Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2001

From the 2001 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: absolute vs relative performance; mean reversion; underwriting discipline; the Noah rule and burying rented suits.

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 – 2001

1.

“Two years ago, reporting on 1999, I said that we had experienced both the worst absolute and relative performance in our history. I added that “relative results are what concern us,” a viewpoint I’ve had since forming my first investment partnership on May 5, 1956. Meeting with my seven founding limited partners that evening, I gave them a short paper titled “The Ground Rules” that included this sentence: “Whether we do a good job or a poor job is to be measured against the general experience in securities.” We initially used the Dow Jones Industrials as our benchmark, but shifted to the S&P 500 when that index became widely used. Our comparative record since 1965 is chronicled on the facing page; last year Berkshire’s advantage was 5.7 percentage points.

Some people disagree with our focus on relative figures, arguing that “you can’t eat relative performance.” But if you expect as Charlie Munger, Berkshire’s Vice Chairman, and I do that owning the S&P 500 will produce reasonably satisfactory results over time, it follows that, for long-term investors, gaining small advantages annually over that index must prove rewarding. Just as you can eat well throughout the year if you own a profitable, but highly seasonal, business such as See’s (which loses considerable money during the summer months) so, too, can you regularly feast on investment returns that beat the averages, however variable the absolute numbers may be.”

2.

“In the frontispiece to Security Analysis, Ben Graham and Dave Dodd quoted Horace: “Many shall be restored that now are fallen and many shall fall that are now in honor.” Fifty-two years after I first read those lines, my appreciation for what they say about business and investments continues to grow.”

3.

“When property/casualty companies are judged by their cost of float, very few stack up as satisfactory businesses. And interestingly unlike the situation prevailing in many other industries neither size nor brand name determines an insurer’s profitability. Indeed, many of the biggest and best-known companies regularly deliver mediocre results. What counts in this business is underwriting discipline. The winners are those that unfailingly stick to three key principles:

  • They accept only those risks that they are able to properly evaluate (staying within their circle of competence) and that, after they have evaluated all relevant factors including remote loss scenarios, carry the expectancy of profit. These insurers ignore market-share considerations and are sanguine about losing business to competitors that are offering foolish prices or policy conditions.

  • They limit the business they accept in a manner that guarantees they will suffer no aggregation of losses from a single event or from related events that will threaten their solvency. They ceaselessly search for possible correlation among seemingly-unrelated risks.

  • They avoid business involving moral risk: No matter what the rate, trying to write good contracts with bad people doesn’t work. While most policyholders and clients are honorable and ethical, doing business with the few exceptions is usually expensive, sometimes extraordinarily so.

4.

“I violated the Noah rule: Predicting rain doesn’t count; building arks does.”

5.

“Even when companies have the best of intentions, it’s not easy to reserve properly. I’ve told the story in the past about the fellow traveling abroad whose sister called to tell him that their dad had died. The brother replied that it was impossible for him to get home for the funeral; he volunteered, however, to shoulder its cost. Upon returning, the brother received a bill from the mortuary for $4,500, which he promptly paid. A month later, and a month after that also, he paid $10 pursuant to an add-on invoice. When a third $10 invoice came, he called his sister for an explanation. “Oh,” she replied, “I forgot to tell you. We buried dad in a rented suit.””

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