Highights From Warren Buffett’s 2012 Letter To Shareholders

Warren Buffett’s annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway ($BRK.A – no positions) shareholders usually has some interesting insights in it, so let’s dig into the 2012 version, just released, to see what we can find.  It’s probably worth 30 minutes of your time to peruse the full letter, but this is what I found most interesting – my Cliff Notes:

first off, Berkshire’s increase in book value underperformed the S&P 500 (pg 3).

“For the ninth time in 48 years, Berkshire’s percentage increase in book value was less than the S&P’s percentage gain (a calculation that includes dividends as well as price appreciation). In eight of those nine years, it should be noted, the S&P had a gain of 15% or more. We do better when the wind is in our face.”

WB was sad he couldn’t bag an elephant in 2012:  pg 3:

“The second disappointment in 2012 was my inability to make a major acquisition. I pursued a couple of elephants, but came up empty-handed.”

next (pg 4) – a typical WB reference to the “float” he gets to play with from his insurance ops:

“Our insurance operations shot the lights out last year. While giving Berkshire $73 billion of free money to invest, they also delivered a $1.6 billion underwriting gain, the tenth consecutive year of profitable underwriting. This is truly having your cake and eating it too.”

On the American business outlook (pg 5):

“There was a lot of hand-wringing last year among CEOs who cried “uncertainty” when faced with capital- allocation decisions (despite many of their businesses having enjoyed record levels of both earnings and cash). At Berkshire, we didn’t share their fears, instead spending a record $9.8 billion on plant and equipment in 2012, about 88% of it in the United States. That’s 19% more than we spent in 2011, our previous high. Charlie and I love investing large sums in worthwhile projects, whatever the pundits are saying. We instead heed the words from Gary Allan’s new country song, “Every Storm Runs Out of Rain.” We will keep our foot to the floor and will almost certainly set still another record for capital expenditures in 2013. Opportunities abound in America.”

more:

“Since the basic game is so favorable, Charlie and I believe it’s a terrible mistake to try to dance in and out of it based upon the turn of tarot cards, the predictions of “experts,” or the ebb and flow of business activity. The risks of being out of the game are huge compared to the risks of being in it.”

and finally:

“If you are a CEO who has some large, profitable project you are shelving because of short-term worries, call Berkshire. Let us unburden you.”

This next part from page 7 explains the secret to BRK’s success – prudent underwriting, and the core insurance dilemma:

“If our premiums exceed the total of our expenses and eventual losses, we register an underwriting profit that adds to the investment income our float produces. When such a profit is earned, we enjoy the use of free money – and, better yet, get paid for holding it. That’s like your taking out a loan and having the bank pay you interest.

Unfortunately, the wish of all insurers to achieve this happy result creates intense competition, so vigorous in most years that it causes the P/C industry as a whole to operate at a significant underwriting loss. This loss, in effect, is what the industry pays to hold its float. For example, State Farm, by far the country’s largest insurer and a well-managed company besides, incurred an underwriting loss in eight of the eleven years ending in 2011. (Their financials for 2012 are not yet available.) There are a lot of ways to lose money in insurance, and the industry never ceases searching for new ones.
As noted in the first section of this report, we have now operated at an underwriting profit for ten consecutive years, our pre-tax gain for the period having totaled $18.6 billion. Looking ahead, I believe we will continue to underwrite profitably in most years. If we do, our float will be better than free money.”
and on the insurance industry as a whole, and a future problem (pg8):
“Let me emphasize once again that cost-free float is not an outcome to be expected for the P/C industry as a whole: There is very little “Berkshire-quality” float existing in the insurance world. In 37 of the 45 years ending in 2011, the industry’s 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.
A further unpleasant reality adds to the industry’s dim prospects: Insurance earnings are now benefitting from “legacy” bond portfolios that deliver much higher yields than will be available when funds are reinvested during the next few years – and perhaps for many years beyond that. Today’s bond portfolios are, in effect, wasting assets. Earnings of insurers will be hurt in a significant way as bonds mature and are rolled over”
On derivatives (page 15):
“We continue to wind down the part of our derivatives portfolio that involved the assumption by Berkshire of insurance-like risks. (Our electric and gas utility businesses, however, will continue to use derivatives for operational purposes.) New commitments would require us to post collateral and, with minor exceptions, we are unwilling to do that. Markets can behave in extraordinary ways, and we have no interest in exposing Berkshire to some out-of-the-blue event in the financial world that might require our posting mountains of cash on a moment’s notice.
Charlie and I believe in operating with many redundant layers of liquidity, and we avoid any sort of obligation that could drain our cash in a material way. That reduces our returns in 99 years out of 100. But we will survive in the 100th while many others fail. And we will sleep well in all 100.
The derivatives we have sold that provide credit protection for corporate bonds will all expire in the next year. It’s now almost certain that our profit from these contracts will approximate $1 billion pre-tax. We also received very substantial sums upfront on these  erivatives, and the “float” attributable to them has averaged about $2 billion over their five-year lives. All told, these derivatives have provided a more-than-satisfactory result, especially considering the fact that we were guaranteeing corporate credits – mostly of the high-yield variety – throughout the financial panic and subsequent recession.
In our other major derivatives commitment, we sold long-term puts on four leading stock indices in the U.S., U.K., Europe and Japan. These contracts were initiated between 2004 and 2008 and even under the worst of circumstances have only minor collateral requirements. In 2010 we unwound about 10% of our exposure at a profit of $222 million. The remaining contracts expire between 2018 and 2026. Only the index value at expiration date counts; our counterparties have no right to early termination.
Berkshire received premiums of $4.2 billion when we wrote the contracts that remain outstanding. If all of these contracts had come due at yearend 2011, we would have had to pay $6.2 billion; the corresponding figure at yearend 2012 was $3.9 billion. With this large drop in immediate settlement liability, we reduced our GAAP liability at yearend 2012 to $7.5 billion from $8.5 billion at the end of 2011. Though it’s no sure thing, Charlie and I believe it likely that the final liability will be considerably less than the amount we currently carry on our books. In the meantime, we can invest the $4.2 billion of float derived from these contracts as we see fit.”
Next, on page 16, WB gets into an explanation of why he’s been buying up newspapers.  It’s too much to excerpt here, so just check it out on your own.   Cliff notes: “Charlie and I believe that papers delivering comprehensive and reliable information to tightly-bound communities and having a sensible Internet strategy will remain viable for a long time.”
On the prospect of paying a dividend (pg 19):
“Even after we deploy hefty amounts of capital in our current operations, Berkshire will regularly generate a lot of additional cash. Our next step, therefore, is to search for acquisitions unrelated to our current businesses. Here our test is simple: Do Charlie and I think we can effect a transaction that is likely to leave our shareholders wealthier on a per-share basis than they were prior to the acquisition?
I have made plenty of mistakes in acquisitions and will make more. Overall, however, our record is satisfactory, which means that our shareholders are far wealthier today than they would be if the funds we used for acquisitions had instead been devoted to share repurchases or dividends.”
There’s more on page 20 that you’ll have to read on your own.
Concluding with an interesting detail of the annual meeting, on page 24:
“Finally – to spice things up – we would like to add to the panel a credentialed bear on Berkshire, preferably one who is short the stock. Not yet having a bear identified, we would like to hear from applicants. The only requirement is that you be an investment professional and negative on Berkshire. The three analysts will bring their own Berkshire-specific questions and alternate with the journalists and the audience in asking them.”

Warren Buffett 2012 Letter to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders

-KD

 

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