From the 1991 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: the importance of look-through earnings; franchisees > businesses; fundamentals vs expectations; the power of pricing power and not flirting from flower to flower.
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 – 1991
“We also believe that investors can benefit by focusing on their own look-through earnings. To calculate these, they should determine the underlying earnings attributable to the shares they hold in their portfolio and total these. The goal of each investor should be to create a portfolio (in effect, a “company”) that will deliver him or her the highest possible look-through earnings a decade or so from now.
An approach of this kind will force the investor to think about long-term business prospects rather than short-term stock market prospects, a perspective likely to improve results. It’s true, of course, that, in the long run, the scoreboard for investment decisions is market price. But prices will be determined by future earnings. In investing, just as in baseball, to put runs on the scoreboard one must watch the playing field, not the scoreboard.”
“[…] In the business world, unfortunately, the rear-view mirror is always clearer than the windshield: A few years back no one linked to the media business – neither lenders, owners nor financial analysts – saw the economic deterioration that was in store for the industry. (But give me a few years and I’ll probably convince myself that I did.)
The fact is that newspaper, television, and magazine properties have begun to resemble businesses more than franchises in their economic behavior. Let’s take a quick look at the characteristics separating these two classes of enterprise, keeping in mind, however, that many operations fall in some middle ground and can best be described as weak franchises or strong businesses.
An economic franchise arises from a product or service that: (1) is needed or desired; (2) is thought by its customers to have no close substitute and; (3) is not subject to price regulation. The existence of all three conditions will be demonstrated by a company’s ability to regularly price its product or service aggressively and thereby to earn high rates of return on capital. Moreover, franchises can tolerate mis-management. Inept managers may diminish a franchise’s profitability, but they cannot inflict mortal damage.
In contrast, “a business” earns exceptional profits only if it is the low-cost operator or if supply of its product or service is tight. Tightness in supply usually does not last long. With superior management, a company may maintain its status as a low- cost operator for a much longer time, but even then unceasingly faces the possibility of competitive attack. And a business, unlike a franchise, can be killed by poor management.
Until recently, media properties possessed the three characteristics of a franchise and consequently could both price aggressively and be managed loosely. Now, however, consumers looking for information and entertainment (their primary interest being the latter) enjoy greatly broadened choices as to where to find them. Unfortunately, demand can’t expand in response to this new supply: 500 million American eyeballs and a 24-hour day are all that’s available. The result is that competition has intensified, markets have fragmented, and the media industry has lost some – though far from all – of its franchise strength.”
“Dollars are dollars whether they are derived from the operation of media properties or of steel mills. What in the past caused buyers to value a dollar of earnings from media far higher than a dollar from steel was that the earnings of a media property were expected to constantly grow (without the business requiring much additional capital), whereas steel earnings clearly fell in the bob-around category. Now, however, expectations for media have moved toward the bob-around model. And, as our simplified example illustrates, valuations must change dramatically when expectations are revised.”
“For an increase in profits to be evaluated properly, it must be compared with the incremental capital investment required to produce it. On this score, See’s has been astounding: The company now operates comfortably with only $25 million of net worth, which means that our beginning base of $7 million has had to be supplemented by only $18 million of reinvested earnings. Meanwhile, See’s remaining pre-tax profits of $410 million were distributed to Blue Chip/Berkshire during the 20 years for these companies to deploy (after payment of taxes) in whatever way made most sense.
In our See’s purchase, Charlie and I had one important insight: We saw that the business had untapped pricing power”
“We continually search for large businesses with understandable, enduring and mouth-watering economics that are run by able and shareholder-oriented managements. This focus doesn’t guarantee results: We both have to buy at a sensible price and get business performance from our companies that validates our assessment. But this investment approach – searching for the superstars – offers us our only chance for real success. Charlie and I are simply not smart enough, considering the large sums we work with, to get great results by adroitly buying and selling portions of far-from-great businesses. Nor do we think many others can achieve long-term investment success by flitting from flower to flower. Indeed, we believe that according the name “investors” to institutions that trade actively is like calling someone who repeatedly engages in one-night stands a romantic.
If my universe of business possibilities was limited, say, to private companies in Omaha, I would, first, try to assess the long- term economic characteristics of each business; second, assess the quality of the people in charge of running it; and, third, try to buy into a few of the best operations at a sensible price. I certainly would not wish to own an equal part of every business in town. Why, then, should Berkshire take a different tack when dealing with the larger universe of public companies? And since finding great businesses and outstanding managers is so difficult, why should we discard proven products? (I was tempted to say “the real thing.”) Our motto is: “If at first you do succeed, quit trying.”
John Maynard Keynes, whose brilliance as a practicing investor matched his brilliance in thought, wrote a letter to a business associate, F. C. Scott, on August 15, 1934 that says it all: “As time goes on, I get more and more convinced that the right method in investment is to put fairly large sums into enterprises which one thinks one knows something about and in the management of which one thoroughly believes. It is a mistake to think that one limits one’s risk by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence. . . . One’s knowledge and experience are definitely limited and there are seldom more than two or three enterprises at any given time in which I personally feel myself entitled to put full confidence.””