Intrinsic value, as well as other key investment and accounting terms and concepts, are explained in our Owner’s Manual on pages 59-66. Intrinsic value is discussed on page 64.
On the minus side, policyholder growth at GEICO slowed to a halt as the year progressed.
Another negative — which has persisted for several years — is that we see our equity portfolio as only mildly attractive. We own stocks of some excellent businesses, but most of our holdings are fully priced and are unlikely to deliver more than moderate returns in the future. We’re not alone in facing this problem: The long-term prospect for equities in general is far from exciting.
Finally, there is the negative that recurs annually: Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman and my partner, and I are a year older than when we last reported to you. Mitigating this adverse development is the indisputable fact that the age of your top managers is increasing at a considerably lower rate — percentage-wise — than is the case at almost all other major corporations. Better yet, this differential will widen in the future.
First, our operating managers continue to run their businesses in splendid fashion, which allows me to spend my time allocating capital rather than supervising them. (I wouldn’t be good at that anyway.)
Our managers are a very special breed. At most large companies, the truly talented divisional managers seldom have the job they really want. Instead they yearn to become CEOs, either at their present employer or elsewhere. Indeed, if they stay put, they and their colleagues are likely to feel they have failed.
The other group to which I owe enormous thanks is the home-office staff. After the eight acquisitions more than doubled our worldwide workforce to about 112,000, Charlie and I went soft last year and added one more person at headquarters. (Charlie, bless him, never lets me forget Ben Franklin’s advice: “A small leak can sink a great ship.”) Now we have 13.8 people.
a fine though unglamorous business, an outstanding manager, and a price (going by that on the failed deal) that made sense.
Here again, our acquisition involved serendipity.
Fortunately, he had groomed two outstanding managers, Harrold Melton at Acme and Randy Watson at Justin Boot, each of whom runs his company autonomously.
I can’t resist pointing out that Berkshire — whose top management has long been mired in the 19th century — is now one of the very few authentic “clicks-and-bricks” businesses around.
In June, Bob Shaw, CEO of Shaw Industries, the world’s largest carpet manufacturer, came to see me with his partner, Julian Saul, and the CEO of a second company with which Shaw was mulling a merger. The potential partner, however, faced huge asbestos liabilities from past activities, and any deal depended on these being eliminated through insurance.
This company’s incredible odyssey over the last few decades – too multifaceted to be chronicled here – was shaped by its long history as a manufacturer of asbestos products. The much-publicized health problems that affected many people exposed to asbestos led to JM’s declaring bankruptcy in 1982.
The following Monday, Charlie and I called Bob Felise, chairman of the trust, and made an all-cash offer with no financing contingencies. The next day the trustees voted tentatively to accept our offer, and a week later we signed a contract.
Two economic factors probably contributed to the rush of acquisition activity we experienced last year. First, many managers and owners foresaw near-term slowdowns in their businesses – and, in fact, we purchased several companies whose earnings will almost certainly decline this year from peaks they reached in 1999 or 2000. The declines make no difference to us, given that we expect all of our businesses to now and then have ups and downs. (Only in the sales presentations of investment banks do earnings move forever upward.) We don’t care about the bumps; what matters are the overall results. But the decisions of other people are sometimes affected by the near-term outlook, which can both spur sellers and temper the enthusiasm of purchasers who might otherwise compete with us.
A second factor that helped us in 2000 was that the market for junk bonds dried up as the year progressed. In the two preceding years, junk bond purchasers had relaxed their standards, buying the obligations of ever-weaker issuers at inappropriate prices. The effects of this laxity were felt last year in a ballooning of defaults. In this environment, “financial” buyers of businesses – those who wish to buy using only a sliver of equity – became unable to borrow all they thought they needed. What they could still borrow, moreover, came at a high price. Consequently, LBO operators became less aggressive in their bidding when businesses came up for sale last year. Because we analyze purchases on an all-equity basis, our evaluations did not change, which means we became considerably more competitive.
Aside from the economic factors that benefited us, we now enjoy a major and growing advantage in making acquisitions in that we are often the buyer of choice for the seller. That fact, of course, doesn’t assure a deal – sellers have to like our price, and we have to like their business and management – but it does help.
We find it meaningful when an owner cares about whom he sells to. We like to do business with someone who loves his company, not just the money that a sale will bring him (though we certainly understand why he likes that as well). When this emotional attachment exists, it signals that important qualities will likely be found within the business: honest accounting, pride of product, respect for customers, and a loyal group of associates having a strong sense of direction. The reverse is apt to be true, also. When an owner auctions off his business, exhibiting a total lack of interest in what follows, you will frequently find that it has been dressed up for sale, particularly when the seller is a “financial owner.” And if owners behave with little regard for their business and its people, their conduct will often contaminate attitudes and practices throughout the company.
When a business masterpiece has been created by a lifetime — or several lifetimes — of unstinting care and exceptional talent, it should be important to the owner what corporation is entrusted to carry on its history. Charlie and I believe Berkshire provides an almost unique home. We take our obligations to the people who created a business very seriously, and Berkshire’s ownership structure ensures that we can fulfill our promises. When we tell John Justin that his business will remain headquartered in Fort Worth, or assure the Bridge family that its operation will not be merged with another jeweler, these sellers can take those promises to the bank.
How much better it is for the “painter” of a business Rembrandt to personally select its permanent home than to have a trust officer or uninterested heirs auction it off. Throughout the years we have had great experiences with those who recognize that truth and apply it to their business creations. We’ll leave the auctions to others.
The key determinants are: (1) the amount of float that the business generates; (2) its cost; and (3) most critical of all, the long-term outlook for both of these factors.
To begin with, float is money we hold but don’t own. In an insurance operation, float arises because premiums are received before losses are paid, an interval that sometimes extends over many years. During that time, the insurer invests the money. This pleasant activity typically carries with it a downside: The premiums that an insurer takes in usually do not cover the losses and expenses it eventually must pay. That leaves it running an “underwriting loss,” which is the cost of float. An insurance business has value if its cost of float over time is less than the cost the company would otherwise incur to obtain funds. But the business is a lemon if its cost of float is higher than market rates for money.
A caution is appropriate here: Because loss costs must be estimated, insurers have enormous latitude in figuring their underwriting results, and that makes it very difficult for investors to calculate a company’s true cost of float. Errors of estimation, usually innocent but sometimes not, can be huge. The consequences of these miscalculations flow directly into earnings. An experienced observer can usually detect large-scale errors in reserving, but the general public can typically do no more than accept what’s presented, and at times I have been amazed by the numbers that big-name auditors have implicitly blessed. Both the income statements and balance sheets of insurers can be minefields.
At Berkshire, we strive to be both consistent and conservative in our reserving. But we will make mistakes. And we warn you that there is nothing symmetrical about surprises in the insurance business: They almost always are unpleasant
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. (Don’t panic, there won’t be a quiz.)
In another example of his versatility, Ajit last fall negotiated a very interesting deal with Grab.com, an Internet company whose goal was to attract millions of people to its site and there to extract information from them that would be useful to marketers. To lure these people, Grab.com held out the possibility of a $1 billion prize (having a $170 million present value) and we insured its payment. A message on the site explained that the chance of anyone winning the prize was low, and indeed no one won. But the possibility of a win was far from nil.
Writing such a policy, we receive a modest premium, face the possibility of a huge loss, and get good odds. Very few insurers like that equation. And they’re unable to cure their unhappiness by reinsurance. Because each policy has unusual ¾ and sometimes unique ¾ characteristics, insurers can’t lay off the occasional shock loss through their standard reinsurance arrangements. Therefore, any insurance CEO doing a piece of business like this must run the small, but real, risk of a horrible quarterly earnings number, one that he would not enjoy explaining to his board or shareholders. Charlie and I, however, like any proposition that makes compelling mathematical sense, regardless of its effect on reported earnings.
In aggregate, our smaller insurance operations produced an excellent underwriting profit in 2000 while generating significant float — just as they have done for more than a decade. If these companies were a single and separate operation, people would consider it an outstanding insurer. Because the companies instead reside in an enterprise as large as Berkshire, the world may not appreciate their accomplishments — but I sure do.
I was wrong: The extra money we spent did not produce a commensurate increase in inquiries. Additionally, the percentage of inquiries that we converted into sales fell for the first time in many years. These negative developments combined to produce a sharp increase in our per-policy acquisition cost.
Agonizing over errors is a mistake. But acknowledging and analyzing them can be useful, though that practice is rare in corporate boardrooms. There, Charlie and I have almost never witnessed a candid post-mortem of a failed decision, particularly one involving an acquisition. A notable exception to this never-look-back approach is that of The Washington Post Company, which unfailingly and objectively reviews its acquisitions three years after they are made. Elsewhere, triumphs are trumpeted, but dumb decisions either get no follow-up or are rationalized.
The financial consequences of these boners are regularly dumped into massive restructuring charges or write-offs that are casually waved off as “nonrecurring.” Managements just love these. Indeed, in recent years it has seemed that no earnings statement is complete without them. The origins of these charges, though, are never explored. When it comes to corporate blunders, CEOs invoke the concept of the Virgin Birth.
To get back to our examination of GEICO: There are at least four factors that could account for the increased costs we experienced in obtaining new business last year, and all probably contributed in some manner.
First, in our advertising we have pushed “frequency” very hard, and we probably overstepped in certain media. We’ve always known that increasing the number of messages through any medium would eventually produce diminishing returns. The third ad in an hour on a given cable channel is simply not going to be as effective as the first.
Second, we may have already picked much of the low-hanging fruit. Clearly, the willingness to do business with a direct marketer of insurance varies widely among individuals: Indeed, some percentage of Americans – particularly older ones – are reluctant to make direct purchases of any kind. Over the years, however, this reluctance will ebb. A new generation with new habits will find the savings from direct purchase of their auto insurance too compelling to ignore.
Another factor that surely decreased the conversion of inquiries into sales was stricter underwriting by GEICO. Both the frequency and severity of losses increased during the year, and rates in certain areas became inadequate, in some cases substantially so. In these instances, we necessarily tightened our underwriting standards. This tightening, as well as the many rate increases we put in during the year, made our offerings less attractive to some prospects.
A high percentage of callers, it should be emphasized, can still save money by insuring with us. Understandably, however, some prospects will switch to save $200 per year but will not switch to save $50. Therefore, rate increases that bring our prices closer to those of our competitors will hurt our acceptance rate, even when we continue to offer the best deal.
Finally, the competitive picture changed in at least one important respect: State Farm – by far the largest personal auto insurer, with about 19% of the market — has been very slow to raise prices. Its costs, however, are clearly increasing right along with those of the rest of the industry. Consequently, State Farm had an underwriting loss last year from auto insurance (including rebates to policyholders) of 18% of premiums, compared to 4% at GEICO. Our loss produced a float cost for us of 6.1%, an unsatisfactory result. (Indeed, at GEICO we expect float, over time, to be free.) But we estimate that State Farm’s float cost in 2000 was about 23%. The willingness of the largest player in the industry to tolerate such a cost makes the economics difficult for other participants.
That does not take away from the fact that State Farm is one of America’s greatest business stories. I’ve urged that the company be studied at business schools because it has achieved fabulous success while following a path that in many ways defies the dogma of those institutions. Studying counter-evidence is a highly useful activity, though not one always greeted with enthusiasm at citadels of learning.
State Farm was launched in 1922, by a 45-year-old, semi-retired Illinois farmer, to compete with long-established insurers – haughty institutions in New York, Philadelphia and Hartford – that possessed overwhelming advantages in capital, reputation, and distribution. Because State Farm is a mutual company, its board members and managers could not be owners, and it had no access to capital markets during its years of fast growth. Similarly, the business never had the stock options or lavish salaries that many people think vital if an American enterprise is to attract able managers and thrive.
In the end, however, State Farm eclipsed all its competitors. In fact, by 1999 the company had amassed a tangible net worth exceeding that of all but four American businesses. If you want to read how this happened, get a copy of The Farmer from Merna.
Despite State Farm’s strengths, however, GEICO has much the better business model, one that embodies significantly lower operating costs. And, when a company is selling a product with commodity-like economic characteristics, being the low-cost producer is all-important. This enduring competitive advantage of GEICO – one it possessed in 1951 when, as a 20-year-old student, I first became enamored with its stock – is the reason that over time it will inevitably increase its market share significantly while simultaneously achieving excellent profits. Our growth will be slow, however, if State Farm elects to continue bearing the underwriting losses that it is now suffering.
Tony Nicely, GEICO’s CEO, remains an owner’s dream. Everything he does makes sense. He never engages in wishful thinking or otherwise distorts reality, as so many managers do when the unexpected happens. As 2000 unfolded, Tony cut back on advertising that was not cost-effective, and he will continue to do that in 2001 if cutbacks are called for (though we will always maintain a massive media presence). Tony has also aggressively filed for price increases where we need them. He looks at the loss reports every day and is never behind the curve. To steal a line from a competitor, we are in good hands with Tony.
I’ve told you about our profit-sharing arrangement at GEICO that targets only two variables — growth in policies and the underwriting results of seasoned business.
Because of its rock-bottom operating costs, it offers a great many Americans the cheapest way to purchase a high-ticket product that they must buy. The company then couples this bargain with service that consistently ranks high in independent surveys. That’s a combination inevitably producing growth and profitability.
In 2000, we sold nearly all of our Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae shares, established 15% positions in several mid-sized companies, bought the high-yield bonds of a few issuers (very few — the category is not labeled junk without reason) and added to our holdings of high-grade, mortgage-backed securities. There are no “bargains” among our current holdings: We’re content with what we own but far from excited by it.
Many people assume that marketable securities are Berkshire’s first choice when allocating capital, but that’s not true: Ever since we first published our economic principles in 1983, we have consistently stated that we would rather purchase businesses than stocks. (See number 4 on page 60.) One reason for that preference is personal, in that I love working with our managers. They are high-grade, talented and loyal. And, frankly, I find their business behavior to be more rational and owner-oriented than that prevailing at many public companies.
But there’s also a powerful financial reason behind the preference, and that has to do with taxes. The tax code makes Berkshire’s owning 80% or more of a business far more profitable for us, proportionately, than our owning a smaller share. When a company we own all of earns $1 million after tax, the entire amount inures to our benefit. If the $1 million is upstreamed to Berkshire, we owe no tax on the dividend. And, if the earnings are retained and we were to sell the subsidiary ¾ not likely at Berkshire! ¾ for $1million more than we paid for it, we would owe no capital gains tax. That’s because our “tax cost” upon sale would include both what we paid for the business and all earnings it subsequently retained.
Contrast that situation to what happens when we own an investment in a marketable security. There, if we own a 10% stake in a business earning $10 million after tax, our $1 million share of the earnings is subject to additional state and federal taxes of (1) about $140,000 if it is distributed to us (our tax rate on most dividends is 14%); or (2) no less than $350,000 if the $1 million is retained and subsequently captured by us in the form of a capital gain (on which our tax rate is usually about 35%, though it sometimes approaches 40%). We may defer paying the $350,000 by not immediately realizing our gain, but eventually we must pay the tax. In effect, the government is our “partner” twice when we own part of a business through a stock investment, but only once when we own at least 80%.
Leaving aside tax factors, the formula we use for evaluating stocks and businesses is identical. Indeed, the formula for valuing all assets that are purchased for financial gain has been unchanged since it was first laid out by a very smart man in about 600 B.C. (though he wasn’t smart enough to know it was 600 B.C.).
The oracle was Aesop and his enduring, though somewhat incomplete, investment insight was “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” To flesh out this principle, you must answer only three questions. How certain are you that there are indeed birds in the bush? When will they emerge and how many will there be? What is the risk-free interest rate (which we consider to be the yield on long-term U.S. bonds)? If you can answer these three questions, you will know the maximum value of the bush ¾ and the maximum number of the birds you now possess that should be offered for it. And, of course, don’t literally think birds. Think dollars.
Aesop’s investment axiom, thus expanded and converted into dollars, is immutable. It applies to outlays for farms, oil royalties, bonds, stocks, lottery tickets, and manufacturing plants. And neither the advent of the steam engine, the harnessing of electricity nor the creation of the automobile changed the formula one iota — nor will the Internet. Just insert the correct numbers, and you can rank the attractiveness of all possible uses of capital throughout the universe.
Common yardsticks such as dividend yield, the ratio of price to earnings or to book value, and even growth rates have nothing to do with valuation except to the extent they provide clues to the amount and timing of cash flows into and from the business. Indeed, growth can destroy value if it requires cash inputs in the early years of a project or enterprise that exceed the discounted value of the cash that those assets will generate in later years. Market commentators and investment managers who glibly refer to “growth” and “value” styles as contrasting approaches to investment are displaying their ignorance, not their sophistication. Growth is simply a component ¾ usually a plus, sometimes a minus ¾ in the value equation.
Alas, though Aesop’s proposition and the third variable ¾ that is, interest rates ¾ are simple, plugging in numbers for the other two variables is a difficult task. Using precise numbers is, in fact, foolish; working with a range of possibilities is the better approach.
Usually, the range must be so wide that no useful conclusion can be reached. Occasionally, though, even very conservative estimates about the future emergence of birds reveal that the price quoted is startlingly low in relation to value. (Let’s call this phenomenon the IBT ¾ Inefficient Bush Theory.) To be sure, an investor needs some general understanding of business economics as well as the ability to think independently to reach a well-founded positive conclusion. But the investor does not need brilliance nor blinding insights.
At the other extreme, there are many times when the most brilliant of investors can’t muster a conviction about the birds to emerge, not even when a very broad range of estimates is employed. This kind of uncertainty frequently occurs when new businesses and rapidly changing industries are under examination. In cases of this sort, any capital commitment must be labeled speculative.
Now, speculation — in which the focus is not on what an asset will produce but rather on what the next fellow will pay for it — is neither illegal, immoral nor un-American. But it is not a game in which Charlie and I wish to play. We bring nothing to the party, so why should we expect to take anything home?
The line separating investment and speculation, which is never bright and clear, becomes blurred still further when most market participants have recently enjoyed triumphs. Nothing sedates rationality like large doses of effortless money. After a heady experience of that kind, normally sensible people drift into behavior akin to that of Cinderella at the ball. They know that overstaying the festivities ¾ that is, continuing to speculate in companies that have gigantic valuations relative to the cash they are likely to generate in the future ¾ will eventually bring on pumpkins and mice. But they nevertheless hate to miss a single minute of what is one helluva party. Therefore, the giddy participants all plan to leave just seconds before midnight. There’s a problem, though: They are dancing in a room in which the clocks have no hands.
Last year, we commented on the exuberance ¾ and, yes, it was irrational ¾ that prevailed, noting that investor expectations had grown to be several multiples of probable returns. One piece of evidence came from a Paine Webber-Gallup survey of investors conducted in December 1999, in which the participants were asked their opinion about the annual returns investors could expect to realize over the decade ahead. Their answers averaged 19%. That, for sure, was an irrational expectation: For American business as a whole, there couldn’t possibly be enough birds in the 2009 bush to deliver such a return.
Far more irrational still were the huge valuations that market participants were then putting on businesses almost certain to end up being of modest or no value. Yet investors, mesmerized by soaring stock prices and ignoring all else, piled into these enterprises. It was as if some virus, racing wildly among investment professionals as well as amateurs, induced hallucinations in which the values of stocks in certain sectors became decoupled from the values of the businesses that underlay them.
This surreal scene was accompanied by much loose talk about “value creation.” We readily acknowledge that there has been a huge amount of true value created in the past decade by new or young businesses, and that there is much more to come. But value is destroyed, not created, by any business that loses money over its lifetime, no matter how high its interim valuation may get.
What actually occurs in these cases is wealth transfer, often on a massive scale. By shamelessly merchandising birdless bushes, promoters have in recent years moved billions of dollars from the pockets of the public to their own purses (and to those of their friends and associates). The fact is that a bubble market has allowed the creation of bubble companies, entities designed more with an eye to making money off investors rather than for them. Too often, an IPO, not profits, was the primary goal of a company’s promoters. At bottom, the “business model” for these companies has been the old-fashioned chain letter, for which many fee-hungry investment bankers acted as eager postmen.
But a pin lies in wait for every bubble. And when the two eventually meet, a new wave of investors learns some very old lessons: First, many in Wall Street ¾ a community in which quality control is not prized ¾ will sell investors anything they will buy. Second, speculation is most dangerous when it looks easiest.
At Berkshire, we make no attempt to pick the few winners that will emerge from an ocean of unproven enterprises. We’re not smart enough to do that, and we know it. Instead, we try to apply Aesop’s 2,600-year-old equation to opportunities in which we have reasonable confidence as to how many birds are in the bush and when they will emerge (a formulation that my grandsons would probably update to “A girl in a convertible is worth five in the phonebook.”). Obviously, we can never precisely predict the timing of cash flows in and out of a business or their exact amount. We try, therefore, to keep our estimates conservative and to focus on industries where business surprises are unlikely to wreak havoc on owners. Even so, we make many mistakes: I’m the fellow, remember, who thought he understood the future economics of trading stamps, textiles, shoes and second-tier department stores.
Lately, the most promising “bushes” have been negotiated transactions for entire businesses, and that pleases us. You should clearly understand, however, that these acquisitions will at best provide us only reasonable returns. Really juicy results from negotiated deals can be anticipated only when capital markets are severely constrained and the whole business world is pessimistic. We are 180 degrees from that point.
Al Ueltschi at FSI is now 83 and continues to operate at full throttle. Though I am not a fan of stock splits, I am planning to split Al’s age 2-for-1 when he hits 100. (If it works, guess who’s next.)
Rich Santulli is the dynamo behind this business.
Given that cargo, I applaud Rich’s insistence on unusually high amounts of pilot training (an average of 23 days a year). In addition, our pilots cement their skills by flying 800 or so hours a year. Finally, each flies only one model of aircraft, which means our crews do no switching around among planes with different cockpit and flight characteristics.
References to EBITDA make us shudder – does management think the tooth fairy pays for capital expenditures? We’re very suspicious of accounting methodology that is vague or unclear, since too often that means management wishes to hide something. And we don’t want to read messages that a public relations department or consultant has turned out. Instead, we expect a company’s CEO to explain in his or her own words what’s happening.
Through the selectively dispersed hints, winks and nods that companies engaged in, speculatively-minded institutions and advisors were given an information edge over investment-oriented individuals. This was corrupt behavior, unfortunately embraced by both Wall Street and corporate America.
Thanks to Chairman Levitt, whose general efforts on behalf of investors were both tireless and effective, corporations are now required to treat all of their owners equally. The fact that this reform came about because of coercion rather than conscience should be a matter of shame for CEOs and their investor relations departments.
One further thought while I’m on my soapbox: Charlie and I think it is both deceptive and dangerous for CEOs to predict growth rates for their companies. They are, of course, frequently egged on to do so by both analysts and their own investor relations departments. They should resist, however, because too often these predictions lead to trouble.
It’s fine for a CEO to have his own internal goals and, in our view, it’s even appropriate for the CEO to publicly express some hopes about the future, if these expectations are accompanied by sensible caveats. But for a major corporation to predict that its per-share earnings will grow over the long term at, say, 15% annually is to court trouble.
That’s true because a growth rate of that magnitude can only be maintained by a very small percentage of large businesses. Here’s a test: Examine the record of, say, the 200 highest earning companies from 1970 or 1980 and tabulate how many have increased per-share earnings by 15% annually since those dates. You will find that only a handful have. I would wager you a very significant sum that fewer than 10 of the 200 most profitable companies in 2000 will attain 15% annual growth in earnings-per-share over the next 20 years.
The problem arising from lofty predictions is not just that they spread unwarranted optimism. Even more troublesome is the fact that they corrode CEO behavior. Over the years, Charlie and I have observed many instances in which CEOs engaged in uneconomic operating maneuvers so that they could meet earnings targets they had announced. Worse still, after exhausting all that operating acrobatics would do, they sometimes played a wide variety of accounting games to “make the numbers.” These accounting shenanigans have a way of snowballing: Once a company moves earnings from one period to another, operating shortfalls that occur thereafter require it to engage in further accounting maneuvers that must be even more “heroic.” These can turn fudging into fraud. (More money, it has been noted, has been stolen with the point of a pen than at the point of a gun.)
Charlie and I tend to be leery of companies run by CEOs who woo investors with fancy predictions. A few of these managers will prove prophetic — but others will turn out to be congenital optimists, or even charlatans. Unfortunately, it’s not easy for investors to know in advance which species they are dealing with.
I’ve warned you in the past that you should not believe everything you read or hear about Berkshire ¾ even when it is published or broadcast by a prestigious news organization.
An example is a glaring error about Berkshire’s activities that appeared in the December 29 issue of The Wall Street Journal, a generally excellent paper that I have for all of my life found useful. On the front page (and above the fold, as they say) The Journal published a news brief that said, in unequivocal terms, that we were buying bonds of Conseco and Finova.
Berkshire is normally covered by a Journal reporter in Chicago who is both accurate and conscientious. In this case, however, the “scoop” was the product of a New York reporter for the paper.
Immediately, in lemming-like manner, other respected news organizations, relying solely on the Journal, began relating the same “facts.”
During all of the story’s iterations, I never heard or read the word “rumor.”
But rumors are what these organizations often publish and broadcast, whatever euphemism they duck behind. At a minimum, readers deserve honest terminology ¾ a warning label that will protect their financial health in the same way that smokers whose physical health is at risk are given a warning.
I’m enclosing a report ¾ generously supplied by Outstanding Investor Digest ¾ of Charlie’s remarks at last May’s Wesco annual meeting. Charlie thinks about business economics and investment matters better than anyone I know, and I’ve learned a lot over the years by listening to him. Reading his comments will improve your understanding of Berkshire.
A bit of nostalgia: It was exactly 50 years ago that I entered Ben Graham’s class at Columbia. During the decade before, I had enjoyed ¾ make that loved ¾ analyzing, buying and selling stocks.