From the 1993 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: focus on good business and management characteristics > strategic plan; ownership rationality; the definitions of risk; diversification vs concentration strategies and corporate governance in different manager/owner situations.
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 – 1993
“Five years ago we had no thought of getting into shoes. Now we have 7,200 employees in that industry, and I sing “There’s No Business Like Shoe Business” as I drive to work. So much for strategic plans.
At Berkshire, we have no view of the future that dictates what businesses or industries we will enter. Indeed, we think it’s usually poison for a corporate giant’s shareholders if it embarks upon new ventures pursuant to some grand vision. We prefer instead to focus on the economic characteristics of businesses that we wish to own and the personal characteristics of managers with whom we wish to associate – and then to hope we get lucky in finding the two in combination.”
“Considering the similarity of this year’s list and the last, you may decide your management is hopelessly comatose. But we continue to think that it is usually foolish to part with an interest in a business that is both understandable and durably wonderful. Business interests of that kind are simply too hard to replace.
Interestingly, corporate managers have no trouble understanding that point when they are focusing on a business they operate: A parent company that owns a subsidiary with superb long-term economics is not likely to sell that entity regardless of price. “Why,” the CEO would ask, “should I part with my crown jewel?” Yet that same CEO, when it comes to running his personal investment portfolio, will offhandedly – and even impetuously – move from business to business when presented with no more than superficial arguments by his broker for doing so. The worst of these is perhaps, “You can’t go broke taking a profit.” Can you imagine a CEO using this line to urge his board to sell a star subsidiary? In our view, what makes sense in business also makes sense in stocks: An investor should ordinarily hold a small piece of an outstanding business with the same tenacity that an owner would exhibit if he owned all of that business.”
“Charlie and I decided long ago that in an investment lifetime it’s just too hard to make hundreds of smart decisions. That judgment became ever more compelling as Berkshire’s capital mushroomed and the universe of investments that could significantly affect our results shrank dramatically. Therefore, we adopted a strategy that required our being smart – and not too smart at that – only a very few times. Indeed, we’ll now settle for one good idea a year. (Charlie says it’s my turn.)
The strategy we’ve adopted precludes our following standard diversification dogma. Many pundits would therefore say the strategy must be riskier than that employed by more conventional investors. We disagree. We believe that a policy of portfolio concentration may well decrease risk if it raises, as it should, both the intensity with which an investor thinks about a business and the comfort-level he must feel with its economic characteristics before buying into it. In stating this opinion, we define risk, using dictionary terms, as “the possibility of loss or injury.”
Academics, however, like to define investment “risk” differently, averring that it is the relative volatility of a stock or portfolio of stocks – that is, their volatility as compared to that of a large universe of stocks. Employing data bases and statistical skills, these academics compute with precision the “beta” of a stock – its relative volatility in the past – and then build arcane investment and capital-allocation theories around this calculation. In their hunger for a single statistic to measure risk, however, they forget a fundamental principle: It is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.
For owners of a business – and that’s the way we think of shareholders – the academics’ definition of risk is far off the mark, so much so that it produces absurdities. For example, under beta-based theory, a stock that has dropped very sharply compared to the market – as had Washington Post when we bought it in 1973 – becomes “riskier” at the lower price than it was at the higher price. Would that description have then made any sense to someone who was offered the entire company at a vastly-reduced price?
In fact, the true investor welcomes volatility. Ben Graham explained why in Chapter 8 of The Intelligent Investor. There he introduced “Mr. Market,” an obliging fellow who shows up every day to either buy from you or sell to you, whichever you wish. The more manic-depressive this chap is, the greater the opportunities available to the investor. That’s true because a wildly fluctuating market means that irrationally low prices will periodically be attached to solid businesses. It is impossible to see how the availability of such prices can be thought of as increasing the hazards for an investor who is totally free to either ignore the market or exploit its folly.
In assessing risk, a beta purist will disdain examining what a company produces, what its competitors are doing, or how much borrowed money the business employs. He may even prefer not to know the company’s name. What he treasures is the price history of its stock. In contrast, we’ll happily forgo knowing the price history and instead will seek whatever information will further our understanding of the company’s business. After we buy a stock, consequently, we would not be disturbed if markets closed for a year or two. We don’t need a daily quote on our 100% position in See’s or H. H. Brown to validate our well-being. Why, then, should we need a quote on our 7% interest in Coke?
In our opinion, the real risk that an investor must assess is whether his aggregate after-tax receipts from an investment (including those he receives on sale) will, over his prospective holding period, give him at least as much purchasing power as he had to begin with, plus a modest rate of interest on that initial stake. Though this risk cannot be calculated with engineering precision, it can in some cases be judged with a degree of accuracy that is useful. The primary factors bearing upon this evaluation are:
1) The certainty with which the long-term economic characteristics of the business can be evaluated;
2) The certainty with which management can be evaluated, both as to its ability to realize the full potential of the business and to wisely employ its cash flows;
3) The certainty with which management can be counted on to channel the rewards from the business to the shareholders rather than to itself;
4) The purchase price of the business;
5) The levels of taxation and inflation that will be experienced and that will determine the degree by which an investor’s purchasing-power return is reduced from his gross return.
These factors will probably strike many analysts as unbearably fuzzy, since they cannot be extracted from a data base of any kind. But the difficulty of precisely quantifying these matters does not negate their importance nor is it insuperable. Just as Justice Stewart found it impossible to formulate a test for obscenity but nevertheless asserted, “I know it when I see it,” so also can investors – in an inexact but useful way – “see” the risks inherent in certain investments without reference to complex equations or price histories.
The theoretician bred on beta has no mechanism for differentiating the risk inherent in, say, a single-product toy company selling pet rocks or hula hoops from that of another toy company whose sole product is Monopoly or Barbie. But it’s quite possible for ordinary investors to make such distinctions if they have a reasonable understanding of consumer behavior and the factors that create long-term competitive strength or weakness. Obviously, every investor will make mistakes. But by confining himself to a relatively few, easy-to-understand cases, a reasonably intelligent, informed and diligent person can judge investment risks with a useful degree of accuracy.
In many industries, of course, Charlie and I can’t determine whether we are dealing with a “pet rock” or a “Barbie.” We couldn’t solve this problem, moreover, even if we were to spend years intensely studying those industries. Sometimes our own intellectual shortcomings would stand in the way of understanding, and in other cases the nature of the industry would be the roadblock. For example, a business that must deal with fast-moving technology is not going to lend itself to reliable evaluations of its long-term economics. Did we foresee thirty years ago what would transpire in the television-manufacturing or computer industries? Of course not. (Nor did most of the investors and corporate managers who enthusiastically entered those industries.) Why, then, should Charlie and I now think we can predict the future of other rapidly-evolving businesses? We’ll stick instead with the easy cases. Why search for a needle buried in a haystack when one is sitting in plain sight?”
“Of course, some investment strategies – for instance, our efforts in arbitrage over the years – require wide diversification. If significant risk exists in a single transaction, overall risk should be reduced by making that purchase one of many mutually- independent commitments. Thus, you may consciously purchase a risky investment – one that indeed has a significant possibility of causing loss or injury – if you believe that your gain, weighted for probabilities, considerably exceeds your loss, comparably weighted, and if you can commit to a number of similar, but unrelated opportunities. Most venture capitalists employ this strategy. Should you choose to pursue this course, you should adopt the outlook of the casino that owns a roulette wheel, which will want to see lots of action because it is favored by probabilities, but will refuse to accept a single, huge bet.
Another situation requiring wide diversification occurs when an investor who does not understand the economics of specific businesses nevertheless believes it in his interest to be a long- term owner of American industry. That investor should both own a large number of equities and space out his purchases. By periodically investing in an index fund, for example, the know- nothing investor can actually out-perform most investment professionals. Paradoxically, when “dumb” money acknowledges its limitations, it ceases to be dumb.
On the other hand, if you are a know-something investor, able to understand business economics and to find five to ten sensibly- priced companies that possess important long-term competitive advantages, conventional diversification makes no sense for you. It is apt simply to hurt your results and increase your risk. I cannot understand why an investor of that sort elects to put money into a business that is his 20th favorite rather than simply adding that money to his top choices – the businesses he understands best and that present the least risk, along with the greatest profit potential. In the words of the prophet Mae West: “Too much of a good thing can be wonderful.””
“[…] Commentators on corporate governance, however, seldom make any distinction among three fundamentally different manager/owner situations that exist in publicly-held companies. Though the legal responsibility of directors is identical throughout, their ability to effect change differs in each of the cases. Attention usually falls on the first case, because it prevails on the corporate scene. Since Berkshire falls into the second category, however, and will someday fall into the third, we will discuss all three variations.
The first, and by far most common, board situation is one in which a corporation has no controlling shareholder. In that case, I believe directors should behave as if there is a single absentee owner, whose long-term interest they should try to further in all proper ways. Unfortunately, “long-term” gives directors a lot of wiggle room. If they lack either integrity or the ability to think independently, directors can do great violence to shareholders while still claiming to be acting in their long-term interest. But assume the board is functioning well and must deal with a management that is mediocre or worse. Directors then have the responsibility for changing that management, just as an intelligent owner would do if he were present. And if able but greedy managers over-reach and try to dip too deeply into the shareholders’ pockets, directors must slap their hands.
The requisites for board membership should be business savvy, interest in the job, and owner-orientation. Too often, directors are selected simply because they are prominent or add diversity to the board. That practice is a mistake. Furthermore, mistakes in selecting directors are particularly serious because appointments are so hard to undo: The pleasant but vacuous director need never worry about job security.
The second case is that existing at Berkshire, where the controlling owner is also the manager. At some companies, this arrangement is facilitated by the existence of two classes of stock endowed with disproportionate voting power. In these situations, it’s obvious that the board does not act as an agent between owners and management and that the directors cannot effect change except through persuasion. Therefore, if the owner/manager is mediocre or worse – or is over-reaching – there is little a director can do about it except object. If the directors having no connections to the owner/manager make a unified argument, it may well have some effect. More likely it will not.
If change does not come, and the matter is sufficiently serious, the outside directors should resign. Their resignation will signal their doubts about management, and it will emphasize that no outsider is in a position to correct the owner/manager’s shortcomings.
The third governance case occurs when there is a controlling owner who is not involved in management. This case, examples of which are Hershey Foods and Dow Jones, puts the outside directors in a potentially useful position. If they become unhappy with either the competence or integrity of the manager, they can go directly to the owner (who may also be on the board) and report their dissatisfaction. This situation is ideal for an outside director, since he need make his case only to a single, presumably interested owner, who can forthwith effect change if the argument is persuasive. Even so, the dissatisfied director has only that single course of action. If he remains unsatisfied about a critical matter, he has no choice but to resign.
Logically, the third case should be the most effective in insuring first-class management. In the second case the owner is not going to fire himself, and in the first case, directors often find it very difficult to deal with mediocrity or mild over- reaching.”