Buffett Being Buffett – Highlights From Berkshire’s Shareholder Letter

Today Warren Buffett has released the 50th annual shareholder letter for Berkshire Hathaway ($BRK no positions).  As I looked over the letter, I pulled out some classic Buffett-isms.

here we go:

pg 5:

“With the acquisition of Van Tuyl, Berkshire now owns 9 1⁄2 companies that would be listed on the Fortune 500 were they independent (Heinz is the 1⁄2). That leaves 490 1⁄2 fish in the sea. Our lines are out.”

pg 6:

“At Berkshire, we much prefer owning a non-controlling but substantial portion of a wonderful company to owning  100% of a so-so business. It’s better to have a partial interest in the Hope Diamond than to own all of a rhinestone”

pg 7:

“Late in 2009, amidst the gloom of the Great Recession, we agreed to buy BNSF, the largest purchase in Berkshire’s history. At the time, I called the transaction an “all-in wager on the economic future of the United States.”

 
That kind of commitment was nothing new for us. We’ve been making similar wagers ever since Buffett Partnership Ltd. acquired control of Berkshire in 1965. For good reason, too: Charlie and I have always considered a “bet” on  ever-rising U.S. prosperity to be very close to a sure thing.

Indeed, who has ever benefited during the past 238 years by betting against America? If you compare our country’s present condition to that existing in 1776, you have to rub your eyes in wonder. In my lifetime alone, real per-capita U.S. output has sextupled. My parents could not have dreamed in 1930 of the world their son would see.

Though the preachers of pessimism prattle endlessly about America’s problems, I’ve never seen one who wishes to emigrate (though I can think of a few for whom I would happily buy a one-way ticket). The dynamism embedded in our market economy will continue to work its magic. Gains won’t come in a smooth or uninterrupted manner; they never have. And we will regularly grumble about our government. But, most assuredly, America’s best days lie ahead.”

pg 10:

“At bottom, a sound insurance operation needs to adhere to four disciplines. It must (1) understand all exposures that might cause a policy to incur losses; (2) conservatively assess the likelihood of any exposure actually causing a loss and the probable cost if it does; (3) set a premium that, on average, will deliver a profit after both prospective loss costs and operating expenses are covered; and (4) be willing to walk away if the appropriate premium can’t be obtained.

Many insurers pass the first three tests and flunk the fourth. They simply can’t turn their back on business that is being eagerly written by their competitors. That old line, “The other guy is doing it, so we must as well,” spells trouble in any business, but in none more so than insurance.”

pg 18:

“During 2014, Tesco’s problems worsened by the month. The company’s market share fell, its margins contracted and accounting problems surfaced. In the world of business, bad news often surfaces serially: You see a cockroach in your kitchen; as the days go by, you meet his relatives.”

“In the past 50 years, we have only once realized an investment loss that at the time of sale cost us 2% of our net worth. Twice, we experienced 1% losses. All three of these losses occurred in the 1974-1975 period, when we sold stocks that were very cheap in order to buy others we believed to be even cheaper.”

“Stock prices will always be far more volatile than cash-equivalent holdings. Over the long term, however, currency-denominated instruments are riskier investments – far riskier investments – than widely-diversified stock portfolios that are bought over time and that are owned in a manner invoking only token fees and commissions. That lesson has not customarily been taught in business schools, where volatility is almost universally used as a proxy for risk.  Though this pedagogic assumption makes for easy teaching, it is dead wrong: Volatility is far from synonymous with risk. Popular formulas that equate the two terms lead students, investors and CEOs astray.

It is true, of course, that owning equities for a day or a week or a year is far riskier (in both nominal and purchasing-power terms) than leaving funds in cash-equivalents. That is relevant to certain investors – say, investment banks – whose viability can be threatened by declines in asset prices and which might be forced to sell securities during depressed markets. Additionally, any party that might have meaningful near-term needs for funds should keep appropriate sums in Treasuries or insured bank deposits.

For the great majority of investors, however, who can – and should – invest with a multi-decade horizon, quotational declines are unimportant. Their focus should remain fixed on attaining significant gains in purchasing power over  their investing lifetime. For them, a diversified equity portfolio, bought over time, will prove far less risky than dollar-based securities.”

pg 19:

“Investors, of course, can, by their own behavior , make stock ownership highly risky. And many do. Active trading, attempts to “time” market movements, inadequate diversification, the payment of high and unnecessary fees to managers and advisors, and the use of borrowed money can destroy the decent returns that a life-long owner of equities would otherwise enjoy. Indeed, borrowed money has no place in the investor’s tool kit:

Anything can happen anytime in markets. And no advisor, economist, or TV commentator – and definitely not  Charlie nor I – can tell you when chaos will occur. Market forecasters will fill your ear but will never fill your wallet.”

“Decades ago, Ben Graham pinpointed the blame for investment failure, using a quote from Shakespeare: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

On pages 19-21, Buffett details the activities that will take place at the annual meeting.   I think these few pages are unlike anything published in any other SEC filing you’ll ever see.   tidbit:

“Gorat’s and Piccolo’s will again be open exclusively for Berkshire shareholders on Sunday, May 3rd. Both will be serving until 10 p.m., with Gorat’s opening at 1 p.m. and Piccolo’s opening at 4 p.m. These restaurants are my  favorites, and I will eat at both of them on Sunday evening. Remember: To make a reservation at Gorat’s, call  402-551-3733 on April 1 st (but not before); for Piccolo’s, call 402-346-2865. At Piccolo’s, order a giant root beer float for dessert. Only sissies get the small one.”

pg 23:

“Charlie and I frequently get approached about acquisitions that don’t come close to meeting our tests: We’ve found that if you advertise an interest in buying collies, a lot of people will call hoping to sell you their cocker spaniels. A line from a country song expresses our feeling about new ventures, turnarounds, or auction-like sales: “When the phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.”

That’s it for Buffett’s annual letter, although there are another 20-odd pages comprised of additional lookback letters from Buffett and Charlie Munger about Berkshire’s last 50 years and where they see the next 50 years going.  Both are well worth the price of admission.    Here’s a tidbit, featuring a Munger-ism:

“If you’ve attended our annual meetings, you know Charlie has a wide-ranging brilliance, a prodigious memory, and some firm opinions. I’m not exactly wishy-washy myself, and we sometimes don’t agree. In 56 years, however, we’ve never had an argument. When we differ, Charlie usually ends the conversation by saying: “Warren, think it over and you’ll agree with me because you’re smart and I’m right.”

and one more:

“From my perspective, though, Charlie’s most important architectural feat was the design of today’s Berkshire. The blueprint he gave me was simple: Forget what you know about buying fair businesses at wonderful prices; instead, buy wonderful businesses at fair prices.”

Berkshire Hathaway 2014 Letter to Shareholders

-KD