Buffets Letter 2018

this mark-to-market change would produce what I described as “wild and capricious swings in our bottom line.”

In complete contrast to these gyrations, the many businesses that Berkshire owns delivered consistent and satisfactory operating earnings in all quarters.

plural noun: gyrations 
a rapid movement in a circle or spiral; a whirling motion."the gyrations of the dancers' arms and legs"
synonyms:rotation, revolution, turning, circling, convolution, spinning, swivelling; wheeling, whirling, pirouetting, twirling, swirling; rarecircumrotation
"the gyration of the Earth on its own axis"

Berkshire has gradually morphed from a company whose assets are concentrated in marketable stocks into one whose major value resides in operating businesses.

undergo or cause to undergo a gradual process of transformation

our forest contains five “groves” of major importance, each of which can be appraised, with reasonable accuracy, in its entirety.

plural noun: groves
a small wood or other group of trees."an olive grove"
synonyms:copse, wood, thicket, coppice, group of trees; orchard, plantation; spinney; archaichurst, holt
"a villa sited in an olive grove"

our prime goal in the deployment of your capital: to buy ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics. We also need to make these purchases at sensible prices.

to buy ably-managed businesses, in whole or part, that possess favorable and durable economic characteristics. We also need to make these purchases at sensible prices.

A third category of Berkshire’s business ownership is a quartet of companies in which we share control with other parties.

a group of four people playing music or singing together.

We consider a portion of that stash(cash?) to be untouchable, having pledged to always hold at least $20 billion in cash equivalents to guard against external calamities.

plural noun: calamities
an event causing great and often sudden damage or distress; a disaster. "emergency measures may be necessary in order to avert a calamity"
synonyms:disaster, catastrophe, tragedy, cataclysm, devastating blow, crisis, adversity, blight, tribulation, woe, affliction, evil; Moremisfortune, misadventure, accident, stroke of bad luck, reverse of fortune, setback, mischance, mishap;

Berkshire will forever remain a financial fortress. In managing, I will make expensive mistakes of commission and will also miss many opportunities, some of which should have been obvious to me. At times, our stock will tumble as investors flee from equities. But I will never risk getting caught short of cash.

My expectation of more stock purchases is not a market call. Charlie and I have no idea as to how stocks will behave next week or next year. Predictions of that sort have never been a part of our activities. Our thinking, rather, is focused on calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price.

Predictions of that sort have never been a part of our activities. Our thinking, rather, is focused on calculating whether a portion of an attractive business is worth more than its market price.

It would be foolish for us to sell any of our wonderful companies even if no tax would be payable on its sale. Truly good businesses are exceptionally hard to find. Selling any you are lucky enough to own makes no sense at all.

Truly good businesses are exceptionally hard to find. Selling any you are lucky enough to own makes no sense at all.

Berkshire’s value is maximized by our having assembled the five groves into a single entity. This arrangement allows us to seamlessly and objectively allocate major amounts of capital, eliminate enterprise risk, avoid insularity, fund assets at exceptionally low cost, occasionally take advantage of tax efficiencies, and minimize overhead.

I, of course, regularly view the monthly financial reports of most subsidiaries. But Charlie and I learn of Berkshire’s overall earnings and financial position only on a quarterly basis.

What starts as an “innocent” fudge in order to not disappoint “the Street” – say, trade-loading at quarter-end, turning a blind eye to rising insurance losses, or drawing down a “cookie-jar” reserve – can become the first step toward full-fledged fraud. Playing with the numbers “just this once” may well be the CEO’s intent; it’s seldom the end result. And if it’s okay for the boss to cheat a little, it’s easy for subordinates to rationalize similar behavior.

In effect, our country’s Treasury Department holds a special class of our stock – call this holding the AA shares – that receives large “dividends” (that is, tax payments) from Berkshire. In 2017, as in many years before, the corporate tax rate was 35%, which meant that the Treasury was doing very well with its AA shares.

Last year, however, 40% of the government’s “ownership” (14/35ths) was returned to Berkshire – free of charge – when the corporate tax rate was reduced to 21%. Consequently, our “A” and “B” shareholders received a major boost in the earnings attributable to their shares.

This happening materially increased the intrinsic value of the Berkshire shares you and I own. The same dynamic, moreover, enhanced the intrinsic value of almost all of the stocks Berkshire holds. [about tax reduction]

Competitive dynamics almost guarantee that the insurance industry, despite the float income all its companies enjoy, will continue its dismal record of earning subnormal returns on tangible net worth as compared to other American businesses.

Nevertheless, I like our own prospects. Berkshire’s unrivaled financial strength allows us far more flexibility in investing our float than that generally available to P/C companies. The many alternatives available to us are always an advantage and occasionally offer major opportunities. When other insurers are constrained, our choices expand.

Berkshire has now operated at an underwriting profit for 15 of the past 16 years, the exception being 2017

That record is no accident: Disciplined risk evaluation is the daily focus of our insurance managers, who know that the benefits of float can be drowned by poor underwriting results. All insurers give that message lip service. At Berkshire it is a religion, Old Testament style.

In most cases, the funding of a business comes from two sources – debt and equity. At Berkshire, we have two additional arrows in the quiver to talk about

We use debt sparingly. Many managers, it should be noted, will disagree with this policy, arguing that significant debt juices the returns for equity owners. And these more venturesome CEOs will be right most of the time.

At rare and unpredictable intervals, however, credit vanishes and debt becomes financially fatal. A Russian-roulette equation – usually win, occasionally die – may make financial sense for someone who gets a piece of a company’s upside but does not share in its downside. But that strategy would be madness for Berkshire. Rational people don’t risk what they have and need for what they don’t have and don’t need.

A Russian-roulette equation – usually win, occasionally die

Rational people don’t risk what they have and need for what they don’t have and don’t need.

Beyond using debt and equity, Berkshire has benefitted in a major way from two less-common sources of corporate funding. The larger is the float I have described. So far, those funds, though they are recorded as a huge net liability on our balance sheet, have been of more utility to us than an equivalent amount of equity. That’s because they have usually been accompanied by underwriting earnings. In effect, we have been paid in most years for holding and using other people’s money.

The final funding source – which again Berkshire possesses to an unusual degree – is deferred income taxes. These are liabilities that we will eventually pay but that are meanwhile interest-free.

Over time, Berkshire’s funding base – that’s the right-hand side of our balance sheet – should grow, primarily through the earnings we retain. Our job is to put the money retained to good use on the left-hand side, by adding attractive assets.

That title says it all: The company and the man are inseparable.

The company and the man are inseparable.

Tony joined GEICO in 1961 at the age of 18; I met him in the mid-1970s. At that time, GEICO, after a four-decade record of both rapid growth and outstanding underwriting results, suddenly found itself near bankruptcy. A recently-installed management had grossly underestimated GEICO’s loss costs and consequently underpriced its product. It would take many months until those loss-generating policies on GEICO’s books – there were no less than 2.3 million of them – would expire and could then be repriced. The company’s net worth in the meantime was rapidly approaching zero.

In 1976, Jack Byrne was brought in as CEO to rescue GEICO. Soon after his arrival, I met him, concluded that he was the perfect man for the job, and began to aggressively buy GEICO shares. Within a few months, Berkshire bought about 1⁄3 of the company, a portion that later grew to roughly 1⁄2 without our spending a dime. That stunning accretion occurred because GEICO, after recovering its health, consistently repurchased its shares. All told, this half-interest in GEICO cost Berkshire $47 million, about what you might pay today for a trophy apartment in New York.

Let’s now fast-forward 17 years to 1993, when Tony Nicely was promoted to CEO. At that point, GEICO’s reputation and profitability had been restored – but not its growth. Indeed, at yearend 1992 the company had only 1.9 million auto policies on its books, far less than its pre-crisis high. In sales volume among U.S. auto insurers, GEICO then ranked an undistinguished seventh.

Late in 1995, after Tony had re-energized GEICO, Berkshire made an offer to buy the remaining 50% of the company for $2.3 billion, about 50 times what we had paid for the first half (and people say I never pay up!). Our offer was successful and brought Berkshire a wonderful, but underdeveloped, company and an equally wonderful CEO, who would move GEICO forward beyond my dreams.

GEICO is now America’s Number Two auto insurer, with sales 1,200% greater than it recorded in 1995. Underwriting profits have totaled $15.5 billion (pre-tax) since our purchase, and float available for investment has grown from $2.5 billion to $22.1 billion.

By my estimate, Tony’s management of GEICO has increased Berkshire’s intrinsic value by more than $50 billion. On top of that, he is a model for everything a manager should be, helping his 40,000 associates to identify and polish abilities they didn’t realize they possessed.

Last year, Tony decided to retire as CEO, and on June 30th he turned that position over to Bill Roberts, his long-time partner. I’ve known and watched Bill operate for several decades, and once again Tony made the right move. Tony remains Chairman and will be helpful to GEICO for the rest of his life. He’s incapable of doing less.

All Berkshire shareholders owe Tony their thanks. I head the list.

At yearend, our Kraft Heinz holding had a market value of $14 billion and a cost basis of $9.8 billion.

[Biggest holding is Apple; two airlines; lots of banks]

Charlie and I do not view the $172.8 billion detailed above as a collection of ticker symbols – a financial dalliance to be terminated because of downgrades by “the Street,” expected Federal Reserve actions, possible political developments, forecasts by economists or whatever else might be the subject du jour.

/ˈdalɪəns/ noun: dalliance; plural noun: dalliances
a casual romantic or sexual relationship.
"Jack was not averse to an occasional dalliance with a pretty girl"
a period of brief or casual involvement with something.
"Berkeley was my last dalliance with the education system"

The American Tailwind [a very good piece of description. All are copied below]

On March 11th, it will be 77 years since I first invested in an American business. The year was 1942, I was 11, and I went all in, investing $114.75 I had begun accumulating at age six. What I bought was three shares of Cities Service preferred stock. I had become a capitalist, and it felt good.

Let’s now travel back through the two 77-year periods that preceded my purchase. That leaves us starting in 1788, a year prior to George Washington’s installation as our first president. Could anyone then have imagined what their new country would accomplish in only three 77-year lifetimes?

During the two 77-year periods prior to 1942, the United States had grown from four million people – about 1⁄2 of 1% of the world’s population – into the most powerful country on earth. In that spring of 1942, though, it faced a crisis: The U.S. and its allies were suffering heavy losses in a war that we had entered only three months earlier. Bad news arrived daily.

Despite the alarming headlines, almost all Americans believed on that March 11th that the war would be won. Nor was their optimism limited to that victory. Leaving aside congenital pessimists, Americans believed that their children and generations beyond would live far better lives than they themselves had led.

The nation’s citizens understood, of course, that the road ahead would not be a smooth ride. It never had been. Early in its history our country was tested by a Civil War that killed 4% of all American males and led President Lincoln to openly ponder whether “a nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.” In the 1930s, America suffered through the Great Depression, a punishing period of massive unemployment.

Nevertheless, in 1942, when I made my purchase, the nation expected post-war growth, a belief that proved to be well-founded. In fact, the nation’s achievements can best be described as breathtaking.

Let’s put numbers to that claim: If my $114.75 had been invested in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund, and all dividends had been reinvested, my stake would have grown to be worth (pre-taxes) $606,811 on January 31, 2019 (the latest data available before the printing of this letter). That is a gain of 5,288 for 1. Meanwhile, a $1 million investment by a tax-free institution of that time – say, a pension fund or college endowment – would have grown to about $5.3 billion.

Let me add one additional calculation that I believe will shock you: If that hypothetical institution had paid only 1% of assets annually to various “helpers,” such as investment managers and consultants, its gain would have been cut in half, to $2.65 billion. That’s what happens over 77 years when the 11.8% annual return actually achieved by the S&P 500 is recalculated at a 10.8% rate.

Those who regularly preach doom because of government budget deficits (as I regularly did myself for many years) might note that our country’s national debt has increased roughly 400-fold during the last of my 77-year periods. That’s 40,000%! Suppose you had foreseen this increase and panicked at the prospect of runaway deficits and a worthless currency. To “protect” yourself, you might have eschewed stocks and opted instead to buy 3 1⁄4 ounces of gold with your $114.75.

And what would that supposed protection have delivered? You would now have an asset worth about $4,200, less than 1% of what would have been realized from a simple unmanaged investment in American business. The magical metal was no match for the American mettle.

a person's ability to cope well with difficulties; spirit and resilience.
"the team showed their true mettle in the second half"
synonyms: spirit, fortitude, tenacity, strength of character, moral fibre, steel, determination, resolve,

Our country’s almost unbelievable prosperity has been gained in a bipartisan manner. Since 1942, we have had seven Republican presidents and seven Democrats. In the years they served, the country contended at various times with a long period of viral inflation, a 21% prime rate, several controversial and costly wars, the resignation of a president, a pervasive collapse in home values, a paralyzing financial panic and a host of other problems. All engendered scary headlines; all are now history.

Christopher Wren, architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, lies buried within that London church. Near his tomb are posted these words of description (translated from Latin): “If you would seek my monument, look around you.” Those skeptical of America’s economic playbook should heed his message.

In 1788 – to go back to our starting point – there really wasn’t much here except for a small band of ambitious people and an embryonic governing framework aimed at turning their dreams into reality. Today, the Federal Reserve estimates our household wealth at $108 trillion, an amount almost impossible to comprehend.

Remember, earlier in this letter, how I described retained earnings as having been the key to Berkshire’s prosperity? So it has been with America. In the nation’s accounting, the comparable item is labeled “savings.” And save we have. If our forefathers had instead consumed all they produced, there would have been no investment, no productivity gains and no leap in living standards.

Charlie and I happily acknowledge that much of Berkshire’s success has simply been a product of what I think should be called The American Tailwind. It is beyond arrogance for American businesses or individuals to boast that they have “done it alone.” The tidy rows of simple white crosses at Normandy should shame those who make such claims.

There are also many other countries around the world that have bright futures. About that, we should rejoice: Americans will be both more prosperous and safer if all nations thrive. At Berkshire, we hope to invest significant sums across borders.

Over the next 77 years, however, the major source of our gains will almost certainly be provided by The American Tailwind. We are lucky – gloriously lucky – to have that force at our back.