In an effort to understand master
investor's wisdom, I have embarked on an exciting
through all of Warren Buffett's shareholder letters. I started with his oldest
shareholder letter available in http://www.berkshirehathaway.com . I went through the letters from 1977 to 1981. The following excerpts include some invaluable investment advice :
1977 - Don’t value a business based on short term success -
Just as it would be foolish to focus unduly on short-term prospects when acquiring an entire company, we think it equally unsound to become mesmerized by prospective near term earnings or recent trends in earnings when purchasing small pieces of a company; i.e., marketable common stocks. A little digression illustrating this point may be interesting. Berkshire Fine Spinning Associates and Hathaway Manufacturing were merged in 1955 to form Berkshire Hathaway Inc. In 1948, on a pro forma combined basis, they had earnings after tax of almost $18 million and employed 10,000 people at a dozen large mills throughout New England. In the business world of that period they were an economic powerhouse. For example, in that same year earnings of IBM were $28 million (now $2.7 billion), Safeway Stores, $10 million, Minnesota Mining, $13 million, and Time, Inc., $9 million. But, in the decade following the 1955 merger aggregate sales of $595 million produced an aggregate loss for Berkshire Hathaway of $10 million. By 1964 the operation had been reduced to two mills and net worth had shrunk to $22 million, from $53 million at the time of the merger. So much for single year snapshots as adequate portrayals of a business.
1978 - An example of value investing -
We get excited enough to commit a big percentage of insurance company net worth to equities only when we find (1) businesses we can understand, (2) with favorable long-term prospects, (3) operated by honest and competent people, and (4) priced very attractively. We usually can identify a small number of potential investments meeting requirements (1), (2) and (3), but (4) often prevents action. For example, in 1971 our total common stock position at Berkshire’s insurance subsidiaries amounted to only $10.7 million at cost, and $11.7 million at market. There were equities of identifiably excellent companies available - but very few at interesting prices. (An irresistible footnote: in 1971, pension fund managers invested a record 122% of net funds available in equities - at full prices they couldn’t buy enough of them. In 1974, after the bottom had fallen out, they committed a then record low of 21% to stocks.) The past few years have been a different story for us. At the end of 1975 our insurance subsidiaries held common equities with a market value exactly equal to cost of $39.3 million. At the end of 1978 this position had been increased to equities (including a convertible preferred) with a cost of $129.1 million and a market value of $216.5 million. During the intervening three years we also had realized pre-tax gains from common equities of approximately $24.7 million. Therefore, our overall unrealized and realized pre-tax gains in equities for the three year period came to approximately $112 million. During this same interval the Dow-Jones Industrial Average declined from 852 to 805. It was a marvelous period for the value-oriented equity buyer.
1979 - Test of managerial economic performance
The primary test of managerial economic performance is the achievement of a high earnings rate on equity capital employed (without undue leverage, accounting gimmickry, etc.) and not the achievement of consistent gains in earnings per share. In our view, many businesses would be better understood by their shareholder owners, as well as the general public, if managements and financial analysts modified the primary emphasis they place upon earnings per share, and upon yearly changes in that figure.
- A fact about high inflation rates of seventies (Investing in gold would have produced the same result as that produced by Berkshire between 1964 and 1979)
One friendly but sharp-eyed commentator on Berkshire has pointed out that our book value at the end of 1964 would have bought about one-half ounce of gold and, fifteen years later, after we have plowed back all earnings along with much blood, sweat and tears, the book value produced will buy about the same half ounce. A similar comparison could be drawn with Middle Eastern oil. The rub has been that government has been exceptionally able in printing money and creating promises, but is unable to print gold or create oil.
- Policies of a corporation to that of the restaurant in attracting their customersPhil Fisher, a respected investor and author, once likened the policies of the corporation in attracting shareholders to those of a restaurant attracting potential customers. A restaurant could seek a given clientele - patrons of fast foods, elegant dining, Oriental food, etc. - 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. If the business vacillated between French cuisine and take-out chicken, the result would be a revolving door of confused and dissatisfied customers. 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 continually to desert them in favor of new ones - because you can’t add lots of new owners (with new expectations) without losing lots of former owners. We much 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, reflecting a constituency that understands our operation, approves of our policies, and shares our expectations. And we hope to deliver on those expectations.
1980 - Value of retained earnings - The value to Berkshire Hathaway of retained earnings is not determined by whether we own 100%, 50%, 20% or 1% of the businesses in which they reside. Rather, the value of those retained earnings is determined by the use to which they are put and the subsequent level of earnings produced by that usage. This is true whether we determine the usage, or whether managers we did not hire - but did elect to join - determine that usage. (It’s the act that counts, not the actors.) And the value is in no way affected by the inclusion or non-inclusion of those retained earnings in our own reported operating earnings. If a tree grows in a forest partially owned by us, but we don’t record the growth in our financial statements, we still own part of the tree. Our view, we warn you, is non-conventional. But we would rather have earnings for which we did not get accounting credit put to good use in a 10%-owned company by a management we did not personally hire, than have earnings for which we did get credit put into projects of more dubious potential by another management - even if we are that management. (We can’t resist pausing here for a short commercial. One usage of retained earnings we often greet with special enthusiasm when practiced by companies in which we have an investment interest is repurchase of their own shares. The reasoning is simple: if a fine business is selling in the market place for far less than intrinsic value, what more certain or more profitable utilization of capital can there be than significant enlargement of the interests of all owners at that bargain price? The competitive nature of corporate acquisition activity almost guarantees the payment of a full - frequently more than full price when a company buys the entire ownership of another enterprise. But 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.)
What is a truly indexed capital? - 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. Economic value vs. accounting value - Our largest non-controlled holding is 7.2 million shares of GEICO Corp., equal to about a 33% equity interest. Normally, an interest of this magnitude (over 20%) would qualify as an “investee” holding and would require us to reflect a proportionate share of GEICO’s earnings in our own. However, we purchased our GEICO stock pursuant to special orders of the District of Columbia and New York Insurance Departments, which required that the right to vote the stock be placed with an independent party. Absent the vote, our 33% interest does not qualify for investee treatment. (Pinkerton’s is a similar situation.) Of course, whether or not the undistributed earnings of GEICO are picked up annually in our operating earnings figure has nothing to do with their economic value to us, or to you as owners of Berkshire. The value of these retained earnings will be determined by the skill with which they are put to use by GEICO management.
Turnarounds are very rare - We have written in past reports about the disappointments that usually result from purchase and operation of “turnaround” businesses. Literally hundreds of turnaround possibilities in dozens of industries have been described to us over the years and, either as participants or as observers, we have tracked performance against expectations. Our conclusion is that, with few exceptions, 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. GEICO may appear to be an exception, having been turned around from the very edge of bankruptcy in 1976. It certainly is true that managerial brilliance was needed for its resuscitation, and that Jack Byrne, upon arrival in that year, supplied that ingredient in abundance.
An analyst Buffet had recommended - It is widely known that Buffet reads analyst reports when he feels he needs a hearty laugh. But there are exceptions. In a 1980 annual shareholder letter, he recommended Barbara Stewart’s paper published in Chubb’s 1980 annual report. The insurance industry’s underwriting picture continues to unfold as we anticipated, with the combined ratio (see definition on page 37) rising from 100.6 in 1979 to an estimated 103.5 in 1980. It is virtually certain that this trend will continue and that industry underwriting losses will mount, significantly and progressively, in 1981 and 1982. To understand why, we recommend that you read the excellent analysis of property-casualty competitive dynamics done by Barbara Stewart of Chubb Corp. in an October 1980 paper. (Chubb’s annual report consistently presents the most insightful, candid and well- written discussion of industry conditions; you should get on the company’s mailing list.) Mrs. Stewart’s analysis may not be cheerful, but we think it is very likely to be accurate.
1981 - Why do companies pay a premium for taking over a company? Regardless of the impact upon immediately reportable earnings, we would rather buy 10% of Wonderful Business T at X per share than 100% of T at 2X per share. Most corporate managers prefer just the reverse, and have no shortage of stated rationales for their behavior. However, we suspect three motivations - usually unspoken - to be, singly or in combination, the important ones in most high- premium takeovers: (1) Leaders, business or otherwise, seldom are deficient in animal spirits and often relish increased activity and challenge. At Berkshire, the corporate pulse never beats faster than when an acquisition is in prospect. (2) Most organizations, business or otherwise, measure themselves, are measured by others, and compensate their managers far more by the yardstick of size than by any other yardstick. (Ask a Fortune 500 manager where his corporation stands on that famous list and, invariably, the number responded will be from the list ranked by size of sales; he may well not even know where his corporation places on the list Fortune just as faithfully compiles ranking the same 500 corporations by profitability.) (3) Many managements apparently were overexposed in impressionable childhood years to the story in which the imprisoned handsome prince is released from a toad’s body by a kiss from a beautiful princess. Consequently, they are certain their managerial kiss will do wonders for the profitability of Company T(arget).
Buffet still credits few takeovers that fall into one of the below category - 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.
The second category involves the managerial superstars - men who can recognize that rare prince who is disguised as a toad, and who have managerial abilities that enable them to peel away the disguise. We salute such managers as Ben Heineman at Northwest Industries, Henry Singleton at Teledyne, Erwin Zaban at National Service Industries, and especially Tom Murphy at Capital Cities Communications (a real managerial “twofer”, whose acquisition efforts have been properly focused in Category 1 and whose operating talents also make him a leader of Category 2). From both direct and vicarious experience, we recognize the difficulty and rarity of these executives’ achievements. (So do they; these champs have made very few deals in recent years, and often have found repurchase of their own shares to be the most sensible employment of corporate capital.)