For a better understanding of intrinsic value and the economic principles in running Berkshire, please read our Owner’s Manual, beginning on page 69
In recent years, however, we’ve found it hard to find significantly undervalued stocks, a difficulty greatly accentuated by the mushrooming of the funds we must deploy.
The shortage of attractively-priced stocks in which we can put large sums doesn’t bother us, providing we can find companies to purchase that (1) have favorable and enduring economic characteristics; (2) are run by talented and honest managers and (3) are available at a sensible price.
If stocks become significantly cheaper than entire businesses, we will buy them aggressively. If selected bonds become attractive, as they did in 2002, we will again load up on these securities. Under any market or economic conditions, we will be happy to buy businesses that meet our standards. And, for those that do, the bigger the better. Our capital is underutilized now, but that will happen periodically. It’s a painful condition to be in —but not as painful as doing something stupid. (I speak from experience.)
As one compensation consultant commented: “There are two classes of clients you don’t want to offend —actual and potential.”
to obtain (or retain) an able and honest manager and then to compensate that manager fairly.
We particularly want you to understand the limited circumstances under which we will use debt, since typically we shun it.
Our results have been exceptional for one reason: We have truly exceptional managers. Insurers sell a non-proprietary piece of paper containing a non-proprietary promise. Anyone can copy anyone else’s product. No installed base, key patents, critical real estate or natural resource position protects an insurer’s competitive position. Typically, brands do not mean much either. The critical variables, therefore, are managerial brains, discipline and integrity. Our managers have all of these attributes —in spades.
We should point out again that in any given year a company writing long-tail insurance (coverages giving rise to claims that are often settled many years after the loss-causing event takes place) can report almost any earnings that the CEO desires. Too often the industry has reported wildly inaccurate figures by misstating liabilities. Most of the mistakes have been innocent. Sometimes, however, they have been intentional, their object being to fool investors and regulators. Auditors and actuaries have usually failed to prevent both varieties of misstatement.
If our derivatives experience —and the Freddie Mac shenanigans of mind-blowing size and audacity that were revealed last year —makes you suspicious of accounting in this arena, consider yourself wised up. No matter how financially sophisticated you are, you can’t possibly learn from reading the disclosure documents of a derivatives-intensive company what risks lurk in its positions. Indeed, the more you know about derivatives, the less you will feel you can learn from the disclosures normally proffered you. In Darwin’s words, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
You may wonder why we borrow money while sitting on a mountain of cash. It’s because of our “every tub on its own bottom” philosophy. We believe that any subsidiary lending money should pay an appropriate rate for the funds needed to carry its receivables and should not be subsidized by its parent. Otherwise, having a rich daddy can lead to sloppy decisions. Meanwhile, the cash we accumulate at Berkshire is destined for business acquisitions or for the purchase of securities that offer opportunities for significant profit. Clayton’s loan portfolio will likely grow to at least $ 5 billion in not too many years and, with sensible credit standards in place, should deliver significant earnings.
NFM was founded by Rose Blumkin (“ Mrs. B”) in 1937 with $ 500. She worked until she was 103 (hmmm . . . not a bad idea). One piece of wisdom she imparted to the generations following her was, “If you have the lowest price, customers will find you at the bottom of a river.”
“Victory,” President Kennedy told us after the Bay of Pigs disaster, “has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.”
We are neither enthusiastic nor negative about the portfolio we hold. We own pieces of excellent businesses —all of which had good gains in intrinsic value last year —but their current prices reflect their excellence. The unpleasant corollary to this conclusion is that I made a big mistake in not selling several of our larger holdings during The Great Bubble. If these stocks are fully priced now, you may wonder what I was thinking four years ago when their intrinsic value was lower and their prices far higher. So do I.
In 2002, junk bonds became very cheap, and we purchased about $ 8 billion of these. The pendulum swung quickly though, and this sector now looks decidedly unattractive to us. Yesterday’s weeds are today being priced as flowers.
During 2002 we entered the foreign currency market for the first time in my life, and in 2003 we enlarged our position, as I became increasingly bearish on the dollar.
Berkshire holds many billions of cash-equivalents denominated in dollars. So I feel more comfortable owning foreign-exchange contracts that are at least a partial offset to that position.
When we can’t find anything exciting in which to invest, our “default” position is U.S. Treasuries, both bills and repos. No matter how low the yields on these instruments go, we never “reach” for a little more income by dropping our credit standards or by extending maturities. Charlie and I detest taking even small risks unless we feel we are being adequately compensated for doing so. About as far as we will go down that path is to occasionally eat cottage cheese a day after the expiration date on the carton. [?]
A 2003 book that investors can learn much from is Bull! by Maggie Mahar. Two other books I’d recommend are The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, and In an Uncertain World by Bob Rubin.