Since we’ve quickly replenished the cash, the economics of this transaction have turned out very well.
Money will always flow toward opportunity, and there is an abundance of that in America. Commentators today often talk of “great uncertainty.” But think back, for example, to December 6, 1941, October 18, 1987 and September 10, 2001. No matter how serene today may be, tomorrow is always uncertain.
Don’t let that reality spook you. Throughout my lifetime, politicians and pundits have constantly moaned about terrifying problems facing America. Yet our citizens now live an astonishing six times better than when I was born. The prophets of doom have overlooked the all-important factor that is certain: Human potential is far from exhausted, and the American system for unleashing that potential – a system that has worked wonders for over two centuries despite frequent interruptions for recessions and even a Civil War – remains alive and effective.
We are not natively smarter than we were when our country was founded nor do we work harder. But look around you and see a world beyond the dreams of any colonial citizen. Now, as in 1776, 1861, 1932 and 1941, America’s best days lie ahead.
Charlie and I believe that those entrusted with handling the funds of others should establish performance goals at the onset of their stewardship. Lacking such standards, managements are tempted to shoot the arrow of performance and then paint the bull’s-eye around wherever it lands.
The table on page 2 shows our 46-year record against the S&P, a performance quite good in the earlier years and now only satisfactory. The bountiful years, we want to emphasize, will never return. The huge sums of capital we currently manage eliminate any chance of exceptional performance. We will strive, however, for better-than-average results and feel it fair for you to hold us to that standard.
Yearly figures, it should be noted, are neither to be ignored nor viewed as all-important. The pace of the earth’s movement around the sun is not synchronized with the time required for either investment ideas or operating decisions to bear fruit. At GEICO, for example, we enthusiastically spent $900 million last year on advertising to obtain policyholders who deliver us no immediate profits. If we could spend twice that amount productively, we would happily do so though short-term results would be further penalized. Many large investments at our railroad and utility operations are also made with an eye to payoffs well down the road.
This “what-will-they-do-with-the-money” factor must always be evaluated along with the “what-do-we-have-now” calculation in order for us, or anybody, to arrive at a sensible estimate of a company’s intrinsic value. That’s because an outside investor stands by helplessly as management reinvests his share of the company’s earnings. If a CEO can be expected to do this job well, the reinvestment prospects add to the company’s current value; if the CEO’s talents or motives are suspect, today’s value must be discounted. The difference in outcome can be huge. A dollar of then-value in the hands of Sears Roebuck’s or Montgomery Ward’s CEOs in the late 1960s had a far different destiny than did a dollar entrusted to Sam Walton.
They are volunteers, not mercenaries. Because no one can offer them a job they would enjoy more, they can’t be lured away.
At Berkshire, managers can focus on running their businesses: They are not subjected to meetings at headquarters nor financing worries nor Wall Street harassment. They simply get a letter from me every two years (it’s reproduced on pages 104-105) and call me when they wish. And their wishes do differ: There are managers to whom I have not talked in the last year, while there is one with whom I talk almost daily. Our trust is in people rather than process. A “hire well, manage little” code suits both them and me.
Most companies limit themselves to reinvesting funds within the industry in which they have been operating. That often restricts them, however, to a “universe” for capital allocation that is both tiny and quite inferior to what is available in the wider world. Competition for the few opportunities that are available tends to become fierce. The seller has the upper hand, as a girl might if she were the only female at a party attended by many boys. That lopsided situation would be great for the girl, but terrible for the boys.
The dumbest thing I could have done was to pursue “opportunities” to improve and expand the existing textile operation – so for years that’s exactly what I did. And then, in a final burst of brilliance, I went out and bought another textile company. Aaaaaaargh! Eventually I came to my senses, heading first into insurance and then into other industries.
There is even a supplement to this world-is-our-oyster advantage: In addition to evaluating the attractions of one business against a host of others, we also measure businesses against opportunities available in marketable securities, a comparison most managements don’t make. Often, businesses are priced ridiculously high against what can likely be earned from investments in stocks or bonds. At such moments, we buy securities and bide our time.
Our final advantage is the hard-to-duplicate culture that permeates Berkshire. And in businesses, culture counts.
To start with, the directors who represent you think and act like owners. They receive token compensation: no options, no restricted stock and, for that matter, virtually no cash. We do not provide them directors and officers liability insurance, a given at almost every other large public company. If they mess up with your money, they will lose their money as well. Leaving my holdings aside, directors and their families own Berkshire shares worth more than $3 billion. Our directors, therefore, monitor Berkshire’s actions and results with keen interest and an owner’s eye. You and I are lucky to have them as stewards.
This same owner-orientation prevails among our managers. In many cases, these are people who have sought out Berkshire as an acquirer for a business that they and their families have long owned. They came to us with an owner’s mindset, and we provide an environment that encourages them to retain it. Having managers who love their businesses is no small advantage.
Cultures self-propagate. Winston Churchill once said, “You shape your houses and then they shape you.” That wisdom applies to businesses as well. Bureaucratic procedures beget more bureaucracy, and imperial corporate palaces induce imperious behavior. (As one wag put it, “You know you’re no longer CEO when you get in the back seat of your car and it doesn’t move.”) At Berkshire’s “World Headquarters” our annual rent is $270,212. Moreover, the home-office investment in furniture, art, Coke dispenser, lunch room, high-tech equipment – you name it – totals $301,363. As long as Charlie and I treat your money as if it were our own, Berkshire’s managers are likely to be careful with it as well.
Our compensation programs, our annual meeting and even our annual reports are all designed with an eye to reinforcing the Berkshire culture, and making it one that will repel and expel managers of a different bent. This culture grows stronger every year, and it will remain intact long after Charlie and I have left the scene.
We will need all of the strengths I’ve just described to do reasonably well. Our managers will deliver; you can count on that. But whether Charlie and I can hold up our end in capital allocation depends in part on the competitive environment for acquisitions. You will get our best efforts.
I knew nothing of insurance and had never heard of the company. The librarian, however, steered me to a large compendium of insurers and, after reading the page on GEICO, I decided to visit the company. The following Saturday, I boarded an early train for Washington.
Alas, when I arrived at the company’s headquarters, the building was closed. I then rather frantically started pounding on a door, until finally a janitor appeared. I asked him if there was anyone in the office I could talk to, and he steered me to the only person around, Lorimer Davidson.
That was my lucky moment. During the next four hours, “Davy” gave me an education about both insurance and GEICO. It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Soon thereafter, I graduated from Columbia and became a stock salesman in Omaha. GEICO, of course, was my prime recommendation, which got me off to a great start with dozens of customers. GEICO also jump-started my net worth because, soon after meeting Davy, I made the stock 75% of my $9,800 investment portfolio. (Even so, I felt over-diversified.)
Subsequently, Davy became CEO of GEICO, taking the company to undreamed-of heights before it got into trouble in the mid-1970s, a few years after his retirement. When that happened – with the stock falling by more than 95% – Berkshire bought about one-third of the company in the market, a position that over the years increased to 50% because of GEICO’s repurchases of its own shares. Berkshire’s cost for this half of the business was $46 million. (Despite the size of our position, we exercised no control over operations.)
We then purchased the remaining 50% of GEICO at the beginning of 1996, which spurred Davy, at 95, to make a video tape saying how happy he was that his beloved GEICO would permanently reside with Berkshire. (He also playfully concluded with, “Next time, Warren, please make an appointment.”)
In other words, get the policyholder’s business by deserving his business. Focusing on this objective, the company has grown to be America’s third-largest auto insurer, with a market share of 8.8%.
When Tony Nicely, GEICO’s CEO, took over in 1993, that share was 2.0%, a level at which it had been stuck for more than a decade. GEICO became a different company under Tony, finding a path to consistent growth while simultaneously maintaining underwriting discipline and keeping its costs low.
Let me quantify Tony’s achievement. When, in 1996, we bought the 50% of GEICO we didn’t already own, it cost us about $2.3 billion. That price implied a value of $4.6 billion for 100%. GEICO then had tangible net worth of $1.9 billion.
The excess over tangible net worth of the implied value – $2.7 billion – was what we estimated GEICO’s “goodwill” to be worth at that time. That goodwill represented the economic value of the policyholders who were then doing business with GEICO. In 1995, those customers had paid the company $2.8 billion in premiums. Consequently, we were valuing GEICO’s customers at about 97% (2.7/2.8) of what they were annually paying the company. By industry standards, that was a very high price. But GEICO was no ordinary insurer: Because of the company’s low costs, its policyholders were consistently profitable and unusually loyal.
Today, premium volume is $14.3 billion and growing. Yet we carry the goodwill of GEICO on our books at only $1.4 billion, an amount that will remain unchanged no matter how much the value of GEICO increases. (Under accounting rules, you write down the carrying value of goodwill if its economic value decreases, but leave it unchanged if economic value increases.) Using the 97%-of-premium-volume yardstick we applied to our 1996 purchase, the real value today of GEICO’s economic goodwill is about $14 billion. And this value is likely to be much higher ten and twenty years from now. GEICO – off to a strong start in 2011 – is the gift that keeps giving.
One not-so-small footnote: Under Tony, GEICO has developed one of the country’s largest personal-lines insurance agencies, which primarily sells homeowners policies to our GEICO auto insurance customers. In this business, we represent a number of insurers that are not affiliated with us. They take the risk; we simply sign up the customers. Last year we sold 769,898 new policies at this agency operation, up 34% from the year before. The obvious way this activity aids us is that it produces commission revenue; equally important is the fact that it further strengthens our relationship with our policyholders, helping us retain them.
I owe an enormous debt to Tony and Davy (and, come to think of it, to that janitor as well).
Let me emphasize again that cost-free float is not an outcome to be expected for the P/C industry as a whole: In most years, industry premiums have been inadequate to cover claims plus expenses. Consequently, the industry’s overall return on tangible equity has for many decades fallen far short of the average return realized by American industry, a sorry performance almost certain to continue. Berkshire’s outstanding economics exist only because we have some terrific managers running some unusual businesses. We’ve already told you about GEICO, but we have two other very large operations, and a bevy of smaller ones as well, each a star in its own way.
Even kryptonite bounces off Ajit.
At bottom, a sound insurance operation requires four disciplines: (1) An understanding of all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) A conservative evaluation of the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) The setting of a premium that will deliver a profit, on average, after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) The willingness to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.
Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. The urgings of Wall Street, pressures from the agency force and brokers, or simply a refusal by a testosterone-driven CEO to accept shrinking volumes has led too many insurers to write business at inadequate prices. “The other guy is doing it so we must as well” spells trouble in any business, but none more so than insurance.
Unfortunately, a few have very poor returns, a result of some serious mistakes I have made in my job of capital allocation. These errors came about because I misjudged either the competitive strength of the business I was purchasing or the future economics of the industry in which it operated. I try to look out ten or twenty years when making an acquisition, but sometimes my eyesight has been poor.
When we bought CTB, sales per employee were $189,365; now they are $405,878.
This crew again did its job in 2010, with customer satisfaction, as delineated in our regular surveys, hitting new highs.
Dave’s quick restructuring of management and the company’s rationalization of its purchasing and spending policies has ended the hemorrhaging of cash and turned what was Berkshire’s only major business problem into a solidly profitable operation.
A housing recovery will probably begin within a year or so. In any event, it is certain to occur at some point. Consequently: (1) At MiTek, we have made, or committed to, five bolt-on acquisitions during the past eleven months; (2) At Acme, we just recently acquired the leading manufacturer of brick in Alabama for $50 million; (3) Johns Manville is building a $55 million roofing membrane plant in Ohio, to be completed next year; and (4) Shaw will spend $200 million in 2011 on plant and equipment, all of it situated in America. These businesses entered the recession strong and will exit it stronger. At Berkshire, our time horizon is forever.
For example, in recessionary 2010 with BNSF’s car loadings far off peak levels, the company’s interest coverage was 6:1.
If home buyers throughout the country had behaved like our buyers, America would not have had the crisis that it did. Our approach was simply to get a meaningful down-payment and gear fixed monthly payments to a sensible percentage of income. This policy kept Clayton solvent and also kept buyers in their homes.
Home ownership makes sense for most Americans, particularly at today’s lower prices and bargain interest rates. All things considered, the third best investment I ever made was the purchase of my home, though I would have made far more money had I instead rented and used the purchase money to buy stocks. (The two best investments were wedding rings.) For the $31,500 I paid for our house, my family and I gained 52 years of terrific memories with more to come.
in the experience of investors over the past century – undistributed earnings have been either matched or exceeded by market gains, albeit in a highly irregular manner. (Indeed, sometimes the correlation goes in reverse. As one investor said in 2009: “This is worse than divorce. I’ve lost half my net worth – and I still have my wife.”) In the future, we expect our market gains to eventually at least equal the earnings our investees retain.
Coca-Cola paid us $88 million in 1995, the year after we finished purchasing the stock. Every year since, Coke has increased its dividend. In 2011, we will almost certainly receive $376 million from Coke, up $24 million from last year. Within ten years, I would expect that $376 million to double. By the end of that period, I wouldn’t be surprised to see our share of Coke’s annual earnings exceed 100% of what we paid for the investment. Time is the friend of the wonderful business.
Last summer, Lou Simpson told me he wished to retire. Since Lou was a mere 74 – an age Charlie and I regard as appropriate only for trainees at Berkshire – his call was a surprise.
Lou joined GEICO as its investment manager in 1979, and his service to that company has been invaluable. In the 2004 Annual Report, I detailed his record with equities, and I have omitted updates only because his performance made mine look bad. Who needs that?
Lou has never been one to advertise his talents. But I will: Simply put, Lou is one of the investment greats. We will miss him.
It’s easy to identify many investment managers with great recent records. But past results, though important, do not suffice when prospective performance is being judged. How the record has been achieved is crucial, as is the manager’s understanding of – and sensitivity to – risk (which in no way should be measured by beta, the choice of too many academics). In respect to the risk criterion, we were looking for someone with a hard-to-evaluate skill: the ability to anticipate the effects of economic scenarios not previously observed. Finally, we wanted someone who would regard working for Berkshire as far more than a job.
When Charlie and I met Todd Combs, we knew he fit our requirements. Todd, as was the case with Lou, will be paid a salary plus a contingent payment based on his performance relative to the S&P.
Investors who put money with such managers should be labeled patsies, not partners.
When we issued a press release about Todd’s joining us, a number of commentators pointed out that he was “little-known” and expressed puzzlement that we didn’t seek a “big-name.” I wonder how many of them would have known of Lou in 1979, Ajit in 1985, or, for that matter, Charlie in 1959. Our goal was to find a 2-year-old Secretariat, not a 10-year-old Seabiscuit. (Whoops – that may not be the smartest metaphor for an 80-year-old CEO to use.)
Since money is fungible, think of a portion of these funds as contributing to the purchase of BNSF.
We both have a deep disgust for “game playing” with numbers, a practice that was rampant throughout corporate America in the 1990s and still persists, though it occurs less frequently and less blatantly than it used to.
Both realized and unrealized gains and losses are fully reflected in the calculation of our book value. Pay attention to the changes in that metric and to the course of our operating earnings, and you will be on the right track.
Black-Scholes is the accepted standard for option valuation – almost all leading business schools teach it – and we would be accused of shoddy accounting if we deviated from it.
Part of the appeal of Black-Scholes to auditors and regulators is that it produces a precise number. Charlie and I can’t supply one of those. We believe the true liability of our contracts to be far lower than that calculated by Black-Scholes, but we can’t come up with an exact figure – anymore than we can come up with a precise value for GEICO, BNSF, or for Berkshire Hathaway itself. Our inability to pinpoint a number doesn’t bother us: We would rather be approximately right than precisely wrong.
John Kenneth Galbraith once slyly observed that economists were most economical with ideas: They made the ones learned in graduate school last a lifetime. University finance departments often behave similarly. Witness the tenacity with which almost all clung to the theory of efficient markets throughout the 1970s and 1980s, dismissively calling powerful facts that refuted it “anomalies.” (I always love explanations of that kind: The Flat Earth Society probably views a ship’s circling of the globe as an annoying, but inconsequential, anomaly.)
Academics’ current practice of teaching Black-Scholes as revealed truth needs re-examination. For that matter, so does the academic’s inclination to dwell on the valuation of options. You can be highly successful as an investor without having the slightest ability to value an option. What students should be learning is how to value a business. That’s what investing is all about.
Life and Debt
The fundamental principle of auto racing is that to finish first, you must first finish. That dictum is equally applicable to business and guides our every action at Berkshire.
Unquestionably, some people have become very rich through the use of borrowed money. However, that’s also been a way to get very poor. When leverage works, it magnifies your gains. Your spouse thinks you’re clever, and your neighbors get envious. But leverage is addictive. Once having profited from its wonders, very few people retreat to more conservative practices. And as we all learned in third grade – and some relearned in 2008 – any series of positive numbers, however impressive the numbers may be, evaporates when multiplied by a single zero. History tells us that leverage all too often produces zeroes, even when it is employed by very smart people.
Leverage, of course, can be lethal to businesses as well. Companies with large debts often assume that these obligations can be refinanced as they mature. That assumption is usually valid. Occasionally, though, either because of company-specific problems or a worldwide shortage of credit, maturities must actually be met by payment. For that, only cash will do the job.
Borrowers then learn that credit is like oxygen. When either is abundant, its presence goes unnoticed. When either is missing, that’s all that is noticed. Even a short absence of credit can bring a company to its knees. In September 2008, in fact, its overnight disappearance in many sectors of the economy came dangerously close to bringing our entire country to its knees.
Charlie and I have no interest in any activity that could pose the slightest threat to Berkshire’s well-being. (With our having a combined age of 167, starting over is not on our bucket list.) We are forever conscious of the fact that you, our partners, have entrusted us with what in many cases is a major portion of your savings. In addition, important philanthropy is dependent on our prudence. Finally, many disabled victims of accidents caused by our insureds are counting on us to deliver sums payable decades from now. It would be irresponsible for us to risk what all these constituencies need just to pursue a few points of extra return.
A little personal history may partially explain our extreme aversion to financial adventurism. I didn’t meet Charlie until he was 35, though he grew up within 100 yards of where I have lived for 52 years and also attended the same inner-city public high school in Omaha from which my father, wife, children and two grandchildren graduated. Charlie and I did, however, both work as young boys at my grandfather’s grocery store, though our periods of employment were separated by about five years. My grandfather’s name was Ernest, and perhaps no man was more aptly named. No one worked for Ernest, even as a stock boy, without being shaped by the experience.
On the facing page you can read a letter sent in 1939 by Ernest to his youngest son, my Uncle Fred. Similar letters went to his other four children. I still have the letter sent to my Aunt Alice, which I found – along with $1,000 of cash – when, as executor of her estate, I opened her safe deposit box in 1970.
Ernest never went to business school – he never in fact finished high school – but he understood the importance of liquidity as a condition for assured survival. At Berkshire, we have taken his $1,000 solution a bit further and have pledged that we will hold at least $10 billion of cash, excluding that held at our regulated utility and railroad businesses. Because of that commitment, we customarily keep at least $20 billion on hand so that we can both withstand unprecedented insurance losses (our largest to date having been about $3 billion from Katrina, the insurance industry’s most expensive catastrophe) and quickly seize acquisition or investment opportunities, even during times of financial turmoil.
We keep our cash largely in U.S. Treasury bills and avoid other short-term securities yielding a few more basis points, a policy we adhered to long before the frailties of commercial paper and money market funds became apparent in September 2008. We agree with investment writer Ray DeVoe’s observation, “More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.” At Berkshire, we don’t rely on bank lines, and we don’t enter into contracts that could require postings of collateral except for amounts that are tiny in relation to our liquid assets.
Furthermore, not a dime of cash has left Berkshire for dividends or share repurchases during the past 40 years. Instead, we have retained all of our earnings to strengthen our business, a reinforcement now running about $1 billion per month. Our net worth has thus increased from $48 million to $157 billion during those four decades and our intrinsic value has grown far more. No other American corporation has come close to building up its financial strength in this unrelenting way.
By being so cautious in respect to leverage, we penalize our returns by a minor amount. Having loads of liquidity, though, lets us sleep well. Moreover, during the episodes of financial chaos that occasionally erupt in our economy, we will be equipped both financially and emotionally to play offense while others scramble for survival. That’s what allowed us to invest $15.6 billion in 25 days of panic following the Lehman bankruptcy in 2008.
To: Berkshire Hathaway Managers (“The All-Stars”)
cc: Berkshire Directors
From: Warren E. Buffett
Date: July 26, 2010
This is my biennial letter to reemphasize Berkshire’s top priority and to get your help on succession planning (yours, not mine!).
The priority is that all of us continue to zealously guard Berkshire’s reputation. We can’t be perfect but we can try to be. As I’ve said in these memos for more than 25 years: “We can afford to lose money – even a lot of money. But we can’t afford to lose reputation – even a shred of reputation.” We must continue to measure every act against not only what is legal but also what we would be happy to have written about on the front page of a national newspaper in an article written by an unfriendly but intelligent reporter.
Sometimes your associates will say “Everybody else is doing it.” This rationale is almost always a bad one if it is the main justification for a business action. It is totally unacceptable when evaluating a moral decision. Whenever somebody offers that phrase as a rationale, in effect they are saying that they can’t come up with a good reason. If anyone gives this explanation, tell them to try using it with a reporter or a judge and see how far it gets them.
If you see anything whose propriety or legality causes you to hesitate, be sure to give me a call. However, it’s very likely that if a given course of action evokes such hesitation, it’s too close to the line and should be abandoned. There’s plenty of money to be made in the center of the court. If it’s questionable whether some action is close to the line, just assume it is outside and forget it.
As a corollary, let me know promptly if there’s any significant bad news. I can handle bad news but I don’t like to deal with it after it has festered for awhile. A reluctance to face up immediately to bad news is what turned a problem at Salomon from one that could have easily been disposed of into one that almost caused the demise of a firm with 8,000 employees.
Somebody is doing something today at Berkshire that you and I would be unhappy about if we knew of it. That’s inevitable: We now employ more than 250,000 people and the chances of that number getting through the day without any bad behavior occurring is nil. But we can have a huge effect in minimizing such activities by jumping on anything immediately when there is the slightest odor of impropriety. Your attitude on such matters, expressed by behavior as well as words, will be the most important factor in how the culture of your business develops. Culture, more than rule books, determines how an organization behaves.
In other respects, talk to me about what is going on as little or as much as you wish. Each of you does a first-class job of running your operation with your own individual style and you don’t need me to help. The only items you need to clear with me are any changes in post-retirement benefits and any unusually large capital expenditures or acquisitions.
I need your help in respect to the question of succession. I’m not looking for any of you to retire and I hope you all live to 100. (In Charlie’s case, 110.) But just in case you don’t, please send me a letter (at home if you wish) giving your recommendation as who should take over tomorrow if you should become incapacitated overnight. These letters will be seen by no one but me unless I’m no longer CEO, in which case my successor will need the information. Please summarize the strengths and weaknesses of your primary candidate as well as any possible alternates you may wish to include. Most of you have participated in this exercise in the past and others have offered your ideas verbally. However, it’s important to me to get a periodic update, and now that we have added so many businesses, I need to have your thoughts in writing rather than trying to carry them around in my memory. Of course, there are a few operations that are run by two or more of you – such as the Blumkins, the Merschmans, the pair at Applied Underwriters, etc. – and in these cases, just forget about this item. Your note can be short, informal, handwritten, etc. Just mark it “Personal for Warren.”
Thanks for your help on all of this. And thanks for the way you run your businesses. You make my job easy.
P.S. Another minor request: Please turn down all proposals for me to speak, make contributions, intercede with the Gates Foundation, etc. Sometimes these requests for you to act as intermediary will be accompanied by “It can’t hurt to ask.” It will be easier for both of us if you just say “no.” As an added favor, don’t suggest that they instead write or call me. Multiply 76 businesses by the periodic “I think he’ll be interested in this one” and you can understand why it is better to say no firmly and immediately.