Interesting Highlights in Warren Buffett’s Annual Letter (2/27/2016)

“Though the early bird gets the worm, the second mouse gets the cheese” Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway; Chairman of the Board; February 27, 2016; p. 22).

Warren Buffett on GEICO and his age:
On August 30, 2030 – my 100th birthday – I plan to announce that GEICO has taken over the top spot (Car Insurance market). Mark your calendar.

Warren Buffett on Betting Against the United States:
For 240 years it’s been a terrible mistake to bet against America, and now is no time to start. America’s golden goose of commerce and innovation will continue to lay more and larger eggs. America’s social security promises will be honored and perhaps made more generous. And, yes, America’s kids will live far better than their parents did.

On buying businesses (shares) at a premium:
Of course, a business with terrific economics can be a bad investment if it is bought at too high a price. We have paid substantial premiums to net tangible assets for most of our businesses, a cost that is reflected in the large figure we show for goodwill and other intangibles. Overall, however, we are getting a decent return on the capital we have deployed in this sector. Earnings from the group should grow substantially in 2016 as Duracell and Precision Castparts enter the fold.

On investors:
We need shed no tears for the capitalists (whether they be private owners or an army of public shareholders). It’s their job to take care of themselves. When large rewards can flow to investors from good decisions, these parties should not be spared the losses produced by wrong choices. Moreover, investors who diversify widely and simply sit tight with their holdings are certain to prosper: In America, gains from winning investments have always far more than offset the losses from clunkers. (During the 20th Century, the Dow Jones Industrial Average – an index fund of sorts – soared from 66 to 11,497, with its component companies all the while paying ever-increasing dividends.)

Warren Buffett on owning the Big Four:
Berkshire increased its ownership interest last year in each of its “Big Four” investments – American Express, Coca-Cola, IBM and Wells Fargo. We purchased additional shares of IBM (increasing our ownership to 8.4% versus 7.8% at yearend 2014) and Wells Fargo (going to 9.8% from 9.4%). At the other two companies, Coca-Cola and American Express, stock repurchases raised our percentage ownership. Our equity in Coca-Cola grew from 9.2% to 9.3%, and our interest in American Express increased from 14.8% to 15.6%. In case you think these seemingly small changes aren’t important, consider this math: For the four companies in aggregate, each increase of one percentage point in our ownership raises Berkshire’s portion of their annual earnings by about $500 million.

These four investees possess excellent businesses and are run by managers who are both talented and shareholder-oriented. Their returns on tangible equity range from excellent to staggering. 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.

If Berkshire’s yearend holdings are used as the marker, our portion of the “Big Four’s” 2015 earnings amounted to $4.7 billion. In the earnings we report to you, however, we include only the dividends they pay us – about $1.8 billion last year. But make no mistake: The nearly $3 billion of these companies’ earnings we don’t report are every bit as valuable to us as the portion Berkshire records.

Warren Buffett on U.S. elections:
It’s an election year, and candidates can’t stop speaking about our country’s problems (which, of course, only they can solve). As a result of this negative drumbeat, many Americans now believe that their children will not live as well as they themselves do.

That view is dead wrong: The babies being born in America today are the luckiest crop in history.

Warren Buffett on America’s 2% GDP:
Some commentators bemoan our current 2% per year growth in real GDP – and, yes, we would all like to see a higher rate. But let’s do some simple math using the much-lamented 2% figure. That rate, we will see, delivers astounding gains. 7

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.

Warren Buffett on using Personal Computers and Tinder:
My parents, when young, could not envision a television set, nor did I, in my 50s, think I needed a personal computer. Both products, once people saw what they could do, quickly revolutionized their lives. I now spend ten hours a week playing bridge online. And, as I write this letter, “search” is invaluable to me. (I’m not ready for Tinder, however.)

Warren Buffett on Ajit Jain (Manager in Berkshire Hathaway Reinsurance Group):
Ajit insures risks that no one else has the desire or the capital to take on. His operation combines capacity, speed, decisiveness and, most important, brains in a manner unique in the insurance business. Yet he never exposes Berkshire to risks that are inappropriate in relation to our resources.

When Ajit entered Berkshire’s office on a Saturday in 1986, he did not have a day’s experience in the insurance business. Nevertheless, Mike Goldberg, then our manager of insurance, handed him the keys to our reinsurance business. With that move, Mike achieved sainthood: Since then, Ajit has created tens of billions of value for Berkshire shareholders.

Warren Buffett on GEICO and Tony Nicely:
Finally, there is GEICO, the insurer on which I cut my teeth 65 years ago. GEICO is managed by Tony Nicely, who joined the company at 18 and completed 54 years of service in 2015. Tony became CEO in 1993, and since then the company has been flying. There is no better manager than Tony. In the 40 years that I’ve known him, his every action has made great sense.

No one likes to buy auto insurance. Almost everyone, though, likes to drive. The insurance consequently needed is a major expenditure for most families. Savings matter to them – and only a low-cost operation can deliver these. Indeed, at least 40% of the people reading this letter can save money by insuring with GEICO. So stop reading – right now! – and gotogeico.com or call 800-368-2734.

Warren Buffett on Interest Coverage (DEBT):
BNSF’s interest coverage was more than 8:1. (Our definition of coverage is the ratio of earnings before interest and taxes to interest, not EBITDA/ interest, a commonly used measure we view as seriously flawed.)

Warren Buffett on Amortization and Intangible Assets:
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?

Warren Buffett on EBITDA valuation:
When CEOs or investment bankers tout pre-depreciation figures such as EBITDA as a valuation guide, watch their noses lengthen while they speak.

on Clayton Homes:
Lenders other than Clayton have come and gone. With Berkshire’s backing, however, Clayton steadfastly financed home buyers throughout the panic days of 2008-2009. Indeed, during that period, Clayton used precious capital to finance dealers who did not sell our homes. The funds we supplied to Goldman Sachs and General Electric at that time produced headlines; the funds Berkshire quietly delivered to Clayton both made home ownership possible for thousands of families and kept many non-Clayton dealers alive.

on Wall Street’s innovativeness in deceptive mortgage-origination procedures:
Mortgage-origination practices are of great importance to both the borrower and to society. There is no question that reckless practices in home lending played a major role in bringing on the financial panic of 2008, which in turn led to the Great Recession. In the years preceding the meltdown, a destructive and often corrupt pattern of mortgage creation flourished whereby (1) an originator in, say, California would make loans and (2) promptly sell them to an investment or commercial bank in, say, New York, which would package many mortgages to serve as collateral for a dizzyingly complicated array of mortgage-backed securities to be (3) sold to unwitting institutions around the world.

As if these sins weren’t sufficient to create an unholy mess, imaginative investment bankers sometimes concocted a second layer of sliced-up financing whose value depended on the junkier portions of primary offerings.
(When Wall Street gets “innovative,” watch out!) While that was going on, I described this “doubling-up” practice as requiring an investor to read tens of thousands of pages of mind-numbing prose to evaluate a single security being offered
On 2010 Dodd-Frank Act:
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).

On borrowing short-term with low interest rate and investing for the long-term:
Normally, it is risky business to lend long at fixed rates and borrow short as we have been doing at Clayton. Over the years, some important financial institutions have gone broke doing that. At Berkshire, however, we possess a natural offset in that our businesses always maintain at least $20 billion in cash-equivalents that earn short-term rates. More often, our short-term investments are in the $40 billion to $60 billion range. If we have, say, $60 billion invested at 1⁄4% or less, a sharp move to higher short-term rates would bring benefits to us far exceeding the higher financing costs we would incur in funding Clayton’s $13 billion mortgage portfolio. In banking terms, Berkshire is – and always will be – heavily asset-sensitive and will consequently benefit from rising interest rates.

On Berkshire Hathaway’s businesses risks and World War III or IV:
Let me mention just a few examples. To begin with an obvious threat, BNSF, along with other railroads, is certain to lose significant coal volume over the next decade. At some point in the future – though not, in my view, for a long time – GEICO’s premium volume may shrink because of driverless cars. This development could hurt our auto dealerships as well. Circulation of our print newspapers will continue to fall, a certainty we allowed for when purchasing them. To date, renewables have helped our utility operation but that could change, particularly if storage capabilities for electricity materially improve. Online retailing threatens the business model of our retailers and certain of our consumer brands. These potentialities are just a few of the negative possibilities facing us – but even the most casual follower of business news has long been aware of them.

There is, however, one clear, present and enduring danger to Berkshire against which Charlie and I are powerless. That threat to Berkshire is also the major threat our citizenry faces: a “successful” (as defined by the aggressor) cyber, biological, nuclear or chemical attack on the United States. That is a risk Berkshire shares with all of American business.
There is no way for American corporations or their investors to shed this risk. If an event occurs in the U.S. that leads to mass devastation, the value of all equity investments will almost certainly be decimated.
No one knows what “the day after” will look like. I think, however, that Einstein’s 1949 appraisal remains apt: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

On climate change, God, and Noah’s ark:
It seems highly likely to me that climate change poses a major problem for the planet. I say “highly likely” rather than “certain” because I have no scientific aptitude and remember well the dire predictions of most “experts” about Y2K. It would be foolish, however, for me or anyone to demand 100% proof of huge forthcoming damage to the world if that outcome seemed at all possible and if prompt action had even a small chance of thwarting the danger.

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.
Up to now, climate change has not produced more frequent nor more costly hurricanes nor other weatherrelated events covered by insurance. As a consequence, U.S. super-cat rates have fallen steadily in recent years, which is why we have backed away from that business. If super-cats become costlier and more frequent, the likely – though far from certain – effect on Berkshire’s insurance business would be to make it larger and more profitable.

On annual shareholder meeting webcast:
Our second reason for initiating a webcast is more important. Charlie is 92, and I am 85. If we were partners with you in a small business, and were charged with running the place, you would want to look in occasionally to make sure we hadn’t drifted off into la-la land. Shareholders, in contrast, should not need to come to Omaha to monitor how we look and sound. (In making your evaluation, be kind: Allow for the fact that we didn’t look that impressive when we were at our best.)

Schedules for the annual shareholder meeting are posted on p. 26 onwards.

Reference
http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/letters/2015ltr.pdf

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