Tag Archives: Alice Schroeder

Warren Buffett’s 2012 letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway: dividends, books and sport

Last Saturday Warren Buffett’s 2012 letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway [PDF, 155 KB] was released. As always, I strongly encourage you to read it (23 pages).

From this year’s letter, I wanted to comment on 3 things:

  • Lesson on dividends’ policy
  • Books
  • Running

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Dividends’ Policy

In my opinion the great lesson from this letter starts at page 18, when Warren explains the different ways a company has to allocate earnings. He makes a comparison between dividends and what he calls the “sell-off” scenario, where a shareholder can be better off when the company is not paying dividends and instead reinvesting all earnings while the shareholder sells part of his shares to obtain some cash.

See the explanation below (bit long):

“We’ll start by assuming that you and I are the equal owners of a business with $2 million of net worth. The business earns 12% on tangible net worth – $240,000 – and can reasonably expect to earn the same 12% on reinvested earnings. Furthermore, there are outsiders who always wish to buy into our business at 125% of net worth. Therefore, the value of what we each own is now $1.25 million.

You would like to have the two of us shareholders receive one-third of our company’s annual earnings and have two-thirds be reinvested. That plan, you feel, will nicely balance your needs for both current income and capital growth. So you suggest that we pay out $80,000 of current earnings and retain $160,000 to increase the future earnings of the business. In the first year, your dividend would be $40,000, and as earnings grew and the onethird payout was maintained, so too would your dividend. In total, dividends and stock value would increase 8% each year (12% earned on net worth less 4% of net worth paid out).

After ten years our company would have a net worth of $4,317,850 (the original $2 million compounded at 8%) and your dividend in the upcoming year would be $86,357. Each of us would have shares worth $2,698,656 (125% of our half of the company’s net worth). And we would live happily ever after – with dividends and the value of our stock continuing to grow at 8% annually.

There is an alternative approach, however, that would leave us even happier. Under this scenario, we would leave all earnings in the company and each sell 3.2% of our shares annually. Since the shares would be sold at 125% of book value, this approach would produce the same $40,000 of cash initially, a sum that would grow annually. Call this option the “sell-off” approach.

Under this “sell-off” scenario, the net worth of our company increases to $6,211,696 after ten years ($2 million compounded at 12%). Because we would be selling shares each year, our percentage ownership would have declined, and, after ten years, we would each own 36.12% of the business. Even so, your share of the net worth of the company at that time would be $2,243,540. And, remember, every dollar of net worth attributable to each of us can be sold for $1.25. Therefore, the market value of your remaining shares would be $2,804,425, about 4% greater than the value of your shares if we had followed the dividend approach.

Moreover, your annual cash receipts from the sell-off policy would now be running 4% more than you would have received under the dividend scenario. Voila! – you would have both more cash to spend annually and more capital value.”

As always, I believe that the best way is to make (play with) the numbers yourself, so you get to understand it once and for all. I paste here the numbers for those not being number-crunchers:

Buffett's sell-off case vs. dividends.

Buffett’s sell-off case vs. dividends.

Books

Over 2 years ago, I read Buffett’s biography “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life“, by Alice Schroeder (of which I wrote a post); it seems that I will have to get the newest one by Carol Loomis, “Tap Dancing to Work: Warren Buffett on Practically Everything“.

There is another book that I should read, according to the following passage in the letter:

“Above all, dividend policy should always be clear, consistent and rational. A capricious policy will confuse owners and drive away would-be investors. Phil Fisher put it wonderfully 54 years ago in Chapter 7 of his Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits, a book that ranks behind only The Intelligent Investor and the 1940 edition of Security Analysis in the all-time-best list for the serious investor. Phil explained that you can successfully run a restaurant that serves hamburgers or, alternatively, one that features Chinese food. But you can’t switch capriciously between the two and retain the fans of either.”

I’ve got all three books in the shelf since 5 years ago, it’s a shame that I have not yet read or gone through the first one!

Running

I found one final surprising and hilarious passage at the end of the letter embedded in the information related to the shareholders meeting:

“On Sunday at 8 a.m., we will initiate the “Berkshire 5K,” a race starting at the CenturyLink. Full details for participating will be included in the Visitor’s Guide that you will receive with your credentials for the meeting. We will have plenty of categories for competition, including one for the media. (It will be fun to report on their performance.) Regretfully, I will forego running; someone has to man the starting gun.

I should warn you that we have a lot of home-grown talent. Ted Weschler has run the marathon in 3:01. Jim Weber, Brooks’ dynamic CEO, is another speedster with a 3:31 best. Todd Combs specializes in the triathlon, but has been clocked at 22 minutes in the 5K.
That, however, is just the beginning: Our directors are also fleet of foot (that is, some of our directors are).

Steve Burke has run an amazing 2:39 Boston marathon. (It’s a family thing; his wife, Gretchen, finished the New York marathon in 3:25.) Charlotte Guyman’s best is 3:37, and Sue Decker crossed the tape in New York in 3:36. Charlie did not return his questionnaire.”

I would have loved to take part in that race. I will probably do so in some other year :-).

Final confession

Luca and I went a couple of years ago to Berkshire Shareholder meeting. This year’s meeting will take place on May 4th.

This year, Luca and I will get married on May 11th, but one of the dates we considered was April 27th, and one of the drivers behind it was to be able to attend 2013 BRK meeting during the honeymoon…

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Snowball (Compound interest)

I wanted to share with you in this post a speech I gave last Saturday at Rosemasters club contest. I was not contesting but a speech was needed for the evaluation contest, so I volunteered.

Why do I share this speech in particular? Not because it was especially good (nor especially bad), but because it has some insights that could help some of you in case you hadn’t reflected on them or made the numbers yourself.

I titled the speech “Snowball” but a more suitable title would have been “Snowball, or the beauty of compound interest”. Please, note that the metaphor of the snowball it’s not mine, so no need to praise my originality here. I borrowed it from Alison Schroeder’s biography of Warren Buffett “Snowball”, which I reviewed in other post in this blog (I take the opportunity to recommend the book again).

Below you can watch the video uploaded in Youtube (from the second 0:42 some helping hand lifts the camera, please be patient during those first seconds). Below the video I share the script of the speech so you can actually see the formula and the charts I showed. Reflect on it; it may help you a lot a long way down the road.

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Script:

“How many of you used to play with snow when you were a child?

Do you remember what the process you followed to build snowballs was? You started by making a small ball with your hands, like this. Then, you left it on the ground and let it roll over itself, so it was gaining more snowflakes and thus getting a bit bigger with every roll… for you it was a small effort, and after some time of rolling and rolling over, you easily could end up with big snowball like this.

Mr Contest chair, fellow members and guests,

Today I haven’t come to talk about snow. I want

  1. to explain the concept of compound interest
  2. to show how important it can be for or future and
  3. maybe to persuade you to take some action.

Let’s start:

This is the formula.

It shows what is the future value (FV) of an investment’s present value (PV) that gains a fixed interest rate (i) for n periods.

To put it simple, it means that the interest that we earn over the investment in the first year, will enter the calculation in the second year. In a very similar way that small snowflakes are making the snowball bigger.

  • The importance of compound interest for our future.

Who is the younger member of the audience today? I will ask you one question, let me see if I get the answer I want.

Are you saving and investing with your retirement in mind? Do you have pension plan or fund?

An extremely important factor in this discussion is that time in the formula appears in the exponent. This means the longer the time period, the better. Or put it in another way, the sooner we start investing or saving, the better.

I made two quick calculations to show you. Imagine a 25 year old person who just started working. If he or she is able to save 250 euros per month, that is 3,000 euros per year, and puts it in a conservative fund which earns 3% a year… by the time he is 65 he will have around 230.000€. His yearly contribution would have been 123.000€. So another 110.000€ will have come from the interest. He will practically have doubled his money.

On the other hand, take a 50 year old person who never saved any money beforehand. He will have to save it in only the last 15 years of his working life. To make the comparison, I supposed that he contributed the same 123.000€ in those 15 years, for this he has to save 8.200 per year or 680€ per month… when he is 65 he will have 150.000€, having earned about 30.000€ from the interests, 4 times less!

Effect of a 3% compound interest over 40 years.

If the young person would invest in more volatile asset, for example the stock market, which historically earns about 8% every year, the new figures would be these ones.

  • 840.000 – earning 720.000 from interests
  • 222.000 – earning 100.000 from interests / 7 times less.

Effect of a 8% compound interest over 40 years.

Finally, with this discussion I wanted to explain little bit the compound interest, how it is making your savings grow, and even though at the beginning the growth seems very slow this is because the growth with time is exponential and we human beings are not very patient, thus it is important to start early saving small amounts, as snowflakes… in the end you will have a big snowball.

Start saving and see you at the retirement age.”

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Final comment: as you may have noticed there several passages when what I say differs from the script. I didn’t learn it by heart. During my first speeches in Toastmasters I tried to do so. Now I am departing from that approach. However, I do write the speech to give it a clear structure, to polish some parts, spot words I may have difficulty in pronouncing (so I can replace them for others) and count the amount of words so I am sure it fits in 5 to 7 minutes (often 7’30”… never more or fellow Toastmasters will start clapping).

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The Snowball, Warren Buffett bio (book review)

Last Christmas, my brother gave me “The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life“, by Alice Schroeder. He completely hit on the spot, though I only started reading it during last August holidays (Luca also started reading it to the point that she ended up buying her own Kindle version of it!).

The book is a thorough review of Buffett’s life, including relationships with family & friends and investment decisions. I had previously read other books about Buffett, but they were merely about his investment “strategy” so to say, nothing compared to this one. To complete the book, the author made over 250 interviews, so you can imagine the many insights contained in it.

There are many lessons or just ideas that can be taken from this book. Let me just point the few I can recall at the moment of writing this post:

  • The Inner Scorecard: the idea of acting and valuing yourself according to what you care about and not according to what others’ deem important.
  • The concept of margin of safety: from Benjamin Graham (recommended reading “The Intelligent Investor“).
  • Circle of competence: the idea of looking for simple business that have an enduring competitive advantage (technology companies are not that simple).
  • Cigar butts: companies which are worth more “death than alive” (looking for cheap price to book).
  • Snowball: the idea that compounding interest acts as a snowball falling down the hill, the sooner you start the larger the ball will be down the road (thinking about retirement here).
  • The story of the genie: or that you should invest in your own health as your body is the only one you are going to be given in this life.
  • The Ovarian lottery and the idea that philanthropy achieves more if exercised now and trying to maximize its impact.

Throughout the book you get to learn about many great entrepreneurial characters (e.g. Rose Blumkin, Bill Gates); about the workings of the board of directors of some companies (e.g. Coca Cola, Berkshire Hathaway); about some of the most impressive falls in corporate history (e.g. Solomon Brothers, Long Term Capital Management); about several depressions, recessions and crisis; and above all you learn about what were the thoughts and calculations behind some of Buffett’s investments decisions since the early 1940’s to date.

I definitely recommend this book (700+ pgs.).

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