Owner’s Manual – BUFFETT’S LETTERS

As is appropriate for “principles,” all 13 remain alive and well today, and they are stated here in italics.

  1. Although our form is corporate, our attitude is partnership. Charlie Munger and I think of our shareholders as owner-partners, and of ourselves as managing partners. (Because of the size of our shareholdings we are also, for better or worse, controlling partners.) We do not view the company itself as the ultimate owner of our business assets but instead view the company as a conduit through which our shareholders own the assets.

Charlie and I hope that you do not think of yourself as merely owning a piece of paper whose price wiggles around daily and that is a candidate for sale when some economic or political event makes you nervous. We hope you instead visualize yourself as a part owner of a business that you expect to stay with indefinitely, much as you might if you owned a farm or apartment house in partnership with members of your family.

2. In line with Berkshire’s owner-orientation, most of our directors have a significant portion of their net worth invested in the company. We eat our own cooking.

Charlie and I cannot promise you results. But we can guarantee that your financial fortunes will move in lockstep with ours for whatever period of time you elect to be our partner. … Moreover, when I do something dumb, I want you to be able to derive some solace from the fact that my financial suffering is proportional to yours.

3. Our long-term economic goal (subject to some qualifications mentioned later) is to maximize Berkshire’s average annual rate of gain in intrinsic business value on a per-share basis.

We are certain that the rate of per-share progress will diminish in the future – a greatly enlarged capital base will see to that. But we will be disappointed if our rate does not exceed that of the average large American corporation.

4. Our preference would be to reach our goal by directly owning a diversified group of businesses that generate cash and consistently earn above-average returns on capital. Our second choice is to own parts of similar businesses, attained primarily through purchases of marketable common stocks by our insurance subsidiaries. The price and availability of businesses and the need for insurance capital determine any given year’s capital allocation.

The challenge for us is to generate ideas as rapidly as we generate cash. In this respect, a depressed stock market is likely to present us with significant advantages. For one thing, it tends to reduce the prices at which entire companies become available for purchase. Second, a depressed market makes it easier for our insurance companies to buy small pieces of wonderful businesses – including additional pieces of businesses we already own – at attractive prices. And third, some of those same wonderful businesses are consistent buyers of their own shares, which means that they, and we, gain from the cheaper prices at which they can buy.

Overall, Berkshire and its long-term shareholders benefit from a sinking stock market much as a regular purchaser of food benefits from declining food prices. So when the market plummets – as it will from time to time – neither panic nor mourn. It’s good news for Berkshire.

5. Because of our two-pronged approach to business ownership and because of the limitations of conventional accounting, consolidated reported earnings may reveal relatively little about our true economic performance. Charlie and I, both as owners and managers, virtually ignore such consolidated numbers. However, we will also report to you the earnings of each major business we control, numbers we consider of great importance. These figures, along with other information we will supply about the individual businesses, should generally aid you in making judgments about them.

Charlie and I pay a great deal of attention to how well our businesses are doing, and we also work to understand the environment in which each business is operating.

6. We have found over time that the undistributed earnings of our investees, in aggregate, have been fully as beneficial to Berkshire as if they had been distributed to us (and therefore had been included in the earnings we officially report). This pleasant result has occurred because most of our investees are engaged in truly outstanding businesses that can often employ incremental capital to great advantage, either by putting it to work in their businesses or by repurchasing their shares.

Obviously, every capital decision that our investees have made has not benefitted us as shareholders, but overall we have garnered far more than a dollar of value for each dollar they have retained.

7. We use debt sparingly. We will reject interesting opportunities rather than over-leverage our balance sheet.

The financial calculus that Charlie and I employ would never permit our trading a good night’s sleep for a shot at a few extra percentage points of return. I’ve never believed in risking what my family and friends have and need in order to pursue what they don’t have and don’t need.

Besides, Berkshire has access to two low-cost, non-perilous sources of leverage that allow us to safely own far more assets than our equity capital alone would permit: deferred taxes and “float,”

these are real liabilities. But they are liabilities without covenants or due dates attached to them. In effect, they give us the benefit of debt – an ability to have more assets working for us – but saddle us with none of its drawbacks.

we will favor long-term, fixed-rate loans.

8. A managerial “wish list” will not be filled at shareholder expense. We will not diversify by purchasing entire businesses at control prices that ignore long-term economic consequences to our shareholders.

9. We feel noble intentions should be checked periodically against results. We test the wisdom of retaining earnings by assessing whether retention, over time, delivers shareholders at least $1 of market value for each $1 retained. To date, this test has been met. We will continue to apply it on a five-year rolling basis. As our net worth grows, it is more difficult to use retained earnings wisely.

The five-year test should be: (1) during the period did our book-value gain exceed the performance of the S&P; and (2) did our stock consistently sell at a premium to book, meaning that every $1 of retained earnings was always worth more than $1? If these tests are met, retaining earnings has made sense.

10. We will issue common stock only when we receive as much in business value as we give.

11. You should be fully aware of one attitude Charlie and I share that hurts our financial performance: Regardless of price, we have no interest at all in selling any good businesses that Berkshire owns. We are also very reluctant to sell sub-par businesses as long as we expect them to generate at least some cash and as long as we feel good about their managers and labor relations. We hope not to repeat the capital-allocation mistakes that led us into such sub-par businesses.

We continue to avoid gin rummy behavior.

12. We will be candid in our reporting to you, emphasizing the pluses and minuses important in appraising business value. Our guideline is to tell you the business facts that we would want to know if our positions were reversed.

We also believe candor benefits us as managers: The CEO who misleads others in public may eventually mislead himself in private.

Our goal is to have all of our owners updated at the same time.

13. Despite our policy of candor, we will discuss our activities in marketable securities only to the extent legally required. Good investment ideas are rare, valuable and subject to competitive appropriation just as good product or business acquisition ideas are. Therefore we normally will not talk about our investment ideas. This ban extends even to securities we have sold (because we may purchase them again) and to stocks we are incorrectly rumored to be buying. If we deny those reports but say “no comment” on other occasions, the no-comments become confirmation.

Though we continue to be unwilling to talk about specific stocks, we freely discuss our business and investment philosophy. I benefitted enormously from the intellectual generosity of Ben Graham, the greatest teacher in the history of finance, and I believe it appropriate to pass along what I learned from him, even if that creates new and able investment competitors for Berkshire just as Ben’s teachings did for him

14. To the extent possible, we would like each Berkshire shareholder to record a gain or loss in market value during his period of ownership that is proportional to the gain or loss in per-share intrinsic value recorded by the company during that holding period.As that implies, we would rather see Berkshire’s stock price at a fair level than a high level.

Our it’s-as-bad-to-be-overvalued-as-to-be-undervalued approach may disappoint some shareholders. We believe, however, that it affords Berkshire the best prospect of attracting long-term investors who seek to profit from the progress of the company rather than from the investment mistakes of their partners.

15. We regularly compare the gain in Berkshire’s per-share book value to the performance of the S&P 500. Over time, we hope to outpace this yardstick. Otherwise, why do our investors need us?

We, therefore, expect to outperform the S&P in lackluster years for the stock market and underperform when the market has a strong year.


INTRINSIC VALUE

Intrinsic value is an all-important concept that offers the only logical approach to evaluating the relative attractiveness of investments and businesses. Intrinsic value can be defined simply: It is the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life.

For example, in 1964 we could state with certitude that Berkshire’s per-share book value was $19.46. However, that figure considerably overstated the company’s intrinsic value, since all of the company’s resources were tied up in a sub-profitable textile business.

In all cases, what is clear is that book value is meaningless as an indicator of intrinsic value.


THE MANAGING OF BERKSHIRE

In fact, we delegate almost to the point of abdication: Though Berkshire has about 377,000 employees, only 26 of these are at headquarters.

Charlie and I mainly attend to capital allocation and the care and feeding of our key managers. Most of these managers are happiest when they are left alone to run their businesses, and that is customarily just how we leave them.

Most of our managers are independently wealthy, and it’s therefore up to us to create a climate that encourages them to choose working with Berkshire over golfing or fishing. This leaves us needing to treat them fairly and in the manner that we would wish to be treated if our positions were reversed.

Our managerial roster has never been stronger.

Lest we end on a morbid note, I also want to assure you that I have never felt better. I love running Berkshire, and if enjoying life promotes longevity, Methuselah’s record is in jeopardy.