add, is excellent. For better or worse, you are likely to have me as an owner/manager
for some time. After my death, all of my stock will go to my wife, Susie, should she survive me, or to a foundation if she dies before I do. In neither case will taxes and bequests require the sale of
consequential amounts of stock. When my stock is transferred to either my wife or the foundation, Berkshire will enter the third governance mode. Berkshire will be going forward with a vitally interested, but non-management owner, and with a management that must perform. In preparation for that time, Susie was elected to the board a few years ago, and in 1993 our son, Howard, joined the board. These family members will not be managers of the company in the future, but they will represent the controlling interest should anything happen to me. Most of our other directors are also significant owners of Berkshire stock, and each has a strong owner-orientation.
An additional factor should further subdue any residual enthusiasm you may retain regarding our long-term rate of return. The economic case justifying equity investment is that, in aggregate, additional earnings above passive investment returns - interest on fixed-income securities - will be derived through the employment of managerial and entrepreneurial skills in conjunction with that equity capital. Furthermore, the case says that since the equity capital position is associated with greater risk than passive forms of investment, it is “entitled” to higher returns. A “value-added” bonus from equity capital seems natural and certain.
But is it? Several decades back, a return on equity of as little as 10% enabled a corporation to be classified as a “good” business - i.e., one in which a dollar reinvested in the business logically could be expected to be valued by the market at more than one hundred cents. For, with long-term taxable bonds yielding 5% and long-term tax-exempt bonds 3%, a business operation that could utilize equity capital at 10% clearly was worth some premium to investors over the equity capital employed. That was true even though a combination of taxes on dividends and on capital gains would reduce the 10% earned by the corporation to perhaps 6%-8% in the hands of the individual investor. Investment markets recognized this truth. During that earlier period, American business earned an average of 11% or so on equity capital employed and stocks, in aggregate, sold at valuations far above that equity capital (book value), averaging over 150 cents on the dollar. Most businesses were “good” businesses because they earned far more than the return on long-term passive money. The value-added produced by equity investment, in aggregate, was substantial. That day is gone. The lessons learned during its existence are difficult to discard. While investors and managers must place their feet in the future, their memories and nervous systems often remain plugged into the past. It is much easier for investors to utilize historic p/e ratios or for managers to utilize historic business valuation yardsticks than it is for either group to rethink their premises daily. When change is slow, constant rethinking is actually undesirable; it achieves little and slows response time. When change is great, yesterday’s assumptions can be retained only at great cost. And, the pace of economic change has become breathtaking.
During a past year, long-term taxable bond yields exceeded 16% and long-term tax-exempts 14%. The total return achieved from such tax-exempts goes directly into the pocket of the individual owner. Meanwhile, American business is producing earnings of only about 14% on equity. This 14% will be substantially reduced by taxation before it can be banked by the individual owner. The extent of such shrinkage depends upon the dividend policy of the corporation and the tax rates applicable to the investor.
With interest rates on passive investments at late 1981 levels, a typical American business is no longer worth one hundred cents on the dollar to owners who are individuals. If the business is owned by pension funds or other tax-exempt investors, the arithmetic, although still unenticing, changes substantially for the better. Assume an investor in a 50% tax bracket; if our typical company pays out all earnings, the income return to the investor will be equivalent to that from a 7% tax-exempt bond. If conditions persist, if all earnings are paid out, and return on equity stays at 14%, the 7% tax-exempt equivalent to the higher-bracket individual investor is just as frozen as is the coupon on a tax-exempt bond. Such a perpetual 7% tax-exempt bond might be worth fifty cents on the dollar.
If, on the other hand, all earnings of our typical American business are retained and return on equity again remains constant, earnings will grow at 14% per year. If the p/e ratio remains constant, the price of our typical stock will also grow at 14% per year. That 14% is not yet in the pocket of the shareholder. Putting it there will require the payment of a capital gains tax, presently assessed at a maximum rate of 20%. This net return, works out to a poorer rate of return than the currently available passive after-tax rate.
Unless passive rates fall, companies achieving 14% per year gains in earnings per share while paying no cash dividend are an economic failure for their individual shareholders. The returns from passive capital outstrip the returns from active capital. This is an unpleasant fact for both investors and corporate managers and, therefore, one they may wish to ignore. But, facts do not cease to exist, either because they are unpleasant or because they are ignored.
Most American businesses pay out a significant portion of their earnings and thus fall between the two examples. And most American businesses are currently “bad” businesses economically - producing less for their individual investors after-tax than the tax-exempt passive rate of return on money. Some high-return businesses still remain attractive, even under present conditions. But, American equity capital, in aggregate, produces no value-added for individual investors.
It should be stressed that this depressing situation does not occur because corporations are jumping, economically, less high than previously. In fact, they are jumping somewhat higher: return on equity has improved a few points in the past decade. But, the crossbar of passive return has been elevated much faster. Unhappily, most companies can do little but hope that the bar will be lowered significantly; there are few industries in which the prospects seem bright for substantial gains in return on equity.
Inflationary experience and expectations will be major (but not the only) factors affecting the height of the crossbar in future years. If the causes of long-term inflation can be tempered, passive returns are likely to fall and the intrinsic position of American equity capital should significantly improve. Many businesses that now must be classified as economically “bad” would be restored to the “good” category under such circumstances.
A further, particularly ironic, punishment is inflicted by an inflationary environment upon the owners of the “bad” business. To continue operating in its present mode, such a low-return business usually must retain much of its earnings - no matter what penalty such a policy produces for shareholders.
Reason would prescribe just the opposite policy. An individual, stuck with a 5% bond with many years to run before maturity, does not take the coupons from that bond and pay one hundred cents on the dollar for more 5% bonds while similar bonds are available at, say, forty cents on the dollar. Instead, he takes those coupons from his low-return bond and - if inclined to reinvest - looks for the highest return with safety currently available. Good money is not thrown after bad. What makes sense for the bondholder makes sense for the shareholder. Logically, a company with historic and prospective high returns on equity should retain much or all of its earnings so that shareholders can earn premium returns on enhanced capital. When prices continuously rise, the “bad” business must retain every nickel that it can. Not because it is attractive as a repository for equity capital, but precisely because it is so unattractive, the low-return business must follow a high retention policy. If it wishes to continue operating in the future as it has in the past - and most entities, including businesses, do - it simply has no choice.
For inflation acts as a gigantic corporate tapeworm. That tapeworm preemptively consumes its requisite daily diet of investment dollars regardless of the health of the host organism.
Whatever the level of reported profits (even if nil), more dollars for receivables, inventory and fixed assets are continuously required by the business in order to merely match the unit volume of the previous year. The less prosperous the enterprise, the greater the proportion of available sustenance claimed by the tapeworm. A business earning 8% or 10% on equity often has no leftovers for expansion, debt reduction or “real” dividends. The tapeworm of inflation simply cleans the plate. (The low-return company’s inability to pay dividends, understandably, is often disguised. Corporate America increasingly is turning to dividend reinvestment plans, sometimes even embodying a discount arrangement that all but forces shareholders to reinvest. Other companies sell newly issued shares to Peter in order to pay dividends to Paul. Beware of “dividends” that can be paid out only if someone promises to replace the capital distributed.)
Berkshire continues to retain its earnings for offensive, not defensive or obligatory, reasons. In no way are we immune from the pressures that escalating passive returns exert on equity capital. We continue to clear the crossbar of after-tax passive return - but barely. Our historic 21% return - not at all assured for the future - still provides, after the current capital gain tax rate, a modest margin over current after-tax rates on passive money. It would be a bit humiliating to have our corporate value-added turn negative. But, it can happen here as it has elsewhere, either from events outside anyone’s control or from poor relative adaptation on our part.
At the parent company level, we make no contributions except those designated by shareholders. We do not match contributions made by directors or employees, nor do we give to the favorite charities of the Buffetts or the Mungers. However, prior to our purchasing them, a few of our subsidiaries had employee-match programs and we feel fine about their continuing them: It's not our style to tamper with successful business cultures.
Accounting consequences do not influence our operating or capital-allocation decisions. When acquisition costs are similar, we much prefer to purchase $2 of earnings that is not reportable by us under standard accounting principles than to purchase $1 of earnings that is reportable. This is precisely the choice that often faces us since entire businesses, whose earnings will be fully reportable, frequently sell for double the pro-rata price of small portions, whose earnings will be largely unreportable. In aggregate and over time, we expect the unreported earnings to be fully reflected in our intrinsic business value through capital gains.
We rarely use much debt and, when we do, we attempt to structure it on a long-term fixed rate basis. We will reject interesting opportunities rather than over-leverage our balance sheet. This conservatism has penalized our results but it is the only behavior that leaves us comfortable, considering our fiduciary obligations to policyholders, depositors, lenders and the many equity holders who have committed unusually large portions of their net worth to our care.
A managerial “wish list” will not be filled at shareholder expense. We will not diversify by purchasing entire businesses at control prices that ignore long-term economic consequences to our shareholders. We only do with your money what we would do with our own, weighing fully the values you can obtain by diversifying your own portfolios through direct purchases in the stock market. We feel noble intentions should be checked periodically against results. We test the wisdom of retaining earnings by assessing whether retention, over time, delivers shareholders at least $1 of market value for each $1 retained. To date, this test has been met. We will continue to apply it on a five-year rolling basis. As our net worth grows, it is more difficult to use retained earnings wisely. We will issue common stock only when we receive as much in business value as we give. This rule applies to all forms of issuance - not only mergers or public stock offerings, but stock for-debt swaps, stock options, and convertible securities as well. We will not sell small portions of your company - and that is what the issuance of shares amounts to - on a basis inconsistent with the value of the entire enterprise.
You should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I share that hurts our financial performance: regardless of price. We have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns, and are very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations. We hope not to repeat the capital-allocation mistakes that led us into such sub-par businesses. And we react with great caution to suggestions that our poor businesses can be restored to satisfactory profitability by major capital expenditures. The projections will be dazzling, the advocates will be sincere, but, in the end, major additional investment in a terrible industry usually is about as rewarding as struggling in quicksand. Nevertheless, gin rummy managerial behavior, discarding your least promising business at each turn, is not our style. We would rather have our overall results penalized a bit than engage in it.
We will be candid in our reporting to you, emphasizing the pluses and minuses important in appraising business value. Our guideline is to tell you the business facts that we would want to know if our positions were reversed. We owe you no less. Moreover, as a company with a major communications business, it would be inexcusable for us to apply lesser standards of accuracy, balance and incisiveness when reporting on ourselves than we would expect our news people to apply when reporting on others. We also believe candor benefits us as managers: the CEO who misleads others in public may eventually mislead himself in private.
We regularly report our per-share book value, an easily calculable number, though one of limited use. Just as regularly, we tell you that what counts is intrinsic value, a number that is impossible to pinpoint but essential to estimate. For example, in 1964, we could state with certitude that Berkshire's per-share book value was $19.46. However, that figure considerably overstated the stock's intrinsic value since all of the company's resources were tied up in a sub-profitable textile business. Our textile assets had neither going-concern nor liquidation values equal to their carrying values. Today, Berkshire's situation has reversed: Many of the businesses we control are worth far more than their carrying value. Those we don't control, such as Coca-Cola or Gillette, are carried at current market values. We continue to give you book value figures, however, because they serve as a rough, understated, tracking measure for Berkshire's intrinsic value.
We define intrinsic value as the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life. Anyone calculating intrinsic value necessarily comes up with a highly subjective figure that will change both as estimates of future cash flows are revised and as interest rates move. Despite its fuzziness, however, intrinsic value is all-important and is the only logical way to evaluate the relative attractiveness of investments and businesses.
Ben Graham taught me 45 years ago that in investing it is not necessary to do extraordinary things to get extraordinary results. In later life, I have been surprised to find that this statement holds true in business management as well. What a manager must do is handle the basics well and not get diverted. That's precisely Ralph Shey's formula at Scott Fetzer. He establishes the right goals and never forgets what he set out to do. Understanding intrinsic value is as important for managers as it is for investors. When managers are making capital allocation decisions - including decisions to repurchase shares - it's vital that they act in ways that increase per-share intrinsic value and avoid moves that decrease it. This principle may seem obvious but we constantly see it violated. And, when misallocations occur, shareholders are hurt.
For example, in contemplating business mergers and acquisitions, many managers tend to focus on whether the transaction is immediately dilutive or anti-dilutive to earnings per share (or, at financial institutions, to per-share book value). An emphasis of this sort carries great dangers. Going back to our college-education example, imagine that a 25-year-old first-year MBA student is considering merging his future economic interests with those of a 25-year-old day laborer. The MBA student, a non-earner, would find that a "share-for-share" merger of his equity interest in himself with that of the day laborer would enhance his near-term earnings in a big way! But what could be sillier for the student than a deal of this kind?
In corporate transactions, it's equally silly for the would- be purchaser to focus on current earnings when the prospective acquiree has either different prospects, different amounts of non-operating assets, or a different capital structure. At Berkshire, we have rejected many merger and purchase opportunities that would have boosted current and near-term earnings but that would have reduced per-share intrinsic value over time. Our approach, rather, has been to follow Wayne Gretzky's advice: "Go to where the puck is going to be, not to where it is." As a result, our shareholders are now many billions of dollars richer than they would have been if we had used the standard catechism.
The sad fact is that most major acquisitions display an egregious imbalance: They are a bonanza for the shareholders of the acquiree; they increase the income and status of the acquirer's management; and they are a honey pot for the investment bankers and other professionals on both sides. They usually reduce the wealth of the acquirer's shareholders, often to a substantial extent. That happens because the acquirer typically gives up more intrinsic value than it receives. Do that enough, says John Medlin, the retired head of Wachovia Corp., and "you are running a chain letter in reverse." Over time, the skill with which a company's managers allocate capital has an enormous impact on the enterprise's value. Almost by definition, a really good business generates far more money after its early years than it can use internally. The company could distribute the money to shareholders by way of dividends or share repurchases. Often the CEO asks a strategic planning staff, consultants or investment bankers whether an acquisition or two might make sense. That's like asking your interior decorator whether you need a $50,000 rug.
In July (1985) we decided to close our textile operation, and by yearend this unpleasant job was largely completed. The history of this business is instructive. When Buffett Partnership, Ltd., an investment partnership of which I was general partner, bought control of Berkshire Hathaway, it had an accounting net worth of $22 million, all devoted to the textile business. The company’s intrinsic business value, however, was considerably less because the textile assets were unable to earn returns commensurate with their accounting value. Indeed, during the previous nine years (the period in which Berkshire and Hathaway operated as a merged company) aggregate sales of $530 million had produced an aggregate loss of $10 million. Profits had been reported from time to time but the net effect was always one step forward, two steps back.
At the time we made our purchase, southern textile plants - largely non-union - were believed to have an important competitive advantage. Most northern textile operations had closed and many thought we would liquidate our business as well. We felt, however, that the business would be run much better by a long-time employee whom, we immediately selected to be president, Ken Chace. In this respect we were 100% correct: Ken and his successor, Garry Morrison, have been excellent managers, every bit the equal of managers at our more profitable businesses.
In early 1967 cash generated by the textile operation was used to fund our entry into insurance via the purchase of National Indemnity Company. Some of the money came from earnings and some from reduced investment in textile inventories, receivables, and fixed assets. This pullback proved wise: although much improved by Ken’s management, the textile business never became a good earner, not even in cyclical upturns.
Further diversification for Berkshire followed, and gradually the textile operation’s depressing effect on our overall return diminished as the business became a progressively smaller portion of the corporation. We remained in the business for reasons that I stated in the 1978 annual report: “(1) our textile businesses are very important employers in their communities, (2) management has been straightforward in reporting on problems and energetic in attacking them, (3) labor has been cooperative and understanding in facing our common problems, and (4) the business should average modest cash returns relative to investment.” I further said, “As long as these conditions prevail, and we expect that they will, we intend to continue to support our textile business despite more attractive alternative uses for capital.”
It turned out that I was very wrong about cash returns (4). Though 1979 was moderately profitable, the business thereafter consumed major amounts of cash. By mid-1985 it became clear, even to me, that this condition was almost sure to continue. Could we have found a buyer who would continue operations, I would have certainly preferred to sell the business rather than liquidate it, even if that meant somewhat lower proceeds for us. But the economics that were finally obvious to me were also obvious to others, and interest was nil.
I won’t close down businesses of sub-normal profitability merely to add a fraction of a point to our corporate rate of return. However, I also feel it inappropriate for even an exceptionally profitable company to fund an operation once it appears to have unending losses in prospect. I should reemphasize that Ken and Garry were resourceful, energetic and imaginative in attempting to make our textile operation a success. Trying to achieve sustainable profitability, they reworked product lines, machinery configurations and distribution arrangements. We also made a major acquisition, Waumbec Mills, with the expectation of important synergy. In the end, nothing worked and I should be faulted for not quitting sooner. I ignored Comte’s advice - “the intellect should be the servant of the heart, but not its slave” - and believed what I preferred to believe.
The domestic textile industry operates in a commodity business, competing in a world market in which substantial excess capacity exists. Much of the trouble we experienced was attributable to competition from foreign countries whose workers are paid a small fraction of the U.S. minimum wage. But that in no way means that our labor force deserves any blame for our closing. In fact, in comparison with employees of American industry generally, our workers were poorly paid, as has been the case throughout the textile business. In contract negotiations, union leaders and members were sensitive to our disadvantageous cost position and did not push for unrealistic wage increases or unproductive work practices. To the contrary, they tried just as hard as we did to keep us competitive. Even during our liquidation period they performed superbly. Ironically, we would have been better off financially if our union had behaved unreasonably some years ago; we then would have recognized the impossible future that we faced, promptly closed down, and avoided significant future losses.
Over the years, we had the option of making large capital expenditures in the textile operation that would have allowed us to somewhat reduce variable costs. Each proposal to do so looked like an immediate winner. Measured by standard return-on-investment tests, in fact, these proposals usually promised greater economic benefits than would have resulted from comparable expenditures in our highly-profitable candy and newspaper businesses. The promised benefits from these textile investments were illusory. Many of our competitors, both domestic and foreign, were stepping up to the same kind of expenditures and, once enough companies did so, their reduced costs became the baseline for reduced prices industry wide. Viewed individually, each company’s capital investment decision appeared cost-effective and rational; viewed collectively, the decisions neutralized each other and were irrational. Just as happens when each person watching a parade decides he can see a little better if he stands on tiptoes. After each round of investment, all the players had more money in the game and returns remained anemic.
Thus, we faced a miserable choice: huge capital investment would have helped to keep our textile business alive, but would have left us with terrible returns on ever-growing amounts of capital. After the investment, moreover, the foreign competition would still have retained a major, continuing advantage in labor costs. A refusal to invest, however, would make us increasingly non-competitive, even measured against domestic textile manufacturers.
For an understanding of how the to-invest-or-not-to-invest dilemma plays out in a commodity business, it is instructive to look at Burlington Industries. In 1964 Burlington had sales of $1.2 billion against our $50 million. It had strengths in both distribution and production that we could never hope to match. Also, it had an earnings record far superior to ours. Its stock sold at $60 at the end of 1964; ours was $13. Burlington made a decision to stick to the textile business, and in 1985 had sales of about $2.8 billion. During the 1964-85 period, the company made capital expenditures of about $3 billion, far more than any other U.S. textile company and more than $200-per-share on that $60 stock. A very large part of the expenditures, I am sure, was devoted to cost improvement and expansion. Given Burlington’s basic commitment to stay in textiles, I would also surmise that the company’s capital decisions were quite rational. Nevertheless, Burlington has lost sales volume in real dollars and has far lower returns on sales and equity now than 20 years ago. Split 2-for-1 in 1965, the stock now sells at 34 -- on an adjusted basis, just a little over its $60 price in 1964. Meanwhile, the CPI has more than tripled. Therefore, each share commands about one-third the purchasing power it did at the end of 1964. Regular dividends have been paid, but they too have shrunk significantly in purchasing power. This devastating outcome for the shareholders indicates what can happen when much brainpower and energy are applied to a faulty premise. The situation is suggestive of Samuel Johnson’s horse: “A horse that can count to ten is a remarkable horse - not a remarkable mathematician.” Likewise, a textile company that allocates capital brilliantly within its industry is a remarkable textile company, but not a remarkable business.
My conclusion from my own experiences and from much observation of other businesses is that a good managerial record (measured by economic returns) is far more a function of what business boat you get into than it is of how effectively you row. (Though intelligence and effort help considerably, in any business, good or bad). Some years ago I wrote: “When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for poor fundamental economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.” Nothing has since changed my point of view on that matter. Should you find yourself in a chronically-leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.
Textile plant and equipment were on the books for a very small fraction of what it would cost to replace such equipment. And, despite the age of the equipment, much of it was functionally similar to new equipment being installed by the industry. Despite this “bargain cost” of fixed assets, capital turnover was relatively low reflecting required high investment levels in receivables and inventory compared to sales. Slow capital turnover, coupled with low profit margins on sales, inevitably produces inadequate returns on capital. Obvious approaches to improved profit margins involve differentiation of product, lowered manufacturing costs through more efficient equipment or better utilization of people, redirection toward fabrics enjoying stronger market trends, etc. Our management was diligent in pursuing such objectives. The problem was that our competitors were just as diligently doing the same thing.
Capital allocation at Berkshire was tough work in 1986. We did acquire The Fechheimer Bros. Company. Fechheimer is a company with excellent economics, run by exactly the kind of people with whom we enjoy being associated. But it is relatively small, utilizing only about 2% of Berkshire's net worth. Meanwhile, we had no new ideas in the marketable equities field, an area in which once, we could readily employ large sums in outstanding businesses at very reasonable prices. So our main capital allocation moves in 1986 were to pay off debt and stockpile funds. If Charlie and I were to draw blanks for a few years in our capital-allocation endeavors, Berkshire's rate of growth would slow significantly.
The two companies we acquired in 1998, General Re and Executive Jet, are first-class in every way. In capital allocation, my grade for 1999 most assuredly is a D. What most hurt us during the year was the inferior performance of Berkshire's equity portfolio -- and responsibility for that portfolio, leaving aside the small piece of it run by Lou Simpson of GEICO, is entirely mine. Several of our largest investees badly lagged the market in 1999 because they've had disappointing operating results. We still like these businesses and are content to have major investments in them. But their stumbles damaged our performance in 1998, and it's no sure thing that they will quickly regain their stride. The fallout from our weak results in 1999 was a more-than-commensurate drop in our stock price. In 1998, to go back a bit, the stock outperformed the business. Last year the business did much better than the stock. Over time, the performance of the stock must roughly match the performance of the business.
Despite our poor showing last year, Charlie and I expect that the gain in Berkshire's intrinsic value over the next decade will modestly exceed the gain from owning the S&P. We can't guarantee that, of course. But we are willing to back our conviction with our own money. Our optimism about Berkshire's performance is also tempered by the expectation that the S&P will do far less well in the next decade or two than it has done since 1982.
Our goal is to run our present businesses well -- a task made easy because of the outstanding managers we have in place -- and to acquire additional businesses having economic characteristics and managers comparable to those we already own. We made important progress in this respect during 1999 by acquiring Jordan's Furniture and contracting to buy a major portion of MidAmerican Energy. Let me emphasize one point here: We bought both for cash, issuing no Berkshire shares. Deals of that kind aren't always possible, but that is the method of acquisition that Charlie and I vastly prefer.
Berkshire's collection of managers is unusual in several important ways. As one example, a very high percentage of these men and women are independently wealthy, having made fortunes in the businesses that they run. They work neither because they need the money nor because they are contractually obligated to -- we have no contracts at Berkshire. Rather, they work long and hard because they love their businesses. These managers are truly in charge. There are no show-and-tell presentations in Omaha, no budgets to be approved by headquarters, no dictums issued about capital expenditures. We simply ask our managers to run their companies as if these are the sole asset of their families and will remain so for the next century. Over time distributable earnings that have been withheld by managers should earn their keep. If earnings have been unwisely retained, it is likely that managers, too, have been unwisely retained. Historically, Berkshire has earned well over market rates on retained earnings, thereby creating over one dollar of market value for every dollar retained. Under such circumstances, any distribution would have been contrary to the financial interest of shareholders, large or small. Charlie and I try to behave with our managers just as we attempt to behave with Berkshire's shareholders, treating both groups as we would wish to be treated if our positions were reversed. Though "working" means nothing to me financially, I love doing it at Berkshire for some simple reasons: It gives me a sense of achievement, a freedom to act as I see fit and an opportunity to interact daily with people I like and trust. Why should our managers -- accomplished artists at what they do -- see things differently?
In 2001, MidAmerican Energy, of which we own 76% on a fully-diluted basis, had a good year. Its reported earnings should also increase considerably in 2002 given that the company has been shouldering a large charge for the amortization of goodwill and that this "cost" will disappear under the new GAAP rules. Last year MidAmerican swapped some properties in England, adding Yorkshire Electric, with its 2.1 million customers. We are now serving 3.6 million customers in the U.K. and are its 2nd largest electric utility. We have an equally important operation in Iowa as well as major generating facilities in California and the Philippines. At MidAmerican, we also own the second-largest residential real estate brokerage business in the country. We are market-share leaders in a number of large cities, primarily in the Midwest, and have recently acquired important firms in Atlanta and Southern California. Last year, operating under various local names, we handled about 106,000 transactions involving properties worth nearly $20 billion, and our experience grows.
Insurance experience is a highly useful starting point in underwriting most coverages. For example, it's important for insurers writing California earthquake policies to know how many quakes in the state during the past century have registered 6.0 or greater on the Richter scale. This information will not tell you the exact probability of a big quake next year, or where in the state it might happen. But the statistic has utility, particularly if you are writing a huge statewide policy, as National Indemnity has done in recent years. At certain times, however, using experience as a guide to pricing is not only useless, but actually dangerous. Late in a bull market, for example, large losses from directors and officers liability insurance ("D&O") are likely to be relatively rare. When stocks are rising, there are a scarcity of targets to sue, and both questionable accounting and management chicanery often go undetected. At that juncture, experience on high-limit D&O may look great. But that's just when exposure is likely to be exploding, by way of ridiculous public offerings, earnings manipulation, chain-letter-like stock promotions and a potpourri of other unsavory activities. When stocks fall, these sins surface, hammering investors with losses that can run into the hundreds of billions. Juries deciding whether those losses should be borne by small investors or big insurance companies can be expected to hit insurers with verdicts that bear little relation to those delivered in bull-market days. Even one jumbo judgment, moreover, can cause settlement costs in later cases to mushroom. Consequently, the correct rate for D&O "excess" (meaning the insurer or reinsurer will pay losses above a high threshold) might well, if based on exposure, be five or more times the premium dictated by experience.
The relative results are what concern us, a viewpoint I’ve had since forming my first investment partnership on May 5, 1956. Meeting with my seven founding limited partners that evening, I gave them a short paper titled "The Ground Rules" that included this sentence: "Whether we do a good job or a poor job is to be measured against the general experience in securities." We initially used the Dow Jones Industrials as our benchmark, but shifted to the S&P 500 when that index became widely used. Our Berkshire’s comparative advantage was 5.7 percentage points in 2001. Some people disagree with our focus on relative figures, arguing that "you can’t eat relative performance." But if you expect, as Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman, and I do, that owning the S&P 500 will produce reasonably satisfactory results over time, it follows that, for long-term investors, gaining small advantages annually over that index must prove rewarding. Just as you can eat well throughout the year if you own a profitable, but highly seasonal, business such as See’s (which loses considerable money during the summer months) so, too, can you regularly feast on investment returns that beat the averages, however variable the absolute numbers may be. Though our corporate performance last year was satisfactory, my performance was anything but. I manage most of Berkshire’s equity portfolio, and my results were poor, just as they have been for several years.
Berkshire’s arbitrage activities differ from those of many arbitrageurs. First, we participate in only a few, and usually very large, transactions each year. Most practitioners buy into a great many deals. With that many irons in the fire, they must spend most of their time monitoring both the progress of deals and the market movements of the related stocks. This is not how Charlie nor I wish to spend our lives. Because we diversify so little, one particularly profitable or unprofitable transaction will affect our yearly result from arbitrage far more than it will the typical arbitrage operation. So far, Berkshire has not had a really bad experience. But we will, and when it happens, we’ll report the gory details to you. The other way we differ from some arbitrage operations is that we participate only in transactions that have been publicly announced. We do not trade on rumors or try to guess takeover candidates. We just read the newspapers, think about a few of the big propositions, and go by our own sense of probabilities.
Some offbeat opportunities occasionally arise in the arbitrage field. I participated in one of these when I was 24 and working in New York for Graham-Newman Corp. Rockwood & Co., a Brooklyn based chocolate products company of limited profitability, had adopted LIFO inventory valuation in 1941 when cocoa was selling for 50 cents per pound. In 1954, a temporary shortage of cocoa caused the price to soar to over 60 cents. Consequently Rockwood wished to unload its valuable inventory quickly. But if the cocoa had simply been sold off, the company would have owed close to a 50% tax on the proceeds. The 1954 Tax Code came to the rescue. It contained an arcane provision that eliminated the tax otherwise due on LIFO profits if inventory was distributed to shareholders as part of a plan reducing the scope of a corporation’s business. Rockwood decided to terminate one of its businesses, the sale of cocoa butter, and said 13 million pounds of its cocoa bean inventory was attributable to that activity. Accordingly, the company offered to repurchase its stock in exchange for the cocoa beans it no longer needed, paying 80 pounds of beans for each share. For several weeks I busily bought shares, sold beans, and made periodic stops at Schroeder Trust to exchange stock certificates for warehouse receipts. The profits were good and my only expense was subway tokens.
The architect of Rockwood’s restructuring was an unknown brilliant Chicagoan, Jay Pritzker, then 32. If you’re familiar with Jay’s subsequent record, you won’t be surprised to hear the action worked out rather well for Rockwood’s continuing shareholders also. From shortly before the tender until shortly after it, Rockwood stock appreciated from 15 to 100, even though the company was experiencing large operating losses. In recent years, most arbitrage operations have involved takeovers, friendly and unfriendly. With acquisition fever rampant and anti-trust challenges almost non-existent, and with bids often ratcheting upward, arbitrageurs have prospered mightily.
To evaluate arbitrage situations you must answer four questions: (1) How likely is it that the promised event will indeed occur? (2) How long will your money be tied up? (3) What chance is there that something still better will transpire - a competing takeover bid, for example? and (4) What will happen if the event does not take place because of anti-trust action, financing glitches, etc.?
Arcata Corp., one of our more serendipitous arbitrage experiences, illustrates the twists and turns of the business. On September 28, 1981 the directors of Arcata agreed in principle to sell the company to Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts & Co. (KKR), then and now a major leveraged-buy out firm. Arcata was in the printing and forest products businesses and had one other thing going for it: In 1978 the U.S. Government had taken title to 10,700 acres of Arcata timber, primarily old-growth redwood, to expand Redwood National Park. The government had paid $97.9 million, in several installments, for this acreage, a sum Arcata was contesting as grossly inadequate. The parties also disputed the interest rate that should apply to the period between the taking of the property and final payment for it. The enabling legislation stipulated 6% simple interest; Arcata argued for a much higher and compounded rate. Buying a company with a highly-speculative, large-sized claim in litigation creates a negotiating problem. To solve this problem, KKR offered $37.00 per Arcata share plus two-thirds of any additional amounts paid by the government for the redwood lands.
Appraising this arbitrage opportunity, we had to ask ourselves whether KKR would consummate the transaction since, among other things, its offer was contingent upon its obtaining “satisfactory financing.” A clause of this kind is always dangerous for the seller: It offers an easy exit for a suitor whose ardor fades between proposal and marriage. However, we were not particularly worried about this possibility because KKR’s past record for closing had been good. We also had to ask ourselves what would happen if the KKR deal did fall through, and here we also felt reasonably comfortable: Arcata’s management were clearly determined to sell. If KKR went away, Arcata would likely find another buyer, though the price might be lower. Finally, we had to ask ourselves what the redwood claim might be worth. Your Chairman, who can’t tell an elm from an oak, had no trouble with that one: He coolly evaluated the claim at somewhere between zero and a whole lot. We started buying Arcata stock, then around $33.50, on September 30 and in eight weeks purchased about 400,000 shares, or 5% of the company. The initial announcement said that the $37.00 would be paid in January, 1982. Therefore, if everything had gone perfectly, we would have achieved an annual rate of return of about 40% - not counting the redwood claim, which would have been frosting.
All did not go perfectly. In December it was announced that the closing would be delayed a bit. Nevertheless, a definitive agreement was signed on January 4. Encouraged, we raised our stake, buying at around $38.00 per share and increasing our holdings to 655,000 shares, or over 7% of the company. Our willingness to pay up - even though the closing had been postponed - reflected our leaning toward “a whole lot” rather than “zero” for the redwoods. Then, on February 25 the lenders said they were taking a “second look” at financing terms “ in view of the severely depressed housing industry and its impact on Arcata’s outlook.” The stockholders’ meeting was postponed again, to April. An Arcata spokesman said he “did not think the fate of the acquisition itself was imperiled.” When arbitrageurs hear such reassurances, their minds flash to the old saying: “He lied like a finance minister on the eve of devaluation.” On March 12 KKR said its earlier deal wouldn’t work, first cutting its offer to $33.50, then two days later raising it to $35.00. On March 15, however, the directors turned this bid down and accepted another group’s offer of $37.50 plus one-half of any redwood recovery. The shareholders okayed the deal, and the $37.50 was paid on June 4. We received $24.6 million versus our cost of $22.9 million; our average holding period was close to six months. Considering the trouble this transaction encountered, our 15% annual rate of return excluding any value for the redwood claim was more than satisfactory. But the best was yet to come. The trial judge appointed two commissions, one to look at the timber’s value, the other to consider the interest rate questions. In January 1987, the first commission said the redwoods were worth $275.7 million and the second commission recommended a compounded, blended rate of return working out to about 14%.
In August 1987 the judge upheld these conclusions, which meant a net amount of about $600 million would be due Arcata. The government then appealed. In 1988, though, before this appeal was heard, the claim was settled for $519 million. Consequently, we received an additional $29.48 per share, or about $19.3 million, and another $800,000 in 1989.
At yearend 1988, our only major arbitrage position was 3,342,000 shares of RJR Nabisco with a cost of $281.8 million and a market value of $304.5 million. In January we increased our holdings to roughly four million shares and in February we eliminated our position. About three million shares were accepted when we tendered our holdings to KKR, which acquired RJR, and the returned shares were promptly sold in the market. Our pre-tax profit was a better-than-expected $64 million. Considering Berkshire’s good results in 1988, you might expect us to pile into arbitrage during 1989. Instead, we expect to be on the sidelines. We have no idea how long the excesses will last, nor do we know what will change the attitudes of government, lender and buyer that fuel them. We know that the less the prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we should conduct our own affairs.
Our goal is to acquire either part or all of businesses that we believe we understand, that have good, sustainable underlying economics, that are run by managers whom we like, admire and trust, and are selling at a bargain to the underlying intrinsic value. We seek whatever information will further our understanding of the company's business. If you are a know-something investor, able to understand business economics and to find five to ten sensibly-priced companies that possess important long-term competitive advantages, conventional diversification makes no sense for you. It is apt simply to hurt your results and increase your risk. I cannot understand why an investor of that sort elects to put money into a business that is his 20th favorite. Understanding intrinsic value is as important for managers as it is for investors. When managers are making capital allocation decisions, including decisions to repurchase shares, it's vital that they act in ways that increase per-share intrinsic value and avoid moves that decrease it. Just as Wal-Mart, with its 15% operating costs, sells at prices that high-cost competitors can't touch and thereby constantly increases its market share, so does Borsheim's. Seek whatever information will further your understanding of a company's business. After we buy a stock, we are not disturbed if markets closed for a year or two. We don't need a daily quote on our 100% position in See's, H. H. Brown, or Coke to validate our well-being.
Obviously, every investor will make mistakes. By confining himself to a relatively few, easy-to-understand cases, a reasonably intelligent, informed and diligent person can judge investment risks with a useful degree of accuracy. It is no sin to miss a great opportunity outside one's area of competence. But I have passed on a couple of big purchases that were served up to me on a platter and that I was fully capable of understanding. Charlie and I think we understand Gillette's economics and therefore believe we can make a reasonably intelligent guess about its future. However, we have no ability to forecast the economics of the investment banking business (in which we had a position through our 1987 purchase of Salomon convertible preferred), the airline industry, or the paper industry. This does not mean that we predict a negative future for these industries. Our lack of strong convictions about these businesses, however, means that we must structure our investments in them differently from what we do when we invest in a business appearing to have splendid economic characteristics.
Investors should remember that their scorecard is not computed using Olympic-diving methods: Degree-of-difficulty doesn't count. If you are right about a business whose value is largely dependent on a single key factor that is both easy to understand and enduring, the payoff is the same as if you had correctly analyzed an investment alternative characterized by constantly shifting and complex variables. We try to price, rather than time, purchases. In our view, it is folly to forego buying shares in an outstanding business whose long-term future is predictable, because of short-term worries about an economy or a stock market that we know to be unpredictable. If we stray, we will have done so inadvertently, not because we got restless and substituted hope for rationality.
It is true that the fundamental business advantage that GEICO had enjoyed was still intact within the company, although submerged in a sea of financial and operating troubles. GEICO was designed to be the low-cost operation in an enormous marketplace of auto insurance and populated largely by companies whose marketing structures restricted adaptation. Run as designed, it could offer unusual value to its customers while earning unusual returns for itself. For decades it had been run in just this manner. Its troubles in the mid-70s were not produced by any diminution or disappearance of this essential economic advantage. In many industries, differentiation simply can’t be made meaningful. A few producers in such industries may consistently do well if they have a cost advantage that is both wide and sustainable. By definition such exceptions are few, and, in many industries, are non-existent. For the great majority of companies selling “commodity” products, a depressing equation of business economics prevails: persistent over-capacity without administered prices (or costs) equals poor profitability. Over-capacity may eventually self-correct, either as capacity shrinks or demand expands. Such corrections often are long delayed. When they finally occur, the rebound to prosperity frequently produces a pervasive enthusiasm for expansion that again creates over-capacity and a new profitless environment. What finally determines levels of long-term profitability in such industries is the ratio of supply-tight to supply-ample years. Frequently that ratio is dismal. In some industries, however, capacity-tight conditions can last a long time. Sometimes actual growth in demand will outrun forecasted growth for an extended period. In other cases, adding capacity requires long lead times. In the insurance business, capacity can be instantly created by capital plus an underwriter’s willingness to sign his name. Even capital is less important in a world in which state-sponsored guaranty funds protect many policyholders against insurer insolvency. Under almost all conditions except that of fear for survival - produced, perhaps, by a stock market debacle or a truly major natural disaster - the insurance industry operates under the competitive sword of substantial overcapacity. Generally, the insurance industry sells a relatively undifferentiated commodity-type product. Many managers of large businesses, do not even know the names of their insurers. Insurance, therefore, would seem to be a textbook case of an industry usually faced with the deadly combination of excess capacity and a “commodity” product. Why, then, was underwriting, despite the existence of cycles, generally profitable over many decades? From 1950 through 1970, the industry combined ratio ( losses / premiums earned ) averaged 99.0 allowing all investment income plus 1% of premiums to flow through to profits. The answer lies primarily in the historic methods of regulation and distribution. For much of this century, a large portion of the industry worked, in effect, within a legal quasi-administered pricing system fostered by insurance regulators. While price competition existed, it was not pervasive among the larger companies. The main competition was for agents, who were courted via various non-price-related strategies. Run as designed, GEICO could offer unusual value to its customers while earning unusual returns for itself.
It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. Now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements. When a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact. After many years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. Obvious approaches to improving profit margins involve differentiation of product, lowered manufacturing costs through more efficient equipment or better utilization of people, redirection toward products enjoying stronger market trends, etc. Our management is diligent in pursuing such objectives. The problem is that our competitors are just as diligently doing the same thing. Management can be evaluated by its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows. We do not wish to join with managers who lack admirable qualities, no matter how attractive the prospects of their business. We've never succeeded in making a good deal with a bad person. Management should be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself. If the controlling owner is intelligent and self-confident, he will make decisions in respect to management that are meritocratic and pro-shareholder. Maximizing the results of a wonderful business requires management and focus. Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire's textile business and Hochschild, Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same managers employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand. We believe that our formula - the purchase at sensible prices of businesses that have good underlying economics and are run by honest and able people - is certain to produce reasonable success.
In the final chapter of The Intelligent Investor, Ben Graham wrote: "Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety." Many years after reading that, I still think those are the right three words. For example, we bought all of our WPC holdings in mid-1973 at a price of not more than one-fourth of the then per-share business value of the enterprise. Calculating the price/value ratio required no unusual insights. Our advantage was attitude. We had learned from Ben Graham that the key to successful investing was the purchase of shares in good businesses when market prices were at a large discount from underlying business values. Most institutional investors in the early 1970s, on the other hand, regarded business value as of only minor relevance when they were deciding the prices at which they would buy or sell. This now seems hard to believe. However, these institutions were then under the spell of academics at prestigious business schools who were preaching a newly-fashioned theory that the stock market was totally efficient. In the summer of 1979, when equities looked cheap to me, I wrote a Forbes article entitled "You pay a very high price in the stock market for a cheery consensus." At that time skepticism and disappointment prevailed, and my point was that investors should be glad of the fact, since pessimism drives down prices to truly attractive levels.
Obviously, every investor will make mistakes. By confining himself to a relatively few, easy-to-understand cases, a reasonably intelligent, informed, and diligent person can judge investment risks with a useful degree of accuracy. My first mistake was in buying control of Berkshire. Though I knew its business of textile manufacturing to be unpromising, I was enticed to buy because the price looked cheap. Stock purchases of that kind had proved reasonably rewarding in my early years, though by the time Berkshire came along in 1965, I was becoming aware that the strategy was not ideal. If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the "cigar butt" approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the "bargain purchase" will make that puff all profit. Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish. First, the original "bargain" price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. It's far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price. When buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses, with enduring competitive advantages, accompanied by first-class managements. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces. Never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns. For example, if you buy a business for $8 million that can be sold or liquidated for $10 million and promptly take either course, you can realize a high return. However, the investment will disappoint if the business is sold for $10 million in ten years and in the interim has annually earned and distributed only a few percent on cost. Therefore, remember that time is the friend of the wonderful business, and the enemy of the mediocre.
This unconventional MBAE special topics project examined the behavioral processes practiced by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger to: 1. avoid irrational behavior and 2. maximize long-term gains by successful investment decision making. I believe that by looking into the writings of Warren Buffett from "Warren Buffett’s frame of reference", we gain insights into his and Charlie Munger's successful rational investment decision processes. Buffett and Munger have employed the principles taught by Dave Dodd and Ben Graham. I call their approach the Compounding Success Theory because I imagined how their sequence of rational decisions could push their probability of investment return success into the upper percentiles. Their record provides the proof. I believe that these factors compound or add up over time to produce these remarkable returns on investment. Compounding Success Theory provides a framework that unifies the investment ideas of Graham, Dodd, Buffett, and Munger.
In 1992, Takemura showed that the effects of framing are likely to be lower when subjects are warned in advance that they will be required to justify their choices, and when more time is allowed for arriving at their choices. The Compounding Success of the Graham-Dodd-Buffett-Munger investment ideas reviewed here are conguent with that study. I conclude that these 10 major factors contribute to the Compounding Success of the Graham-Dodd-Buffett-Munger investment approach:
1. Rational and thorough business analysis, with keen emotional intellects that promote ethical information exchange.
2. Wide experience with analyzing and managing numerous different businesses.
3. Charlie Munger's Role as (a.)"Devils-Advocate" (Munger as therapist/analyst of investment decisions)
and (b.) Munger's role in encouraging further limiting the portfolio towards "wonderful businesses."
4. Leverage via a Low Cost of Capital from Insurance Operations
5. Disciplined Tracking of Understandable Businesses
6. Analysis of Strategic and Sustainable Competitive Advantages of Industries and Businesses.
Warren Buffett has a Masters in Economics from Columbia University and Charlie Munger has a Law degree from Harvard University. Both have a variety of operational business experiences.
7. Trustworthy First-Class Managements with proven track records.
8. Ben Graham's Mr. Market and search for the Margin of Safety. Margin of Safety is the bargain obtained when purchasing at a market price below the intrinsic value estimation. Graham and Dodd taught: "An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return."
9. Satisfaction: Buffett stated: "Though "working" means nothing to me financially, I love doing it at Berkshire for some simple reasons: It gives me a sense of achievement, a freedom to act as I see fit and an opportunity to interact daily with people I like and trust."
10. Learning from Practice, Mistakes, and Experiences: "After many years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them."
Examples of ideas that illustrate these ten factors are presented in the ten divided sectons and additional frames within the body of this document. The ten factors presented were derived from the writings of Warren Buffett. Buffett and Munger have said that their investment behaviors are based on rational and thorough business analysis. In my view, the writings also illustrate their keen emotional intellects and their value of ethical information exchange. Many of the opportunities presented to them were made available through friendships, referrals, and previous business associations. I believe that by looking into the writings of Warren Buffett from his "frame of reference", we gain insights into his and Charlie Munger's successful rational investment decision making processes. In addition, other small "frames" of his thinking were presented for your review. Mr. Buffett once described steps 5-8 as his sequential filter criteria in selecting a company/equity for purchase. Furthermore, a look at factors 3, 6, and 7 illustrates the catalytic effect of Mr. Munger's influence. Mr. Munger has amplified their success by assisting and influencing Mr. Buffett's selectivity towards focused concentration in higher quality companies called "wonderful businesses". Only Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger know the validity and weights of this multifactorial proposition or model. However, I contend that this Compounding Success Theory label provides a framework that unifies the ideas of Graham, Dodd, Buffett, and Munger into an academic field worthy of deeper examination.
2001 Sources of Berkshire Hathaway's Reported Earnings
In this presentation, purchase-accounting adjustments (primarily relating to "goodwill") are not assigned to the specific businesses to which they apply, but are instead aggregated and shown separately. This procedure lets you view the earnings of our businesses as they would have been reported had we not purchased them. In recent years, our "expense" for goodwill amortization has been large. Going forward, generally accepted accounting principles ("GAAP") will no longer require amortization of goodwill. This change will increase our reported earnings (though not our true economic earnings) and simplify this section of the report.
Pre-Tax Earnings Berkshire's Share
of Net Earnings
(after taxes and
2001 2000 2001 2000
Underwriting, Reinsurance $(4,318) $(1,416) $(2,824) $(911)
Underwriting, GEICO 221 (224) 144 (146)
Underwriting, Other Primary 30 25 18 16
Net Investment Income 2,824 2,773 1,968 1,946
Building Products(1) 461 34 287 21
Finance and Financial Products Business 519 530 336 343
Flight Services 186 213 105 126
MidAmerican Energy (76% owned) 600 197 230 109
Retail Operations 175 175 101 104
Scott Fetzer (excluding finance operation) 129 122 83 80
Shaw Industries(2) 292 -- 156 --
Other Businesses 179 221 103 133
Purchase-Accounting Adjustments (726) (881) (699) (843)
Corporate Interest Expense (92) (92) (60) (61)
Shareholder-Designated Contributions (17) (17) (11) (11)
Other 25 39 16 30
Operating Earnings 488 1,699 (47) 936
Capital Gains from Investments 1,320 3,955 842 2,392
Total Earnings, All Entities $1,808 $5,654 $ 795 $3,328
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(1) Includes Acme Brick from August 1, 2000; Benjamin Moore from December 18, 2000; Johns Manville from February 27, 2001; and MiTek from July 31, 2001.
(2) From date of acquisition, January 8, 2001.
(2001) Berkshire's common stock investments. Those that had a market value of more than $500 million at the end of 2001 are itemized.
Shares Company Cost Market
(dollars in millions)
151,610,700 American Express Company $ 1,470 $ 5,410
200,000,000 The Coca-Cola Company 1,299 9,430
96,000,000 The Gillette Company 600 3,206
15,999,200 H&R Block, Inc. 255 715
24,000,000 Moody's Corporation 499 957
1,727,765 The Washington Post Company 11 916
53,265,080 Wells Fargo & Company 306 2,315
Others 4,103 5,726
Total Common Stocks $8,543 $28,675
Buffett, Warren E. “Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Shareholder Letters, 1977-2001.” WWW URL:
Buffett, Warren E.. "The Superinvestors of Graham-and-Doddsville." Hermes, Magazine of Columbia Business School. Fall 1984.
Graham, Benjamin. The Intelligent Investor. 1949 (1), 1954 (2), 1959 (3), 1965 (3 R), 1973 (4 R).
Graham, Benjamin and David L. Dodd. Security Analysis. 1934, 1940, 1951, 1962 (with Sidney Cottle and Charles Tatham).
Kahneman, D. & A. Tversky (1984): “Choices, Values and Frames”, American Psychologist, Vol.39, pp.341-350.
Takemura, K. (1992): “Effect of decision time on framing of decision: a case of risky choice behavior”, Psychologica, Vol.5, pp.180-185.