BUFFETT’S LETTERS 2008

The table on the preceding page, recording both the 44-year performance of Berkshire’s book value and the S& P 500 index, shows that 2008 was the worst year for each. The period was devastating as well for corporate and municipal bonds, real estate and commodities. By yearend, investors of all stripes were bloodied and confused, much as if they were small birds that had strayed into a badminton game.

This led to a dysfunctional credit market that in important respects soon turned non-functional. The watchword throughout the country became the creed I saw on restaurant walls when I was young: “In God we trust; all others pay cash.

By the fourth quarter, the credit crisis, coupled with tumbling home and stock prices, had produced a paralyzing fear that engulfed the country.

Fear led to business contraction, and that in turn led to even greater fear. This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone “all in.” Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.

Had one occurred, the consequences for every area of our economy would have been cataclysmic. Like it or not, the inhabitants of Wall Street, Main Street and the various Side Streets of America were all in the same boat.

Amid this bad news, however, never forget that our country has faced far worse travails in the past. In the 20th Century alone, we dealt with two great wars (one of which we initially appeared to be losing); a dozen or so panics and recessions; virulent inflation that led to a 21 ½% prime rate in 1980; and the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment ranged between 15% and 25% for many years.

In the face of those obstacles —and many others —the real standard of living for Americans improved nearly seven-fold during the 1900s, while the Dow Jones Industrials rose from 66 to 11,497.

We’re certain, for example, that the economy will be in shambles throughout 2009…but that conclusion does not tell us whether the stock market will rise or fall.

In good years and bad, Charlie and I simply focus on four goals: 1. maintaining Berkshire’s Gibraltar-like financial position, which features huge amounts of excess liquidity, near-term obligations that are modest, and dozens of sources of earnings and cash; 2. widening the “moats” around our operating businesses that give them durable competitive advantages; 3. acquiring and developing new and varied streams of earnings; 4. expanding and nurturing the cadre of outstanding operating managers who, over the years, have delivered Berkshire exceptional results.

we are fortunate that Berkshire’s two most important businesses —our insurance and utility groups —produce earnings that are not correlated to those of the general economy.

the disarray in markets gave us a tailwind in our purchases. When investing, pessimism is your friend, euphoria the enemy.

the market value of the bonds and stocks that we continue to hold suffered a significant decline along with the general market. This does not bother Charlie and me. Indeed, we enjoy such price declines if we have funds available to increase our positions. Long ago, Ben Graham taught me that “Price is what you pay; value is what you get.” Whether we’re talking about socks or stocks, I like buying quality merchandise when it is marked down.

Going forward, however, our focus will be on the earnings segment, just as it has been for several decades. We like buying underpriced securities, but we like buying fairly-priced operating businesses even more.[?]

Our long-avowed goal is to be the “buyer of choice” for businesses —particularly those built and owned by families. The way to achieve this goal is to deserve it. That means we must keep our promises; avoid leveraging up acquired businesses; grant unusual autonomy to our managers; and hold the purchased companies through thick and thin (though we prefer thick and thicker). Our record matches our rhetoric.

At GEICO, Tony Nicely —now in his 48th year at the company after joining it when he was 18 —continues to gobble up market share while maintaining disciplined underwriting.

Efficiency is the key to low cost, and efficiency is Tony’s specialty. Five years ago the number of policies per employee was 299. In 2008, the number was 439, a huge increase in productivity.

Ajit came to Berkshire in 1986. Very quickly, I realized that we had acquired an extraordinary talent. So I did the logical thing: I wrote his parents in New Delhi and asked if they had another one like him at home. Of course, I knew the answer before writing. There isn’t anyone like Ajit.

This motley group, which sells products ranging from lollipops to motor homes, earned an impressive 17.9% on average tangible net worth last year.

At that time, much of the industry employed sales practices that were atrocious.

in an eerie rerun of that disaster, the same mistakes were repeated with conventional homes in the 2004-07 period:

The consequences of this behavior are now reverberating through every corner of our economy.

Clayton’s 198,888 borrowers, however, have continued to pay normally throughout the housing crash, handing us no unexpected losses. This is not because these borrowers are unusually creditworthy, a point proved by FICO scores (a standard measure of credit risk). Their median FICO score is 644, compared to a national median of 723, and about 35% are below 620, the segment usually designated “sub-prime.” Many disastrous pools of mortgages on conventional homes are populated by borrowers with far better credit, as measured by FICO scores. Yet at yearend, our delinquency rate on loans we have originated was 3.6%, up only modestly from 2.9% in 2006 and 2.9% in 2004. … Clayton’s foreclosures during 2008 were 3.0% of originated loans compared to 3.8% in 2006 and 5.3% in 2004. … Why are our borrowers —characteristically people with modest incomes and far-from-great credit scores —performing so well? The answer is elementary, going right back to Lending 101. Our borrowers simply looked at how full-bore mortgage payments would compare with their actual —not hoped-for —income and then decided whether they could live with that commitment. Simply put, they took out a mortgage with the intention of paying it off, whatever the course of home prices.

They did not sign up for “teaser” rates

they did not assume that they could always sell their home at a profit if their mortgage payments became onerous.

Of course, a number of our borrowers will run into trouble. They generally have no more than minor savings to tide them over if adversity hits. The major cause of delinquency or foreclosure is the loss of a job, but death, divorce and medical expenses all cause problems. If unemployment rates rise —as they surely will in 2009 —more of Clayton’s borrowers will have troubles, and we will have larger, though still manageable, losses. But our problems will not be driven to any extent by the trend of home prices.

Though Berkshire’s credit is pristine —we are one of only seven AAA corporations in the country —our cost of borrowing is now far higher than competitors with shaky balance sheets but government backing.

Ours was not a frivolous proposal:

The type of fallacy involved in projecting loss experience from a universe of non-insured bonds onto a deceptively-similar universe in which many bonds are insured pops up in other areas of finance. “Back-tested” models of many kinds are susceptible to this sort of error. Nevertheless, they are frequently touted in financial markets as guides to future action. (If merely looking up past financial data would tell you what the future holds, the Forbes 400 would consist of librarians.)

Indeed, the stupefying losses in mortgage-related securities came in large part because of flawed, history-based models used by salesmen, rating agencies and investors. These parties looked at loss experience over periods when home prices rose only moderately and speculation in houses was negligible. They then made this experience a yardstick for evaluating future losses. They blissfully ignored the fact that house prices had recently skyrocketed, loan practices had deteriorated and many buyers had opted for houses they couldn’t afford. In short, universe “past” and universe “current” had very different characteristics. But lenders, government and media largely failed to recognize this all-important fact. Investors should be skeptical of history-based models. Constructed by a nerdy-sounding priesthood using esoteric terms such as beta, gamma, sigma and the like, these models tend to look impressive. Too often, though, investors forget to examine the assumptions behind the symbols. Our advice: Beware of geeks bearing formulas.

Without urging from Charlie or anyone else, I bought a large amount of ConocoPhillips stock when oil and gas prices were near their peak.[7b to 4.4b; lost 2.6b, 37%]

During 2008, I spent $ 244 million for shares of two Irish banks that appeared cheap to me. At yearend we wrote these holdings down to market: $ 27 million, for an 89% loss. Since then, the two stocks have declined even further. The tennis crowd would call my mistakes “unforced errors.”

On the plus side last year, we made purchases totaling $ 14.5 billion in fixed-income securities issued by Wrigley, Goldman Sachs and General Electric. … we also acquired a substantial equity participation as a bonus. To fund these large purchases, I had to sell portions of some holdings that I would have preferred to keep (primarily Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and ConocoPhillips).

However, I have pledged —to you, the rating agencies and myself —to always run Berkshire with more than ample cash. We never want to count on the kindness of strangers in order to meet tomorrow’s obligations. When forced to choose, I will not trade even a night’s sleep for the chance of extra profits.

When the financial history of this decade is written, it will surely speak of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But the U.S. Treasury bond bubble of late 2008 may be regarded as almost equally extraordinary.

Approval, though, is not the goal of investing. In fact, approval is often counter-productive because it sedates the brain and makes it less receptive to new facts or a re-examination of conclusions formed earlier. Beware the investment activity that produces applause; the great moves are usually greeted by yawns.

So indecipherable were Freddie and Fannie that their federal regulator, OFHEO, whose more than 100 employees had no job except the oversight of these two institutions, totally missed their cooking of the books.

Indeed, recent events demonstrate that certain big-name CEOs (or former CEOs) at major financial institutions were simply incapable of managing a business with a huge, complex book of derivatives. Include Charlie and me in this hapless group: When Berkshire purchased General Re in 1998, we knew we could not get our minds around its book of 23,218 derivatives contracts, made with 884 counterparties (many of which we had never heard of). So we decided to close up shop. Though we were under no pressure and were operating in benign markets as we exited, it took us five years and more than $400 million in losses to largely complete the task. Upon leaving, our feelings about the business mirrored a line in a country song: “I liked you better before I got to know you so well.”

When I read the pages of “disclosure” in 10-Ks of companies that are entangled with these instruments, all I end up knowing is that I don’t know what is going on in their portfolios (and then I reach for some aspirin).

To aid its oversight, Congress created OFHEO in 1992, admonishing it to make sure the two behemoths were behaving themselves.

In truth, both enterprises had engaged in massive accounting shenanigans for some time. Finally, in 2006, OFHEO issued a 340-page scathing chronicle of the sins of Fannie that, more or less, blamed the fiasco on every party but – you guessed it – Congress and OFHEO.

The Bear Stearns collapse highlights the counterparty problem embedded in derivatives transactions, a time bomb I first discussed in Berkshire’s 2002 report.

Derivatives contracts, in contrast, often go unsettled for years, or even decades, with counterparties building up huge claims against each other. “Paper” assets and liabilities – often hard to quantify – become important parts of financial statements though these items will not be validated for many years. Additionally, a frightening web of mutual dependence develops among huge financial institutions. Receivables and payables by the billions become concentrated in the hands of a few large dealers who are apt to be highly-leveraged in other ways as well. Participants seeking to dodge troubles face the same problem as someone seeking to avoid venereal disease: It’s not just whom you sleep with, but also whom they are sleeping with.

Sleeping around, to continue our metaphor, can actually be useful for large derivatives dealers because it assures them government aid if trouble hits. In other words, only companies having problems that can infect the entire neighborhood – I won’t mention names – are certain to become a concern of the state (an outcome, I’m sad to say, that is proper). From this irritating reality comes The First Law of Corporate Survival for ambitious CEOs who pile on leverage and run large and unfathomable derivatives books: Modest incompetence simply won’t do; it’s mindboggling screw-ups that are required.

I believe each contract we own was mispriced at inception, sometimes dramatically so. I both initiated these positions and monitor them, a set of responsibilities consistent with my belief that the CEO of any large financial organization must be the Chief Risk Officer as well.

Our derivatives dealings require our counterparties to make payments to us when contracts are initiated. Berkshire therefore always holds the money, which leaves us assuming no meaningful counterparty risk. As of yearend, the payments made to us less losses we have paid – our derivatives “float,” so to speak – totaled $8.1 billion. This float is similar to insurance float: If we break even on an underlying transaction, we will have enjoyed the use of free money for a long time. Our expectation, though it is far from a sure thing, is that we will do better than break even and that the substantial investment income we earn on the funds will be frosting on the cake.

With apologies to those who are not fascinated by financial instruments, I will explain them in excruciating detail.

If the formula is applied to extended time periods, however, it can produce absurd results. In fairness, Black and Scholes almost certainly understood this point well. But their devoted followers may be ignoring whatever caveats the two men attached when they first unveiled the formula.

It’s often useful in testing a theory to push it to extremes. So let’s postulate that we sell a 100- year $1 billion put option on the S&P 500 at a strike price of 903 (the index’s level on 12/31/08). Using the implied volatility assumption for long-dated contracts that we do, and combining that with appropriate interest and dividend assumptions, we would find the “proper” Black-Scholes premium for this contract to be $2.5 million.

To judge the rationality of that premium, we need to assess whether the S&P will be valued a century from now at less than today. Certainly the dollar will then be worth a small fraction of its present value (at only 2% inflation it will be worth roughly 14¢). So that will be a factor pushing the stated value of the index higher. Far more important, however, is that one hundred years of retained earnings will hugely increase the value of most of the companies in the index. In the 20th Century, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average increased by about 175-fold, mainly because of this retained-earnings factor.

Considering everything, I believe the probability of a decline in the index over a one-hundred-year period to be far less than 1%. But let’s use that figure and also assume that the most likely decline – should one occur – is 50%. Under these assumptions, the mathematical expectation of loss on our contract would be $5 million ($1 billion X 1% X 50%).

But if we had received our theoretical premium of $2.5 million up front, we would have only had to invest it at 0.7% compounded annually to cover this loss expectancy. Everything earned above that would have been profit. Would you like to borrow money for 100 years at a 0.7% rate?

Let’s look at my example from a worst-case standpoint. Remember that 99% of the time we would pay nothing if my assumptions are correct. But even in the worst case among the remaining 1% of possibilities – that is, one assuming a total loss of $1 billion – our borrowing cost would come to only 6.2%. Clearly, either my assumptions are crazy or the formula is inappropriate.

The ridiculous premium that Black-Scholes dictates in my extreme example is caused by the inclusion of volatility in the formula and by the fact that volatility is determined by how much stocks have moved around in some past period of days, months or years. This metric is simply irrelevant in estimating the probability-weighted range of values of American business 100 years from now. (Imagine, if you will, getting a quote every day on a farm from a manic-depressive neighbor and then using the volatility calculated from these changing quotes as an important ingredient in an equation that predicts a probability-weighted range of values for the farm a century from now.)

Though historical volatility is a useful – but far from foolproof – concept in valuing short-term options, its utility diminishes rapidly as the duration of the option lengthens. In my opinion, the valuations that the Black-Scholes formula now place on our long-term put options overstate our liability, though the overstatement will diminish as the contracts approach maturity.

Even so, we will continue to use Black-Scholes when we are estimating our financial-statement liability for long-term equity puts. The formula represents conventional wisdom and any substitute that I might offer would engender extreme skepticism. That would be perfectly understandable: CEOs who have concocted their own valuations for esoteric financial instruments have seldom erred on the side of conservatism. That club of optimists is one that Charlie and I have no desire to join.