From the 1984 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: the positive effects of share repurchases, businesslike investing, concentration and looking like a fool and lessons about restricted and unrestricted earnings.
Please comment if you have read the letter and what you thought of it. Also, if you have found a worldly wisdom in the letter that you think I should have included please comment on that as well. I’m very interested in what caught your eye while reading and why.
Worldly wisdom’s from Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter – 1984
“By making repurchases when a company’s market value is well below its business value, management clearly demonstrates that it is given to actions that enhance the wealth of shareholders, rather than to actions that expand management’s domain but that do nothing for (or even harm) shareholders. Seeing this, shareholders and potential shareholders increase their estimates of future returns from the business. This upward revision, in turn, produces market prices more in line with intrinsic business value. These prices are entirely rational. Investors should pay more for a business that is lodged in the hands of a manager with demonstrated pro-shareholder leanings than for one in the hands of a self-interested manager marching to a different drummer. (To make the point extreme, how much would you pay to be a minority shareholder of a company controlled by Robert Wesco?)
The key word is “demonstrated”. A manager who consistently turns his back on repurchases, when these clearly are in the interests of owners, reveals more than he knows of his motivations. No matter how often or how eloquently he mouths some public relations-inspired phrase such as “maximizing shareholder wealth” (this season’s favorite), the market correctly discounts assets lodged with him. His heart is not listening to his mouth – and, after a while, neither will the market.”
“In what I think is by far the best book on investing ever written – “The Intelligent Investor”, by Ben Graham – the last section of the last chapter begins with, “Investment is most intelligent when it is most businesslike.” This section is called “A Final Word”, and it is appropriately titled.”
“Even though our long-term results may turn out fine, in any given year we run a risk that we will look extraordinarily foolish. (That’s why all of these sentences say “Charlie and I”, or “we”.)
Most managers have very little incentive to make the intelligent-but-with-some-chance of-looking-like-an-idiot decision. Their personal gain/loss ratio is all too obvious: if an unconventional decision works out well, they get a pat on the back and, if it works out poorly, they get a pink slip. (Failing conventionally is the route to go; as a group, lemmings may have a rotten image, but no individual lemming has ever received bad press.)
We remain unconventional in the degree to which we concentrate the investments of our insurance companies, including those in WPPSS bonds. This concentration makes sense only because our insurance business is conducted from a position of exceptional financial strength. For almost all other insurers, a comparable degree of concentration (or anything close to it) would be totally inappropriate. Their capital positions are not strong enough to withstand a big error, no matter how attractive an investment opportunity might appear when analyzed on the basis of probabilities.
With our financial strength we can own large blocks of a few securities that we have thought hard about and bought at attractive prices. (Billy Rose described the problem of over-diversification: “If you have a harem of forty women, you never get to know any of them very well.”) Over time our policy of concentration should produce superior results, though these will be tempered by our large size. When this policy produces a really bad year, as it must, at least you will know that our money was committed on the same basis as yours.”
“Restricted earnings are seldom valueless to owners, but they often must be discounted heavily. In effect, they are conscripted by the business, no matter how poor its economic potential. (This retention-no-matter-how-unattractive-the-return situation was communicated unwittingly in a marvelously ironic way by Consolidated Edison a decade ago. At the time, a punitive regulatory policy was a major factor causing the company’s stock to sell as low as one-fourth of book value; i.e., every time a dollar of earnings was retained for reinvestment in the business, that dollar was transformed into only 25 cents of market value. But, despite this gold-into-lead process, most earnings were reinvested in the business rather than paid to owners. Meanwhile, at construction and maintenance sites throughout New York, signs proudly proclaimed the corporate slogan, “Dig We Must”.)”
“For a number of reasons managers like to withhold unrestricted, readily distributable earnings from shareholders – to expand the corporate empire over which the managers rule, to operate from a position of exceptional financial comfort, etc. But we believe there is only one valid reason for retention. Unrestricted earnings should be retained only when there is a reasonable prospect – backed preferably by historical evidence or, when appropriate, by a thoughtful analysis of the future – that for every dollar retained by the corporation, at least one dollar of market value will be created for owners. This will happen only if the capital retained produces incremental earnings equal to, or above, those generally available to investors.”