Every last Saturday of February, a must read for the weekend comes out: Warren Buffett’s letter to the Shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway [PDF, 2.4 MB].
This year’s letter was published on February 27th, and despite the fact that I normally share some lines about it in the blog just after having read it (1), this year I wanted to wait a couple of months before writing this post in order to conveniently share it today, the day before the annual shareholders meeting, to be held tomorrow Saturday April 30th, as it will be streamed live for the first time ever. I had the chance to attend such shareholder meeting in 2011 (see my review here) and I strongly recommend to those who haven’t to take a look at the stream at Yahoo Finance, from 9am Central Daylight Time.
From this year’s letter, I wanted to bring attention to the description of the acquisition at the end of 2015 of Precision Castparts Corp (for 32bn$ cash), the highlight of the year, and to the following quotes or passages on their hands-off management style, on their flexibility to allocate capital, on what a 2% real GDP growth means, on mortgage risk retention on the side of lenders, the discussion on the linkage between productivity and prosperity (a bit too long to be transcribed as an excerpt – from the page 20 of the letter to the 22) and on the need to act on climate change.
On their hands-off management style:
After the purchase, our role is simply to create an environment in which these CEOs – and their eventual successors, who typically are like-minded – can maximize both their managerial effectiveness and the pleasure they derive from their jobs. (With this hands-off style, I am heeding a well-known Mungerism: “If you want to guarantee yourself a lifetime of misery, be sure to marry someone with the intent of changing their behavior.”)
On their flexibility to allocate capital:
Our flexibility in capital allocation – our willingness to invest large sums passively in non-controlled businesses – gives us a significant edge over companies that limit themselves to acquisitions they will operate. Woody Allen once explained that the advantage of being bi-sexual is that it doubles your chance of finding a date on Saturday night. In like manner – well, not exactly like manner – our appetite for either operating businesses or passive investments doubles our chances of finding sensible uses for Berkshire’s endless gusher of cash. Beyond that, having a huge portfolio of marketable securities gives us a stockpile of funds that can be tapped when an elephant-sized acquisition is offered to us.
On what a 2% real GDP growth means (2):
America’s population is growing about .8% per year (.5% from births minus deaths and .3% from net migration). Thus 2% of overall growth produces about 1.2% of per capita growth. That may not sound impressive. But in a single generation of, say, 25 years, that rate of growth leads to a gain of 34.4% in real GDP per capita. (Compounding’s effects produce the excess over the percentage that would result by simply multiplying 25 x 1.2%.) In turn, that 34.4% gain will produce a staggering $19,000 increase in real GDP per capita for the next generation. Were that to be distributed equally, the gain would be $76,000 annually for a family of four. Today’s politicians need not shed tears for tomorrow’s children.
On the different views to be taken of certain intangible assets amortization no matter what accounting rules say about them (3):
[…] serious investors should understand the disparate nature of intangible assets. Some truly deplete in value over time, while others in no way lose value. For software, as a big example, amortization charges are very real expenses. Conversely, the concept of recording charges against other intangibles, such as customer relationships, arises from purchase-accounting rules and clearly does not reflect economic reality. GAAP accounting draws no distinction between the two types of charges. Both, that is, are recorded as expenses when earnings are calculated – even though, from an investor’s viewpoint, they could not differ more.
[…] We now have $6.8 billion left of amortizable intangibles, of which $4.1 billion will be expensed over the next five years. Eventually, of course, every dollar of these “assets” will be charged off. When that happens, reported earnings increase even if true earnings are flat. (My gift to my successor.)
I suggest that you ignore a portion of GAAP amortization costs. But it is with some trepidation that I do that, knowing that it has become common for managers to tell their owners to ignore certain expense items that are all too real. “Stock-based compensation” is the most egregious example. The very name says it all: “compensation.” If compensation isn’t an expense, what is it? And, if real and recurring expenses don’t belong in the calculation of earnings, where in the world do they belong?
Wall Street analysts often play their part in this charade, too, parroting the phony, compensation-ignoring “earnings” figures fed them by managements. Maybe the offending analysts don’t know any better. Or maybe they fear losing “access” to management. Or maybe they are cynical, telling themselves that since everyone else is playing the game, why shouldn’t they go along with it. Whatever their reasoning, these analysts are guilty of propagating misleading numbers that can deceive investors.
Depreciation charges are a more complicated subject but are almost always true costs. Certainly they are at Berkshire. I wish we could keep our businesses competitive while spending less than our depreciation charge, but in 51 years I’ve yet to figure out how to do so. Indeed, the depreciation charge we record in our railroad business falls far short of the capital outlays needed to merely keep the railroad running properly, a mismatch that leads to GAAP earnings that are higher than true economic earnings. (This overstatement of earnings exists at all railroads.) When CEOs or investment bankers tout pre-depreciation figures such as EBITDA as a valuation guide, watch their noses lengthen while they speak.
On mortgage risk retention:
Barney Frank, perhaps the most financially-savvy member of Congress during the panic, recently assessed the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, saying, “The one major weakness that I’ve seen in the implementation was this decision by the regulators not to impose risk retention on all residential mortgages.” Today, some legislators and commentators continue to advocate a 1%-to-5% retention by the originator as a way to align its interests with that of the ultimate lender or mortgage guarantor.
At Clayton, our risk retention was, and is, 100%. When we originate a mortgage we keep it (leaving aside the few that qualify for a government guarantee). When we make mistakes in granting credit, we therefore pay a price – a hefty price that dwarfs any profit we realized upon the original sale of the home. […]
Some borrowers, of course, will lose their jobs, and there will be divorces and deaths. Others will get overextended on credit cards and mishandle their finances. We will lose money then, and our borrower will lose his down payment (though his mortgage payments during his time of occupancy may have been well under rental rates for comparable quarters). Nevertheless, despite the low FICO scores and income of our borrowers, their payment behavior during the Great Recession was far better than that prevailing in many mortgage pools populated by people earning multiples of our typical borrower’s income.
On the need to act on climate change:
This issue bears a similarity to Pascal’s Wager on the Existence of God. Pascal, it may be recalled, argued that if there were only a tiny probability that God truly existed, it made sense to behave as if He did because the rewards could be infinite whereas the lack of belief risked eternal misery. Likewise, if there is only a 1% chance the planet is heading toward a truly major disaster and delay means passing a point of no return, inaction now is foolhardy. Call this Noah’s Law: If an ark may be essential for survival, begin building it today, no matter how cloudless the skies appear.
(1) See the review I made of 2009, 2012, 2013 and 2014 letters.
(2) In relation to that I recommend reading Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” (of which I may write a review at a later point in time). There he explains how for most of history, human kind has lived a small growth rate and we may well come back to that.
(3) Every year letter discusses that, always with some variation, I keep recommending a detailed look at it.