Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 1989

From the 1989 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: a demonstration of second level thinking; look foolish > act foolish; the cigar butt lesson; avoiding dragons > slaying dragons and process > proceeds.

In a few hours I will be on a flight bound for the lovely island of Corsica. Along with the books The Cosmic CodeLetters from a Stoic and the final book in the Keeper of the Swords series (fantasy) I will of course bring with me the 1990-1997 Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters. However, I will stay of the grid and no post will be published during the next seven days. In other words, the 1990 letter post will be put on hold until next Sunday.

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 – 1989

1.

“Ike Friedman is not only a superb businessman and a great showman but also a man of integrity. We bought the business without an audit, and all of our surprises have been on the plus side. “If you don’t know jewelry, know your jeweler” makes sense whether you are buying the whole business or a tiny diamond.

A story will illustrate why I enjoy Ike so much: Every two years I’m part of an informal group that gathers to have fun and explore a few subjects. Last September, meeting at Bishop’s Lodge in Santa Fe, we asked Ike, his wife Roz, and his son Alan to come by and educate us on jewels and the jewelry business.

Ike decided to dazzle the group, so he brought from Omaha about $20 million of particularly fancy merchandise. I was somewhat apprehensive – Bishop’s Lodge is no Fort Knox – and I mentioned my concern to Ike at our opening party the evening before his presentation. Ike took me aside. “See that safe?” he said. “This afternoon we changed the combination and now even the hotel management doesn’t know what it is.” I breathed easier. Ike went on: “See those two big fellows with guns on their hips? They’ll be guarding the safe all night.” I now was ready to rejoin the party. But Ike leaned closer: “And besides, Warren,” he confided, “the jewels aren’t in the safe.””

2.

“We will accept more reinsurance risk for our own account than any other company because of two factors: (1) by the standards of regulatory accounting, we have a net worth in our insurance companies of about $6 billion – the second highest amount in the United States; and (2) we simply don’t care what earnings we report quarterly, or even annually, just as long as the decisions leading to those earnings (or losses) were reached intelligently.

Obviously, if we write $250 million of catastrophe coverage and retain it all ourselves, there is some probability that we will lose the full $250 million in a single quarter. That probability is low, but it is not zero. If we had a loss of that magnitude, our after-tax cost would be about $165 million. Though that is far more than Berkshire normally earns in a quarter, the damage would be a blow only to our pride, not to our well-being.

This posture is one few insurance managements will assume. Typically, they are willing to write scads of business on terms that almost guarantee them mediocre returns on equity. But they do not want to expose themselves to an embarrassing single- quarter loss, even if the managerial strategy that causes the loss promises, over time, to produce superior results. I can understand their thinking: What is best for their owners is not necessarily best for the managers. Fortunately Charlie and I have both total job security and financial interests that are identical with those of our shareholders. We are willing to look foolish as long as we don’t feel we have acted foolishly.”

3.

“My first mistake, of course, was in buying control of Berkshire. Though I knew its business – textile manufacturing – to be unpromising, I was enticed to buy because the price looked cheap. […]

If you buy a stock at a sufficiently low price, there will usually be some hiccup in the fortunes of the business that gives you a chance to unload at a decent profit, even though the long-term performance of the business may be terrible. I call this the “cigar butt” approach to investing. A cigar butt found on the street that has only one puff left in it may not offer much of a smoke, but the “bargain purchase” will make that puff all profit.

Unless you are a liquidator, that kind of approach to buying businesses is foolish. First, the original “bargain” price probably will not turn out to be such a steal after all. In a difficult business, no sooner is one problem solved than another surfaces – never is there just one cockroach in the kitchen. Second, any initial advantage you secure will be quickly eroded by the low return that the business earns. […] Time is the friend of the wonderful business, the enemy of the mediocre.

I could give you other personal examples of “bargain-purchase” folly but I’m sure you get the picture: It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair  company at a wonderful price. Charlie understood this early; I was a slow learner. But now, when buying companies or common stocks, we look for first-class businesses accompanied by first-class managements.”

4.

“A further related lesson: Easy does it. After 25 years of buying and supervising a great variety of businesses, Charlie and I have not learned how to solve difficult business problems. What we have learned is to avoid them. To the extent we have been successful, it is because we concentrated on identifying one-foot hurdles that we could step over rather than because we acquired any ability to clear seven-footers.

The finding may seem unfair, but in both business and investments it is usually far more profitable to simply stick with the easy and obvious than it is to resolve the difficult. On occasion, tough problems must be tackled as was the case when we started our Sunday paper in Buffalo. In other instances, a great investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business encounters a one-time huge, but solvable, problem as was the case many years back at both American Express and GEICO. Overall, however, we’ve done better by avoiding dragons than by slaying them.”

5.

“Our consistently-conservative financial policies may appear to have been a mistake, but in my view were not. In retrospect, it is clear that significantly higher, though still conventional, leverage ratios at Berkshire would have produced considerably better returns on equity than the 23.8% we have actually averaged. Even in 1965, perhaps we could have judged there to be a 99% probability that higher leverage would lead to nothing but good. Correspondingly, we might have seen only a 1% chance that some shock factor, external or internal, would cause a conventional debt ratio to produce a result falling somewhere between temporary anguish and default.

We wouldn’t have liked those 99:1 odds – and never will. A small chance of distress or disgrace cannot, in our view, be offset by a large chance of extra returns. If your actions are sensible, you are certain to get good results; in most such cases, leverage just moves things along faster. Charlie and I have never been in a big hurry: We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds – though we have learned to live with those also.”

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3 thoughts on “Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 1989

  1. Great summary as always, enjoy your holiday!
    I am wondering what your take is on the deep value comment Buffett has made in the 1989 letter, which you outlined in 3.)
    Young Buffett did a lot of NNWC and transitioned into long term compounders and then in 1989 called his previous approach foolish, if control is not part of it. How do you see it, because (and I am almost sorry to say that but) I tend to disagree with Buffett here.

    Like

    1. Thanks 26%!

      A good and relevant question. I understand and agree with the arguments made by Mr Buffett if you are dealing with large sums of money that you want to structure into a very concentrated portfolio. However, as a small retail investor I don’t consider the “control” factor to be a valid argument to discard the cigar butt investment style. In other words, there are other alpha generating catalysts than the “hands on control/liquidation-catalyst” mentioned by Mr Buffett. Nonetheless, the point made by Mr Buffett as it relates to the holding period of a cigar butt vs a wonderful business I agree with and something I think should be taken into consideration when constructing a cigar butt portfolio.

      In the end investing (independent of investment style/philosophy) is all about finding as large discrepancies between expectations and fundamentals as possible in order to generate alpha. Warren and Charlie’s edge, I would argue, is in an ability to locate businesses with above average and improving fundamentals not yet reflected by the market (i.e. current expectations). Unfortunately, I lack that ability. My edge in investing, I believe, is an ability to locate businesses with the markets lowest expectations in relation to their current fundamentals and from this population separate the wheat from the chaff (i.e. discard the cockroach cigar butts and the ones that never will give you a puff).

      On this subject, is there anything in particular that you disagree with?

      Thanks for your comment, keep ’em coming!

      Like

      1. Thank you for your thoughts. I mine are similar, I do not disagree with you. I just wanted to hear your opinion on the topic since you are a thoughtful guy and I value your blog highly. I have been struggling with what I think to be the “Buffett paradox” for a while now and I think it is largely down to the capital he has amassed over the years.
        Toby Carlisle shows in his book Deep Value that a naive net-net strategy beats the market handily over time and his sample size was quite large. Excluding the crap, one can surely improve upon it as you mentioned. Cheers, have a good one.

        Liked by 1 person

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