Berkshire Hathaway Shareholder Letter 2009

From the 2009 letter I have picked extracts of wisdom related to the following topics: “Invert, always invert”; doubling up; capital light > capital intensive; raining gold and issuing stock.

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 – 2009

1.

“Long ago, Charlie laid out his strongest ambition: “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” That bit of wisdom was inspired by Jacobi, the great Prussian mathematician, who counseled “Invert, always invert” as an aid to solving difficult problems. (I can report as well that this inversion approach works on a less lofty level: Sing a country song in reverse, and you will quickly recover your car, house and wife.)

Here are a few examples of how we apply Charlie’s thinking at Berkshire:

Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be. In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding.

Just because Charlie and I can clearly see dramatic growth ahead for an industry does not mean we can judge what its profit margins and returns on capital will be as a host of competitors battle for supremacy. At Berkshire we will stick with businesses whose profit picture for decades to come seems reasonably predictable. Even then, we will make plenty of mistakes.

We will never become dependent on the kindness of strangers. Too-big-to-fail is not a fallback position at Berkshire. Instead, we will always arrange our affairs so that any requirements for cash we may conceivably have will be dwarfed by our own liquidity. Moreover, that liquidity will be constantly refreshed by a gusher of earnings from our many and diverse businesses.

[…]

We pay a steep price to maintain our premier financial strength. The $20 billion-plus of cash- equivalent assets that we customarily hold is earning a pittance at present. But we sleep well.

We tend to let our many subsidiaries operate on their own, without our supervising and monitoring them to any degree. That means we are sometimes late in spotting management problems and that both operating and capital decisions are occasionally made with which Charlie and I would have disagreed had we been consulted. Most of our managers, however, use the independence we grant them magnificently, rewarding our confidence by maintaining an owner- oriented attitude that is invaluable and too seldom found in huge organizations. We would rather suffer the visible costs of a few bad decisions than incur the many invisible costs that come from decisions made too slowly – or not at all – because of a stifling bureaucracy.

We make no attempt to woo Wall Street. Investors who buy and sell based upon media or analyst commentary are not for us. Instead we want partners who join us at Berkshire because they wish to make a long-term investment in a business they themselves understand and because it’s one that follows policies with which they concur. If Charlie and I were to go into a small venture with a few partners, we would seek individuals in sync with us, knowing that common goals and a shared destiny make for a happy business “marriage” between owners and managers. Scaling up to giant size doesn’t change that truth.”

2.

“Berkshire acquired GEICO in two stages. In 1976-80 we bought about one-third of the company’s stock for $47 million. Over the years, large repurchases by the company of its own shares caused our position to grow to about 50% without our having bought any more shares. Then, on January 2, 1996, we acquired the remaining 50% of GEICO for $2.3 billion in cash, about 50 times the cost of our original purchase.

An old Wall Street joke gets close to our experience:

Customer: Broker:

Customer:

Thanks for putting me in XYZ stock at 5. I hear it’s up to 18.

Yes, and that’s just the beginning. In fact, the company is doing so well now, that it’s an even better buy at 18 than it was when you made your purchase.

Damn, I knew I should have waited.”

3.

“In earlier days, Charlie and I shunned capital-intensive businesses such as public utilities. Indeed, the best businesses by far for owners continue to be those that have high returns on capital and that require little incremental investment to grow. We are fortunate to own a number of such businesses, and we would love to buy more. Anticipating, however, that Berkshire will generate ever-increasing amounts of cash, we are today quite willing to enter businesses that regularly require large capital expenditures. We expect only that these businesses have reasonable expectations of earning decent returns on the incremental sums they invest. If our expectations are met – and we believe that they will be – Berkshire’s ever-growing collection of good to great businesses should produce above-average, though certainly not spectacular, returns in the decades ahead.”

4.

“Big opportunities come infrequently. When it’s raining gold, reach for a bucket, not a thimble.

[…] We’ve put a lot of money to work during the chaos of the last two years. It’s been an ideal period for investors: A climate of fear is their best friend. Those who invest only when commentators are upbeat end up paying a heavy price for meaningless reassurance. In the end, what counts in investing is what you pay for a business – through the purchase of a small piece of it in the stock market – and what that business earns in the succeeding decade or two.”

5.

“Charlie and I enjoy issuing Berkshire stock about as much as we relish prepping for a colonoscopy.

The reason for our distaste is simple. If we wouldn’t dream of selling Berkshire in its entirety at the current market price, why in the world should we “sell” a significant part of the company at that same inadequate price by issuing our stock in a merger?

In evaluating a stock-for-stock offer, shareholders of the target company quite understandably focus on the market price of the acquirer’s shares that are to be given them. But they also expect the transaction to deliver them the intrinsic value of their own shares – the ones they are giving up. If shares of a prospective acquirer are selling below their intrinsic value, it’s impossible for that buyer to make a sensible deal in an all-stock deal. You simply can’t exchange an undervalued stock for a fully-valued one without hurting your shareholders.

[…]

If an acquirer’s stock is overvalued, it’s a different story: Using it as a currency works to the acquirer’s advantage. That’s why bubbles in various areas of the stock market have invariably led to serial issuances of stock by sly promoters. Going by the market value of their stock, they can afford to overpay because they are, in effect, using counterfeit money.”

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