Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2003

From the 2003 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: dancing to Wall Street’s tune; owning businesses vs owning stocks; the negative effect of paying premiums; Mrs. B on attracting customers and the macro forecaster cemetery.

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 – 2003


“Additionally, we enjoy a rare sort of managerial freedom. Most companies are saddled with institutional constraints. A company’s history, for example, may commit it to an industry that now offers limited opportunity. A more common problem is a shareholder constituency that pressures its manager to dance to Wall Street’s tune. Many CEOs resist, but others give in and adopt operating and capital- allocation policies far different from those they would choose if left to themselves.”


“When valuations are similar, we strongly prefer owning businesses to owning stocks. During most of our years of operation, however, stocks were much the cheaper choice. We therefore sharply tilted our asset allocation in those years toward equities, as illustrated by the percentages cited earlier.

In recent years, however, we’ve found it hard to find significantly undervalued stocks, a difficulty greatly accentuated by the mushrooming of the funds we must deploy. Today, the number of stocks that can be purchased in large enough quantities to move the performance needle at Berkshire is a small fraction of the number that existed a decade ago. (Investment managers often profit far more from piling up assets than from handling those assets well. So when one tells you that increased funds won’t hurt his investment performance, step back: His nose is about to grow.)

The shortage of attractively-priced stocks in which we can put large sums doesn’t bother us, providing we can find companies to purchase that (1) have favorable and enduring economic charac- teristics; (2) are run by talented and honest managers and (3) are available at a sensible price. We have purchased a number of such businesses in recent years, though not enough to fully employ the gusher of cash that has come our way. In buying businesses, I’ve made some terrible mistakes, both of commission and omission. Overall, however, our acquisitions have led to decent gains in per-share earnings.”


“This eclectic group, which sells products ranging from Dilly Bars to B-737s, earned a hefty 20.7% on average tangible net worth last year. However, we purchased these businesses at substantial premiums to net worth – that fact is reflected in the goodwill item shown on the balance sheet – and that reduces the earnings on our average carrying value to 9.2%.”


“NFM was founded by Rose Blumkin (“Mrs. B”) in 1937 with $500. She worked until she was 103 (hmmm . . . not a bad idea). One piece of wisdom she imparted to the generations following her was, “If you have the lowest price, customers will find you at the bottom of a river.””


“During 2002 we entered the foreign currency market for the first time in my life, and in 2003 we enlarged our position, as I became increasingly bearish on the dollar. I should note that the cemetery for seers has a huge section set aside for macro forecasters. We have in fact made few macro forecasts at Berkshire, and we have seldom seen others make them with sustained success.”

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