Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 1990

From the 1990 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: the power of honor; finding yourself in a hole; thinking > polling; margin of safety and a sales pitch from Warren.

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 – 1990

1.

“Borsheim’s could not do nearly that well if our customers came only from the Omaha metropolitan area, whose population is about 600,000. We have long had a huge percentage of greater Omaha’s jewelry business, so growth in that market is necessarily limited. But every year business from non-Midwest customers grows dramatically. Many visit the store in person. A large number of others, however, buy through the mail in a manner you will find interesting.

These customers request a jewelry selection of a certain type and value – say, emeralds in the $10,000 -$20,000 range – and we then send them five to ten items meeting their specifications and from which they can pick. Last year we mailed about 1,500 assortments of all kinds, carrying values ranging from under $1,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The selections are sent all over the country, some to people no one at Borsheim’s has ever met. (They must always have been well recommended, however.) While the number of mailings in 1990 was a record, Ike has been sending merchandise far and wide for decades. Misanthropes will be crushed to learn how well our “honor-system” works: We have yet to experience a loss from customer dishonesty.”

2.

“The most important thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging.”

3.

“Investors who expect to be ongoing buyers of investments throughout their lifetimes should adopt a similar attitude toward market fluctuations; instead many illogically become euphoric when stock prices rise and unhappy when they fall. They show no such confusion in their reaction to food prices: Knowing they are forever going to be buyers of food, they welcome falling prices and deplore price increases. (It’s the seller of food who doesn’t like declining prices.) Similarly, at the Buffalo News we would cheer lower prices for newsprint – even though it would mean marking down the value of the large inventory of newsprint we always keep on hand – because we know we are going to be perpetually buying the product.

Identical reasoning guides our thinking about Berkshire’s investments. We will be buying businesses – or small parts of businesses, called stocks – year in, year out as long as I live (and longer, if Berkshire’s directors attend the seances I have scheduled). Given these intentions, declining prices for businesses benefit us, and rising prices hurt us.

The most common cause of low prices is pessimism – some times pervasive, some times specific to a company or industry. We want to do business in such an environment, not because we like pessimism but because we like the prices it produces. It’s optimism that is the enemy of the rational buyer.

None of this means, however, that a business or stock is an intelligent purchase simply because it is unpopular; a contrarian approach is just as foolish as a follow-the-crowd strategy. What’s required is thinking rather than polling. Unfortunately, Bertrand Russell’s observation about life in general applies with unusual force in the financial world: “Most men would rather die than think. Many do.””

4.

“The disciples of debt assured us that this collapse wouldn’t happen: Huge debt, we were told, would cause operating managers to focus their efforts as never before, much as a dagger mounted on the steering wheel of a car could be expected to make its driver proceed with intensified care. We’ll acknowledge that such an attention-getter would produce a very alert driver. But another certain consequence would be a deadly – and unnecessary – accident if the car hit even the tiniest pothole or sliver of ice. The roads of business are riddled with potholes; a plan that requires dodging them all is a plan for disaster.

In the final chapter of The Intelligent Investor Ben Graham forcefully rejected the dagger thesis: “Confronted with a challenge to distill the secret of sound investment into three words, we venture the motto, Margin of Safety.” Forty-two years after reading that, I still think those are the right three words. The failure of investors to heed this simple message caused them staggering losses as the 1990s began.”

5.

“Most business owners spend the better part of their lifetimes building their businesses. By experience built upon endless repetition, they sharpen their skills in merchandising, purchasing, personnel selection, etc. It’s a learning process, and mistakes made in one year often contribute to competence and success in succeeding years.

In contrast, owner-managers sell their business only once — frequently in an emotionally-charged atmosphere with a multitude of pressures coming from different directions. Often, much of the pressure comes from brokers whose compensation is contingent upon consummation of a sale, regardless of its consequences for both buyer and seller. The fact that the decision is so important, both financially and personally, to the owner can make the process more, rather than less, prone to error. And, mistakes made in the once-in-a-lifetime sale of a business are not reversible.

Price is very important, but often is not the most critical aspect of the sale. You and your family have an extraordinary business — one of a kind in your field — and any buyer is going to recognize that. It’s also a business that is going to get more valuable as the years go by. So if you decide not to sell now, you are very likely to realize more money later on. With that knowledge you can deal from strength and take the time required to select the buyer you want.

[…]

It’s only fair to tell you that you would be no richer after the sale than now. The ownership of your business already makes you wealthy and soundly invested. A sale would change the form of your wealth, but it wouldn’t change its amount. If you sell, you will have exchanged a 100%-owned valuable asset that you understand for another valuable asset — cash — that will probably be invested in small pieces (stocks) of other businesses that you understand less well. There is often a sound reason to sell but, if the transaction is a fair one, the reason is not so that the seller can become wealthier.”

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